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What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet PRESENTS! Au Revoir, Pretty Horses; Or, Why I Don’t Read Man Books Any More

[Ladies, gentlemen: Tiger Beatdown is a classy publication, of sophisticated cultural leanings. Sort of! We do spend a lot of time talking about the Miley Cyrus! And the Taylor Swift, and the Judd Apatow movies, and who is the best feminist on NBC’s Thursday night prime-time programming (there are so many choices). However, here is one thing that we rarely talk about: Literature. Which is sort of a strange omission, given that the one thing we know about You, the Reader, for certain is that you… well, that you read. That one is a given! Therefore, this week, we bring you What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet, a Tiger Beatdown THEME POST PARTY (again! And also, WOO) dedicated to the Ladies and Lit Thing. Leading us off: The Rejectionist!]

When I was younger I did that thing that some of us ladies do, the thing of working very hard to be The Girl Who Was Cool Enough to Hang Out With the Boys. Being that girl was an exhausting job, fraught with peril; it involved drinking a whole bunch, not talking much, constantly making sure the boys knew how much more down I was than other girls, and carrying around at all times one of the following three novels: All the Pretty Horses ,On the Road, or Junky (even at the highest pinnacle of my internalized misogyny, I never made it through Henry Miller). It was an unforgivable sign of weakness to read books about (let alone by) women, who sat around in kitchens popping out babies, harping on their menfolk, and doing the dishes. Women were boring! They were gross! Passive! Or just plain mean! They didn’t think much! They couldn’t possibly do exciting things, like drive cars across the country or drive spaceships to the moon, kiss girls, duke it out with their fathers in a sudden eruption of years’ worth of Repressed Sentiment, pursue villains craftily, or survive the streets of turn-of-the-century London as cunning and wily orphans. A professed affinity for Manfiction was a central tenet of this precarious Cool Girl identity; a Cool Girl was always ready to support the literary analysis presented by the dudes, even after consuming a fifth of bourbon at three in the morning.

What’s a manfiction book, exactly? It is indeed, almost but not entirely exclusively, a book by a man; but it is a particular kind of book by a particular kind of man, a Real Man, a virile, manly man, who gallops around on horses in between penning great works.


1. There aren’t any ladies in it.

2. Male characters cannot communicate with their sons, brothers, and fathers. Or anybody else, really; but they are particularly hampered in inter-man relationships (this is important to emphasize regularly, because the only men who are capable of talking in polysyllabic phrases to other men are gay, and the only thing less manly than writing thoughtfully about women is writing about gays. An inability to communicate is the literary equivalent of the empty seat between two dudes in a movie theater). Instead of communicating the men will drink a lot, commit random acts of violence, beat their sons or pets, and drive around in trucks without speaking. These men do not have daughters.

3. There is at least one of the following: lots of poor people, cows, hunting, a farm, a blizzardy Midwestern town, terse silences, long journeys on horseback/foot, the dissolution of a marriage. The dissolution of the marriage is frequently followed by extensive scenarios involving the aging and not-very-attractive male character finding a newfound sense of purpose with one or more very young, very buxom, and very blond ladies with voracious sexual appetites. The poor people are never happy, as Authenticity can only be conveyed by poor people who are miserable and dissolute.

4. Maybe there are a few ladies in it. If those ladies are of color, they will be very sensual, with snapping black eyes. They will spend the bulk of their time preparing the delicious cuisines of their native cultures. Probably the adjective “fiery” will be used at least once in conjunction with this lady-character’s appearance. If the lady is a white lady, she will rest quietly for the duration of the novel, while a variety of man-types engage in fisticuffs over her person, trade her back and forth, or attempt to get in her pants, thus providing the manfiction with its Narrative Arc. The lady wears a pretty dress which clings alluringly to her figure, unless she is a Bad Lady, in which case she dresses like a slattern (i.e. wears pants). Bonus points if the lady smells improbably of floral shampoo at all times. If the lady is older than thirty she’s definitely a sexless, emasculating bitch, unless she is a predatory but sordid vixen.

5. Author cites the following as influential in interviews: Harold Bloom, Charles Bukowski, fatherhood (of a son), alcoholism. Author may have been married many times to one or more very buxom and very blond ladies with voracious sexual appetites, whose age is inversely related to his fame.

