For the Boys: A Literary Taste Test

coverIn the name of science – and also, perhaps, in the name of giving the lie to such criticisms of Lady Critics as Norman Mailer’s (“The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”), I am about to embark on a little experiment, inspired in part by your spirited objections to my approach to literary taste: I am going to read a burly man author all the way through. The book I have chosen, at Max’s suggestion, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

I hypothesize, as the readers of our last Millions Quiz already know, that I will be disappointed: that I will not be taken in by either style or substance. My slight (and, as some thought, insufficient) acquaintance with the virile titans of the last century of literature has led me to believe this. But – I am willing to concede – perhaps these are just fellows who give a lady a bad first impression (like the character of Al Swerengen on HBO’s Deadwood), fellows whom a girl might grow begrudgingly (or is it self-hatingly?) fond of upon better acquaintance?

I shall see! And you shall see too, when I am done.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. Ooh, this will be fun to witness! I read many burly authors, but I'm sorry to see you're reading The Sun Also Rises…I thought it pretty dull. (And, by the way, I don't think Rick Moody or David Foster Wallace fall into the burly man author category.)

    Also, might we ask a couple of our male contributors with more masculine reading habits to read more lady authors? Hmmm…

    Just so y'all know, I've read 6 books in 2009–3 by men, 3 by women. And, I swear, this time around the gender equality was sort of by accident.

  2. Good luck with the Hemingway. My book club is reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I initially liked the choice because it was a Hemingway book that I had never read–I read & taught The Old Man & the Sea and listened to The Sun Also Rises (I don't really remember much about whether I liked this book or not) and recently read Garden of Eden (disappointing in the end). Now, I'm just tired of the main character calling the damsel in distress, at least that's how everyone treats her, "rabbit." I still have over half the book to read before the weekend, so maybe I should be saying good luck to myself. :-)

  3. If you want to read a big burly man book, I don't think The Sun Also Rises is the one to go with. It has its main character swanning all over Paris. If you really want to set yourself a task read Across the River and Into the Trees. Fly-fishing. Whoop.

  4. This is interesting, because when I think of all the Hemingway fans I know, all most all of them, as a rule, are female. I know a few boys who really like him, but the fanatics… girls.

  5. I have noticed recently that my reading habits have slanted more towards male authors, and have started to make a conscious effort at reading more female authors. If you ran across someone in my situation at a local book store and I kindly asked you to recommend me some female authors that I should read, authors that aren't necessarily the big names, what would you suggest?

  6. "The Sun Also Rises" is a good book to read to see the big burly male writers don't always write big burly stories, though Hemingway throws in one of his staunchly masculine fishing scenes like with "In Our Time".

    My problem with Updike, Roth, Mailer, and others has been their shallow characterization of women.

    Some good female writers for the burly male writing soul are Zadie Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Helen Simpson, Ali Smith, A.M. Homes, and George Eliot.

  7. In Suggesting The Sun Also Rises to Emily, I had in mind exactly what Alicia suggests. Despite being by the godfather of American burly-man authors, the book may challenge notions of what these burly men are all about. I can't wait to see what Emily thinks of it!

  8. I don't think The Sun Also Rises is a great "burly man" book to start with, especially if you already have preconceived notions of what you're getting into.

    Go with In Our Time.

    I'd also recommend McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

  9. I love that you're doing this. I posted about Hemingway and about plugging for women to not avoid GMNs (Great Male Narcissists) out of hand. I preferred "A Farewell to Arms" to "The Sun Also Rises" but am getting ready to start on "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (Obama rec) and really loved "A Moveable Feast" (nonfiction, though) and the Nick Adams stories. Interesting topic, as publishers estimate 80% of contemporary fiction readers are women. How about Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Jane Hamilton, Amy Bloom, Meg Wolitzer, Sue Miller, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping"–for the boyz to try? These are some I think of as "women writers." I wonder if there are many women readers out there who really like Richard Ford? Robert Stone? Thomas McGuane? Delillo?

  10. I agree with some of the others—this is not a typical, big burly male Hemingway book. It is, however, a wonderful book. It contains a line something like, "the road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed dogs". How can you not like? And what a nasty comment that is by Norman Mailer. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. Eric's comment about his reading habits mirrored a revelation I had a while back about my tastes in music. A more recent and more troubling similar revelation involved my recent infatuation with burly man television shows: Deadwood, The Wire, Life on Mars. In all of these, horrific violence against women is depicted and offered as a social norm. Also in these shows, the total renunciation of femininity seems a sort of salvation and survival skill (by Calamity Jane in Deadwood, by Detective Greggs in The Wire). This was a bit of a disarming revelation–especially for me with my wariness toward aggressive masculinity in the literary realm.

    My best recent encounter with a female author was Rebecca Curtis' Twenty Grand And Other Tales of Love and Money. But Zadie Smith is great too. White Teeth. Colette –Cheri and the Last of Cheri. I also like Mary McCarthy. She has something masculine about her prose and about her startling frankness. The Company She Keeps and especially the Group by her.

    As for the nasty Norman Mailer comment: I owe that treasure to my advisor's wonderful book of essays on women and writing called "Boss Ladies, Watch Out!"–Another book I might suggest to those hungry for a few more lady authoresses in their reading diet.

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