image: Antoine Wiertz, The Reader of Novels
IN ANTOINE WIERTZ’S 1853 painting The Reader of Novels, a naked woman lies on her back, comfortably secluded in her boudoir, holding a copy of The Three Musketeers to her face. The sheets beneath her are in slight disarray. She looks like she’s having a good time. The painting, reproduced in Belinda Jack’s lively, engaging history The Woman Reader, shows a figure crouching in the shadows next to the woman, pushing yet another book onto her bed. If you look closely, you can just make out that the figure has horns; it’s the devil.
Wiertz was hardly a major painter, but his image of the female reader — sexualized, autonomous, perhaps in league with Satan — says a lot about historical anxieties regarding that figure. As Jack points out, representations of women reading are historically more numerous and more fraught than those of men. The female reader is associated with a dizzying myriad of contradictory qualities, from piety and maternal virtue to frivolity and eros. And nowhere is her role more contested than when it comes to the novel — a disquiet that continues even today.
Last spring, in The New York Review of Books, Elaine Blair published an essay on what she called “male losers” in fiction: male characters, written by authors such as Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, and David Foster Wallace, who are presented as deeply flawed, narcissistic, unsuccessful in romance and otherwise. Blair speculated that these characters represent a form of preemptive self-criticism arising from anxiety in relation to an empowered and independent female readership. No author today, she wrote, can disregard the female reader:
For an English-language novelist, raised and educated and self-consciously steeped in the tradition of the Anglo-American novel, in which female characters, female writers, and female readers have had a huge part, the prospect of not being able to write for female readers is a crisis. What kind of novelist are you if women aren’t reading your books?
Whether or not you subscribe to Blair’s theory, it is certainly true that the history of the novel, and of novel reading, in English is inextricable from ideas and controversies about the female reader.
Women and men have long been presumed to maintain different reading habits and sensibilities, and the novel has always straddled the fault line of those differences. The question of who the female reader is — and what she wants — is in some ways built into the novel itself, whose reach as an art form expanded at exactly the same time as a female audience with the education and leisure time to read it. What’s interesting are the ways in which constructions of the female reader are both entrenched and shifting, constantly causing new fault lines to appear. In the 18th century, for example, women were assumed to like narrative, and men read for ideas; in the 19th century, women were thought to like detail and digression, while men read for the narrative point.1
In our time, studies show that women buy more books than men, especially when it comes to fiction. In private, in book clubs (a female-dominated phenomenon), on blogs and online communities such as Goodreads, women are major consumers of novels, and major contributors to the conversation about them. Whatever she likes, however she thinks, the female reader cannot be ignored.
Two recent novels by men, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, place the female reader at center stage, not (only) as implied audience but as main character. These books update the marriage plot, in which the female character’s romantic travails fuel the narrative: Sweet Tooth in 1970s London, The Marriage Plot at Brown University in the 1980s. Both are ingeniously constructed, expertly addressing an array of ideas. McEwan takes on literary history, British espionage, and the ethics of governmental attempts to manipulate artists and culture. Eugenides writes about semiotics, religion, mental illness, and the search for personal identity. It’s all the more striking, then, that the relationship between figure and ground in these books — between the character of the female reader and the intellectual backdrop of the novel in which she appears — is so constrained. It’s impossible not to wonder if an analogous anxiety to that of Blair’s “male losers” is at work here too; if the female reader is being welcomed into the pages of the novel and somehow, at the same time, shut out.
Serena Frome, the heroine of Sweet Tooth, is beautiful, intelligent, and a spy. Just as important, for the purposes of both plot and theme, Serena is a reader. All her life she has consumed novels enthusiastically and indiscriminately. Early in the novel, we learn that:
My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was going to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say “Marry me” by the end.
From this start, McEwan plants seeds about the nature of Serena’s reading and about the structure of the book to come. This is a novel about Serena’s life as a spy, yes, but it is equally about her reading life. As the narrative unfolds, the book cleverly becomes not just her story, but exactly the kind of story she wants to read. Artfully composed, Sweet Tooth is, as its title suggests, a confectionary entertainment that places the amateur reader at its heart, and that celebrates the pleasures, emotional and intellectual, of the book.
Yet Serena is not just any amateur reader, but a specifically gendered one. The kinds of preferences she expresses are those that have been tied to women since the 19th century: romantic, character-driven, without difficult themes. Though she grows as a reader over the course of the novel, she is always assumed to come back to these limited desires.
A privileged daughter of a wealthy family, as a high school student Serena shows a precocious ability in mathematics. She doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject, though she likes going to tournaments and wiping smirks off the faces of her male competitors. Her true love is books, but she is discouraged from pursuing literature as a career path by a mother who thinks she has a better chance of professional success in math. Sure enough, she is admitted to Cambridge where, as it turns out, she is not competitive and barely squeaks by with a third.
Because of this choice, Serena never learns to read in the sense of being trained in literary history and theory, though she continues to do so, enthusiastically, on her own:
I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair . I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.
Reading as “not thinking”: here is another quality added to the definition of the female reader.