6. But in general, there aren’t any ladies in it.

As reigning high priest of manfiction Cormac McCarthy noted in a relatively recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, it’s hard to write about ladies. (“I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.”) It’s so hard, in fact, that Cormac eschewed the ladies altogether in his most recent, Pulitzer-Prizewinning (ladies don’t win the Pulitzer) novel The Road. (Mom can’t hack the apocalypse and offs herself before the novel’s action starts, conveniently leaving the stage open for The Most Epic Father-Son Journey of All Time.) Why is it so hard? Is it that fulsome miasma of mystery that issues forth from our ladyparts? Our deep, fecund, and irrational thought processes, tied so inextricably to the miracle of childbirth? The moist cavern of our wombs? What makes us so damn inscrutable, ladies? Whatever it is, it’s so gnarly that only a heroic feat of man-writerly prowess can get a lady into a work of manfiction at all. It’s much more challenging, obvs, for man-writers to write about ladies than it is for ladies to write anything at all, which is perhaps why men who do (see: Atonement) receive such fawning accolades. When ladies write about ladies, it’s a total cakewalk for us–because we already know how ladies work, thanks to our nonstop access to the monolithic feminine consciousness; a consciousness that is, of course, identical from lady to lady, and smells a little bit like fish.

For years I read, and sometimes even loved, manfiction. I was well into my twenties before it slowly began to occur to me that the ladies who surrounded me — smart, funny, fearless, awesome; ladies who hitchhiked across the country solo, hopped trains, taught themselves homesteading, backpacked through the wilderness, played in bands, dressed sexy, dressed like boys; lades who, in short, unapologetically lived their own lives on their own terms — were nowhere to be found in the books I was reading. And I missed them. I didn’t want to keep pretending I was Philip Marlowe while my secret heart knew Chandler’s only option for me was to get prettier, grow out my hair, put on a sapphire-colored dress, and set to swooning. I’m not the first person to point out that a lifetime spent reading against yourself is both disorienting and miserable. So I don’t really read manfiction any more; not because it’s bad, but because it makes me tired and a little sad. A lady is not a dishwasher, a font of mystery, a vortex, an unknowable object of desire. A lady, like any other person, is just someone with her own set of stories.

[The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at]


  1. Gayle Force wrote:

    The dudewriters that I don’t want to read all seem to write to try to make male privilege and power very, very invisible. So Hemingway’s white dudes all kind of feel sorry for themselves and are sad and terse, and THEY are somehow positioned as being oppressed in some way, even while they are being terrible to women. Or in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, women are props, but each of the men has sad stories and hard backgrounds and are positioned such that they are powerless, despite the fact they go around being terrible to non-character, two-dimensional, never-described ladies. And that makes me sad and tired.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  2. emjaybee wrote:

    I don’t have a ban on male writers, but I am also in the space where, having read them almost exclusively for the first 20 years of my life, I feel pretty good about avoiding most of them for the next 20 in favor of female writers. There are 20 gajillion books at your local store; as filtering mechanism “is it by a lady but not pink/doesn’t have shoes on the cover” is a pretty effective one.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Flutterby wrote:

    This post reminded me of an author I absolutely love, but haven’t been able to dig up any of his novels in a while. Christopher Pike.

    His main characters are almost exclusively female, and it’s just now occurring to me that maybe one reason I loved his books so much was because these lady-people were just…people. I can’t really describe it because it’s essentially an absence of everything you mention. They have sexual appetites, which are mentioned when relevant but never referenced gratuitously. They’re strong or weak, pretty or not-so-much, young or old. They just are, and it’s marvelous.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Arania wrote:


    “Reading these user comments, however, I’m afraid that here and there the tone seems a little broadly judgmental of both male readers and male authors.”

    Shorter JEB = “Your tone makes me nervous because it’s not worried enough about how you come across to the MENZ.”

    “As a male reader… as a male writer…”

    Shorter JEB = “I am not like that, so I have the right to stand for all MENZ and mansplain to you how wonderful the MENZ are for being willing to read books with women characters.”

