James Franco, in addition to being an actor, performance artist, director and avid Instagrammer, is a writer of both fiction and poetry. He’s a big reader too — he’s currently starring on Broadway in “Of Mice and Men” — and one of his many upcoming projects includes a film adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. In a recent interview with Shelf Awareness, Franco discussed some of the writers from contemporary literature who’ve influenced and had an impact on him, both as a writer and as a person. David Foster Wallace! Cormac McCarthy! Great writers indeed. But of the writers discussed in the interview — including Franco’s Top 11 list of all time faves — not a single one was a woman. (Wait, I lied. Asked to name a book he bought based on the cover alone, Franco offered up Madonna’s Sex. So yeah, let’s not count that one.)
I would sigh, but I am not the slightest bit surprised.
Not necessarily because it makes perfect sense to me that James Franco wouldn’t consider any books by women to have been influential or memorable enough to mention in this interview, but because I know of very few men who do read books written by women, at least with any real regularity. Whenever I’m at a dude’s house — hell, whenever I’m at anyone‘s house — I like to let my eyes peruse their bookshelves. Funnily enough, I’m usually keeping one eye peeled for any books by Ayn Rand (my cue to get the fuck out), but I gotta say, I very rarely notice many books by women. Sometimes, depending on how big the collection, I don’t see any. I certainly don’t expect dudes to be frothing at the mouth about when the next Jennifer Weiner is coming out, but seriously? No Jennifer Egan, no Zadie Smith, no Donna Tartt? It’s goddamn shame, but I think James Franco’s reading list is incredibly typical.
There are exceptions of course. Just in the last two weeks, I’ve talked with two guy friends about the book I’m currently reading, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of whom gave it rave reviews. It’s a book I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying, in part because it reads like modern day Charles Dickens. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is another book that a number of men I’ve known have loved, as are books by Lorrie Moore and Lionel Shriver. But the list is short.
I don’t think one singular thing is to blame for this disparity, and plenty of ink has been spilled about the variety of contributing factors, but in short, our society, in general, tends to consider “serious” works of literature to be written by men, while books by women are often shoved into the “chick lit” genre, page-turning beach reads of little substance. I don’t think that male readers necessarily actively avoid reading those “serious” works of literature by women — the Egans and Smiths and Tartts — but I suspect they put off reading them in favor of the latest book by such-and-such great male writer. There’s only so much free time in the day/week, so reading something different (in this case, a book by a woman) from what you’re usually inclined towards has to be a conscious choice. And when you maybe don’t think you have a dog in the fight — the fight being respect given to talented women writers and the advancement and cultivation of their work — why would you?
Of course, we all do have a dog in the fight. Books are among humankind’s important legacies and they have a powerful influence on shaping our thoughts and ideas about the world around us. Limit that influence to primarily work written by men and not only do individuals miss out, but over time, society as a whole feels the impact. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that in, oh, 40 years, the 2054 version of James Franco will give an interview to Shelf Awareness and include ACTUAL JAMES FRANCO on his list of favorite writers instead of any women. Surely none of us want THAT. [MHP Books]