I’ve written in the past about my biggest dating dealbreaker: I won’t go out with a guy if he’s not pro-choice. Dating aside, I won’t even sleep with him, because if heaven forbid I accidentally get pregnant, I want to know that he’s going to support whatever choice I make. Also, as a rule, I try not to go out with people who sorta kinda think I’m, you know, a murderer. I don’t know a whole lot about romantic relationships, but that does not strike me as a recipe for a harmonious union.
When you’re browsing for dates online, though, it’s pretty rare to find someone who’s upfront about their beliefs about reproductive rights (in fact, in three years of online dating, I have never come across a man who declares his stance on the issue on his profile). Still, I’ve amassed a medium-length list of things that, when I’m browsing what OK Cupid has to offer, will make my mouse jump quickly to the little x at the top of the browser tab and that, sometimes, will make me blurt out “shut it down” as I do so. One of those is an expressed preference for women with “no drama” which, as far as I can tell, means women with “no opinions.” Another is the self-description of “libertarian,” which is not to say I’d entirely rule out the possibility of going out a guy who wanted a smaller government than I do — but if you feel strongly enough about it to put it in your online dating profile, it’s not going to work out between us. For one of my women friends, it’s spelling and grammar errors. For one of my guy friends, it’s professing a love for the works of Ayn Rand. For me, the dealbreaker is also literary: if you don’t list any books by women among your favorites, I’m outta there.
My list of favorite books is long and eclectic, but it’s about a fifty-fifty gender split: you’ve got your Harry Potter, your Bel Canto, and your Pride and Prejudice, which are of course by women, but also your Remains of the Day and Memoirs of a Geisha. In the nonfiction department, there’s Katherine Boo, Cheryl Strayed, Hanne Blank, but also, Bill Bryson, Michael Kimmel, and Kenji Yoshino. I like lots of books, and some of them are by women. I love lots of books, and some of them are by men. And if a guy doesn’t love a single book written by a woman, that’s a problem for me.
I want to be very clear: I’m not saying that every book written by a woman is great, and I’m not saying that people who don’t list books by women among their favorites are sexists (but they might be!). What I’m saying is that if the books that speak most to you are all written by guys, if women’s stories don’t interest you or move you, if you can’t empathize with women enough to love at least one book written by one, we’re going to have a problem.
I once told a young man about this rule, and he pointed out that for a lot of Americans, the books they read in high school, an age at which a lot of favorite books are seized upon, are written by men. If that is indeed that case, that’s an unacceptable flaw in the American education system, but not really an excuse for men in their mid- and late-twenties. Have you really read no new books, or loved no new books since you were 17 years old? If so, that suggests a certain lack of intellectual curiosity that is, itself, a bit of a dealbreaker.
Which is not to entirely rule out structural or cultural factors. Women are underrepresented on bestseller lists, and in the taste-making review publications. Last year, 20% of the books reviewed by the New York Review of Books were written by women. This slant happens for all kinds of reasons: editors don’t try hard enough to make their reviews diverse, so women who get published have a harder time getting press. Or they don’t get published in the first place: some publishers still don’t think books by women can sell (despite the staggering worldwide success of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent). And, as several highly successful women authors have pointed out, even when they do get published, women simply aren’t assumed to have the same gravitas as men do. If you raise kids on a steady diet of books (and movies, and TV shows) that are by men and about boys, you should expect them to grow into adults who select for themselves a steady diet of books (and movies, and TV shows) that are by men and about men and boys. All this means that it can, I suppose, be easy to go months and months, maybe a whole year, or maybe even several years, without reading — and loving — a book by a woman.
The question of whether or not women can write well was answered centuries ago, and it’s insulting to suggest that it’s still at issue. The question of whether or not women can write stories that appeal to people of all genders, similarly, is a stupid one, and one that no one asks of male authors. Everyone simply assumes that stories by and about men are universal stories that will appeal to all readers. Whether or not this is true, there’s no reason it should be true of men who write and not of women who write.
As for my own love life, it’s pretty straightforward. I believe that women’s experiences are important, and just as “universal” as men’s. I believe that women’s voices, and their ideas, are important. Simply put, I believe that women’s stories matter. I’m writing one myself here – one day at a time, one date at a time. And if a man wants to be part of that story, he’d better believe it too.