At Cambridge, Serena makes few friends, particularly few female ones, a pattern that continues throughout the book. Rather, she lilypads from one romantic relationship to the next. Through her first boyfriend, a fellow student, she meets her second, a tutor. He takes her education in hand, teaching her about history and politics, and, as it turns out, grooming her for entry into MI5. Here Serena expands her reading far beyond the romantic novels of her past. It’s notable, though, how much of her intellectual development is not just tied to her tutor, Tony, but taken from him wholesale. Tony fills up her head. In her job interview at MI5, she parrots all the opinions he has given her: “the self I invented was derived entirely from my summer with him. What else did I have?”
Once hired, Serena immediately develops a crush on a male colleague that preoccupies much of her thoughts while at work. Then, in her first major step out of the secretarial pool, she is recruited for a special operation that hinges on her experience as a reader. She is instructed to approach a writer, Tom Haley, and offer him government funding, as MI5 is eager to infiltrate literary culture. Serena reads his work — heavily excerpted in the novel — with a fascination that immediately carries over to the man himself.
Tom is a literary man and a scholar, pure of heart, who is guided by literary and philosophical questions. Though nominated for a lucrative and prestigious prize, he actually wants to write a scholarship more than he wants to be a famous novelist. He becomes involved with Serena almost immediately. Her beauty and her attention as a reader seem for him to be intertwined — she seems his ideal audience.
Up until this point in the novel, Serena has been professionally diffident and not particularly ambitious. But once she meets Tom and falls in love with him, she finds the passion that seems to have been lacking for her elsewhere. She reads his work deeply, attentively. She is learning from her lover, both on the page and in person; Tom seems to want to educate her, just as her tutor educated her. (Out to dinner with her, he tells her about Ezra Pound, of whom she has never heard.) At the same time, and despite their sexual chemistry, their literary discussions are lacking in zest. When Tom comes over to her apartment:
We talked books in a light and careless way, hardly bothering to make a case when we disagreed, which was at every turn. He had no time for my kind of women — his hand moved past the Byatt and the Drabbles, past Monica Dickens and Elizabeth Bowen, those novels I had inhabited so happily.
Comments like these almost certainly represent a wink and a nudge on McEwan’s part at the sexist literary sensibilities of a previous era, not exonerating himself (he has said in an interview that the character of Tom is partly autobiographical). Notably, though, for all that winking, Serena herself doesn’t have much to say about her kind of women writers either. And her literary preferences are always circumscribed by her romantic preoccupations. She doesn’t seem to read or think much about anything else.
The most energetic literary discussion in the book takes place not between Tom and Serena but between Tom and the (real-life character of) Ian Hamilton, the editor of a review who may be interested in publishing Haley’s work. The two men take apart a Philip Larkin poem, intently, in a pub, as an afternoon wanes on. Serena is present at this discussion, but she’s drunk and upset because she thinks Haley is cheating on her with a woman named Shirley, and therefore hardly participates:
After my second glass I chipped in occasionally, but mostly I pretended to listen while I thought about Shirley. […] They were talking about Larkin, about some lines at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings,” […] they went around again, finding clever ways to make the same points […] I wasn’t listening all the time. The men ignored me and I was beginning to feel a bit of a writer’s moll as well as a fool.
This recalls a scene in McEwan’s Saturday, in which the recitation of “On Dover Beach” stops a crime from occurring: it's a moment when time slows down and stretches out, allowing a literary text to resonate and create connections among characters. Sweet Tooth, though a lighter book than Saturday, is very much concerned with the moral weight and import of literature, and its link to the world of politics and ideas. Literature flows out into the world with the capacity to change people’s minds; that’s why MI5 is concerned with it in the first place. So it is conspicuous that the book’s central female character — and the one who is defined as a reader — absents herself mentally from this scene because of her worries about a romantic rival.
It’s impossible to fully discuss the structure of Sweet Tooth as it relates to the male writer–female reader dynamic without giving away its twist ending, so consider this a spoiler alert. In the final chapter of the novel, we learn that the entire book has been written by Tom; it’s part-accusation, part-love letter. The last chapter is joyful, exuberant,, as Haley tells us how much and how lovingly he has written of Serena and the self-refential structure of the novel clicks into place.
He has given Serena the book of her apparent desires. A woman wants romance, and characters she can believe in: here is that book, gift-wrapped. It’s the story of herself. It’s also a book that has taught her how to read artfully (if Serena has read the manuscript carefully, she will have seen the “tricks” by which Tom has shown his hand). Sweet Tooth, in the end, isn’t Serena’s story but Tom’s: it’s about a writer creating a reader, educating her, and falling in love with her, Pygmalion-style. And what does Serena think about how she’s been portrayed? She is not present, at the conclusion of the book, to offer an opinion.
The parallels between Serena and Madeleine Hanna from The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides' evocation of student life at Brown University in the 1980s, are marked. Like Serena, Madeleine is a sweet, slightly pampered girl from a wealthy family, with devoted, well-heeled parents. Madeleine’s mother, like Serena’s, is a homemaker who wants Madeleine to achieve more professionally than she did herself. The mother’s life is “the great counterexample,” and both women experience the history of feminism as a burden rather than an inspiration.