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  5. Raine:

    I happen to have quoted that Chabon essay in my review of Manhood for Amateurs. He wrote:

    The boys in our house spend a lot of time drawing men. Not the girls — the girls mostly draw girls, but if their theme requires it, they will draw a necessary boy, and they never seem to run into any difficulties, or rather, the problems they encounter have nothing to do with their gender or that of the figures they’re attempting to depict. The only trouble they have is the usual trouble with feet, noses, hands, poses, and proportions

    His point is that the boys (including himself) have a brain-block, the girls do not.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  6. Kirsten wrote:

    Awesome!! I went to the WSJ interview she linked to, and it really irritated me the way Cormac McCarthy talked about his son (notably, with no reference to the son being a child of TWO parents). Although The Road seems like the McCarthy novel I’d be the most likely to not hate, it strikes me that the heaps of praise he garnishes (and lavishes on himself) for portraying a loving father/son relationship is precisely *because* he’s a man, and GOSH, how daring for a man to love and devote on his (male) child! Whereas, of course, a woman writing about a mother and *her* bond with her child, no matter how beautifully, would be “business as usual chick lit,” because, ya know, women are experts on the business of chillin’s. Nothing new to say there. The most beautiful book I’ve ever read about a father and son love was written by a woman (Gilead). I guess Marilynne Robinson just gave that the old college try BECAUSE SHE’S AN AMAZING WRITER. PERIOD. I don’t always read along gender lines, but I do value writers that seem to genuinely care about other humans. E.M. Forster comes to mind. Shakespeare got it. A lot of male writers “get it.” The problem with manfiction is the idolizing of writers who don’t get it, who don’t really have very big hearts, and yet are celebrated for their “hard-nosed” approach to this spiritual meanness.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Elizabeth wrote:

    I love this post!! And, @Lizardbreath, I think you’re spot on.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Alicia wrote:

    “Didn’t read Harriet The Spy in elementary school? Never looked past Chandler to Sara Paretsky, put down the Burroughs and picked up Kathy Acker? Or if the protagonist didn’t exactly resemble oneself, it doesn’t count?

    This essay is more about limited reading habits and learned biases. It’s probably just hasty ranting, but this graph implies one didn’t read any women authors until age 24 or so, or thought those works didn’t count as reading literature.”

    @Hmmn: Part of the divine Rejectionist’s point here is that to the dudes she was friends with DID NOT count Paretsky, Ackerman et al. as reading literature. They are but pale shadows of the Great Authors, who were Dude Authors.

    In short, it is not the Rejectionist’s reading habits and biases which are limited. It is the idea that women’s literature is a lesser organism, fit only for women — the same way that women who make food are cooks, and men who make food are chefs.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Courtney (Miss C) wrote:

    Just wanted to clarify: a writier writing “what they know” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are writing about something exact that they have personally experienced. The only thing I am having trouble with surrounding this article and a lot of the comments is the idea that we as women need to stop reading fiction written by men because, well, I don’t really know why. I think it is very very important to expose people and especially students to a wide variety of reading so they WILL read, but if we are truly going at this from a feminist perspective, couldn’t we be more positive about it? I am not claiming to be well-versed in the area of literature, but the simple fact that something is written by a man doesn’t have to mean that we can’t enjoy reading it. As for those writers who do choose not to write about women, or write realistic female characters, I don’t believe that it’s the author’s intent to put women down (most of the time). If we as women want the issue of male-dominated literature to change, certainly using terms like “manfiction” and swearing off all male authors is not the way to get the message across. I know not everyone on here fell into that particular category, but why not read/ give us some recommendations of some great female writers to read? Men have every right to write any kind of character they choose, the same as women do. Let’s stop pointing our fingers at all male authors for the harm being done, and instead funnel our energy into promoting good female-written literature, and acting to put THOSE works into our literature/ English classrooms.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  10. Denelian wrote:

    this is, at least in large part, in response to you.
    i grew up reading Sci-Fi. the first *novel* i wrote was “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” by Robert Heinlein.
    for a *very* long time, Heinlein was just about the only male author i WANTED to read in sci-fi [i read anyway; but given a choice, i gravitated to Heinlein. at that time, most sci-fi was back in the 50’s, even if it WAS the 80’s] because while Heinlein had MANLY MEN, he ALSO had PERFECT KICK-ASS WOMEN WHO DID THINGS.
    in “Spacesuit”, who was the real hero? Kip [teen boy] Pee-wee [tween GENIUS girl] or Mother Thing [alien female cop]? all of them. in Number of the Beast, the 4 main characters are split, 2 m 2 w, and arguably the WOMEN are smarter over all, and by the end of the book the undisputed leader is Hilda – a *very* small woman. with a will of adamantite.

    it’s coming back. John Ringo may have an anti-fan club [No, John Ringo, No!] but he ALSO has multiple books written almost entirely from a female POV, and my FAV book of his is Princess of Wands – an UF [sorta] whose main character is a MARRIED modern Soccer Mom who *ALSO*, in her free time, kills monsters from the Cthulu myth, takes on minions of Tiamet, and breaks up a “satanic” cult that’s more pathetic than anything. she KICKS ASS and *still* manages to [mostly] take care of her family. and while “wonder-moms” are, generally, created to shame women, in this case… after all, she didn’t realize she was a superhero until her kids were in Junior High, and it’s not like she can’t delegate to husband and the kids aren’t old enough to make their own food. she SIDELINES as a super-hero, it’s not her main focus [even if it’s the books] and it works.
    and the majority of those who have read the book? are male 😀

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  11. Octavia wrote:

    @ Courtney (Miss C):

    You just bingoed with the tone argument on this:
    “If we as women want the issue of male-dominated literature to change, certainly using terms like “manfiction” and swearing off all male authors is not the way to get the message across.”
    Hey ladies, stop sounding so angry! No one will take your clearly special-interest concerns seriously you emotional women, unless you’re super polite (P.S. What about the menz?!)!

    Aaaaand again with the ‘why don’t you spend your time on designated important things!’ argument. ( Because there’s only so much care to go around, why, we might just use it up on the ‘little’ things!
    “Let’s stop pointing our fingers at all male authors for the harm being done, and instead funnel our energy into promoting good female-written literature, and acting to put THOSE works into our literature/ English classrooms.”

    It really is possible to care about the ‘little’ things and the ‘big’ things, I promise. Women are constantly given the message that anger is not an appropriate emotion for us. We need always to try to win people over with honeyed words, smiles, to watch our tone lest we be read as emotional and our arguments written off as not nice enough, not moderate enough, not apologetic enough, or even hysterical. You back this up with “couldn’t we be more positive about it?” How about, if we’re “truly going at this from a feminist perspective” we say that actually, women are allowed to be passionate or angry or loud about subjects we’re interested in, if and when we want to be (without having to play the perfect educator role too)?

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  12. HB wrote:

    I’m with @Abigail and @Hmnnn. This post started off really speaking to me–the girl-who-is-one-of-the-guys phenomenon is really interesting, as it relates to pop culture and often, sports fandom. But women have won Pulitzers (Jhumpa Lahirir’s “Interpreter of Maladies” is a personal favorite). And, to be honest, usually when a man writes from a woman’s point of view, I’m completely annoyed by how unrealistic and shallow it is. “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb comes to mind.

    I haven’t made a resolution to only read books written by women, and I don’t only enjoy films that pass the Bechdel test, but I do find myself attracted to those kinds of works more and more. We want to see ourselves reflected back at us in culture, that’s understandable. But I do still appreciate some dude-films and books, because they’re interesting in other ways.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  13. ladysquires wrote:

    I’m late to the party, but I just wanted to add that The Rejectionist clearly isn’t castigating the entire literary output of the male gender, as some have suggested in comments. There is a particular type of fiction written by men, let’s call it Backlash Fiction, that started emerging around the end of the late nineteenth century, when men started looking around and noticing that most of the best-selling authors of their day were women and started getting nervous. Their response to the “feminization” of literature (and the fact that women were starting to get rights, and stuff) was to begin creating works based on the performative masculinity of guys like Theodore Roosevelt (an asthmatic dandy with a high-pitched voice, by the by, until he reinvented himself).

    Man fiction tends to be set in pre-feminist utopias or in worlds entirely devoid of women (i.e. The Road). The “men just write what they know!” argument suggests that the elimination of women (or the relegation of female characters to sub-human status) is a politically neutral act, when in fact it was not, especially for Male Backlash Writers, whose creative choices more or less say, “We do not know how to deal with these woman creatures as humans with equal status to men. And furthermore, we feel threatened by them, so we want to imagine worlds in which they do not exist.”

    That doesn’t mean that your enjoyment of the other good things these books might be achieving needs to diminish. It is simply worth noting as a rather troubling trend.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  14. e.lee wrote:

    So, its actually okay to hate ‘The Road’? Yay!! thanks!

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  15. Alex wrote:

    First Dude Music, now Manfiction… please tell me Bro Games are next! (Believe it or not, not all games are Bro Games! It’s true!)

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  16. Betsy wrote:

    Dawn Powell. Best female writer in the 20th Century. Great female characters, great male characters, great characters in general. She was Hemmingway’s favorite living author. Read her, please! And make sure her books don’t go out of print. We should have read Turn, Magic Wheel in high school instead of Gatsby.

    Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  17. belmanoir wrote:

    Yes! And what I find so hilarious about male writers’ clinging to this inability to communicate as a sign of manliness is that GUYS, YOU ARE WRITERS. IF YOUR WRITING IS ANY GOOD THAT TAUTOLOGICALLY MEANS YOU ARE GOOD AT COMMUNICATING. WHO EXACTLY DO YOU THINK YOU ARE FOOLING?

    Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  18. M wrote:


    I agree entirely. I mean, you’re a dude, who writes dude characters, largely for the enjoyment of other dudes. You know that there’s a glut of this out there already, and that it’s often shoved down our throats as the real kind of “good writing”. But how unfair, that women might be tired of it! Just because men tend to write swaths of shitty books about the same thing, over and over, target these books to each other, laud each other for the great “art” they’ve produced, all while writing women in the worst possible ways if at all and refusing to read or acknowledge women’s own writing as anything but trash… that doesn’t mean women can just *stop reading*! I mean, what sort of person, upon realizing that reading certain kinds of books by certain kinds of people are quite likely to make them feel like shit, would then choose to stop reading those books entirely? How sad! What if as many as 1% of those books, like yours, might not be quite as insulting, though still about the same old things and not including women characters or actually making an effort to appeal to women? They’d be missing out on a so-so book that doesn’t have too much overt misogyny in it — but written by a DUDE! My word! How could anyone limit themselves to reading only women and trusted men authors, knowing they could be creating such a hole in their lives?

    I wonder, as a writer, is there something you could maybe possibly do to help build a culture that has more books with good female characters, and more books that appeal to women in an intelligent way? Hmm… I thought I had an idea there but I’ve forgotten what it was. Probably wasn’t important, anyway. We should just be happy that a real live man agrees with us. At least in pretense! Enjoy your cookie.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  19. Lucy Jane wrote:

    Getting caught up on Tiger Beatdown, and I have to say I LOVE this post. It takes me right back to being in middle school and trying to explain to my dad that no, I just couldn’t get myself to read and enjoy Bradbury. I feel like I should send him a link to this.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  20. sadielou wrote:

    I read manfiction. I am that Girl Who Hangs Out With Boys, and it’s not internalized misogyny, it’s that I actually don’t get along with most women. (Read that as paradoxical if you will.) I can’t gossip for shit, I’m a bit reckless and geeky and horny, and frankly I just have more in common with most men. Your homesteading, hitchhiking women? I’ve never met them. Maybe someday.

    Occasionally it’s disappointing when my favorite authors act like they just can’t conceive that some women are like them. James Joyce and Neal Stephenson (yeah, yeah, odd juxtaposition) have both irritated me on occasion. I’m Stephen Dedalus, not Molly Bloom. I’m more like the Rogue Hacker of fiction than his cardboard love interest. But, you know, I still love those books, because I’d rather read about characters who share my nature if not my gender.
    I like Kerouac (even though he’s shitty to women) and Vollman and Thoreau and Hemingway (even though they’re also shitty to women) because they’re the American individualist tradition, and I’m an American individualist. Albeit one with boobs.

    The obligation to have solidarity with other women is something I don’t like… because I’m a person first and then a woman. I know a couple gay guys and Native Americans who have the same attitude about their respective “groups.” In a past generation quite a few black people had that attitude. I just think that you can associate with, or identify with, whomever you prefer.

    Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] started a new series on literature this week – conveniently coinciding with my sudden immersion in the Book Review Blogoshphere. […]

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  7. […] What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet PRESENTS! Au Revoir, Pretty Horses; Or, Why I Don’t…. "Some more telling characteristics of Manfiction: … 2. Male characters cannot communicate with their sons, brothers, and fathers. Or anybody else, really; but they are particularly hampered in inter-man relationships (this is important to emphasize regularly, because the only men who are capable of talking in polysyllabic phrases to other men are gay, and the only thing less manly than writing thoughtfully about women is writing about gays. An inability to communicate is the literary equivalent of the empty seat between two dudes in a movie theater). Instead of communicating the men will drink a lot, commit random acts of violence, beat their sons or pets, and drive around in trucks without speaking. These men do not have daughters." (Linked Sunday 2010-06-20.) […]