Though she has little professional ambition or focus, Madeleine loves to read. She is most interested in a mimetic relationship to literature — which is to say that she seeks in books some reflection of her own life, and most specifically her emotional life: “She didn’t want to be liberated from emotions,” Eugenides writes, “but to have their importance confirmed.”
Madeleine, like Serena, doesn’t enjoy experimental fiction. Instead she gravitates to realistic narrative in general and the 19th century novel in particular, where she feels “safe.” This preference seems to affirm not just her romantic fantasies but her inherent conventionality: “Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.” Though she loves these books, she has no critical relationship to them, and lacks intellectual self-confidence; she is writing a senior thesis about “the marriage plot” but worries that she has little to say about it. As with Sweet Tooth, Madeleine’s reading preference heralds both the kind of story that is about to unfold and the kind of relationship she’s about to experience. Does Madeleine’s taste in literature determine her love life, we wonder? Or is it the other way around?
As the book begins, Madeleine enrolls in a semiotics seminar in which she finds herself — despite three and a half years of English courses — over her head. The theories of deconstruction and semiotics, so fashionable in that era (and ably skewered by Eugenides), leave her cold. Seemingly the only reason she remains in the course is that she has developed a crush on a fellow student, brilliant, moody Leonard Bankhead. (Bankhead is widely speculated to be based on David Foster Wallace, whose death haunts this novel just as Christopher Hitchens's haunts McEwan’s.) The only text to which she responds at all is Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, and this because it “had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn’t tell anyone.”
Leonard and Madeleine enter into a relationship similar to the one between Richard and Patty in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: a tortured, sensitive, intellectual aesthete drawn to an attractive, athletic, socially conventional woman. For the man, the woman seems to represent the mental health, physical vigor, and simplicity unavailable to him. For the woman, the man’s brilliance and complexity are seductive, offering her emotional depths and ways of seeing the world to which she does not have access on her own. “You could be going anywhere, doing anything,” Madeleine thinks about Leonard, “and an air freshener would lead to a little symposium.”
When things go awry between Leonard and Madeleine, she’s shattered. And because she has conflated her love life and her intellectual life, her already low self-esteem plunges even further:
Only one thing remained from her relationship with Leonard: the book she’d thrown at his head. […] To pick it up would prove Leonard’s point: that she had an unhealthy obsession with A Lover’s Discourse; that, contrary to dispelling her fantasies about love, the book had served to reinforce those fantasies; and that, in evidence of all this, she wasn’t only a sentimentalist but a lousy literary critic besides.
Whether going well or poorly, Madeleine’s relationship with Leonard usurps her entire life. Madeleine has roommates with whom she spends very little time and about whom she appears to care little. She thinks about her other classes not at all.
By contrast, the two male characters of the novel, though each deeply involved with Madeleine, also embark on intellectual and philosophical journeys that are separate from their girlfriend issues, and which allow Eugenides to explore in depth themes of mental health, religion, and self-determination. Leonard is a biologist who struggles with depression; Mitchell winds up on a spiritual odyssey in India. Late in the novel, at a party, they find common ground, not in a discussion of the girl they both love but in a talk about religion. Though Leonard dates Madeleine, and Mitchell is in love with her, for neither of them does the act of being in love with her fill up an entire life. It is Madeleine, the reader, who seems little more than the sum of her romantic existence.
The question of reading — how to do it, and what it means — hovers over The Marriage Plot just as it does Sweet Tooth. The backdrop here is the identity politics-saturated 1980s, a time when (at least for English majors) literary theory seemed to matter deeply, politically. A real pleasure of the book is its wry portrait of how these ideas infused everyday life. Take, for example, Moss Runk, a minor character who shows up at school as a girl but then repudiates gender-specific clothing and wears a grey cloak around. No one questions her or even comments on her decision; to do so would be to fail at everything that college represented, its spiritual of intellectual exploration and its opposition to social conformity and codes.
I was an English major in the early 1990s, just a few years after the action of the novel, and I well remember how you couldn’t drink a cup of coffee without considering its place in the heteronormative paradigm. Eugenides captures this perfectly. What’s absent from the book, though, is a sense of these ideas being galvanizing for readers in general and women in particular. Part of what I remember about that era is the thrill of theory — how it seemed to promise profound aesthetic relevance and political engagement. Beyond Foucault and Derrida, thinkers like Gayatri Spivak and Hélène Cixous served as models of empowerment and intellectual heft. Female friendships, which seem almost incidental to Madeleine’s existence, were formative and central, as my friends and I argued about feminism and deconstruction and politics and sex.
Obviously, Eugenides is not under any obligation to write a college novel that is faithful to my personal experiences. However, I couldn’t help but notice that for Mitchell and Leonard, intellectual and emotional development — one might also say, the professional and the personal, in that intellectual life is the professional sphere of the college student — do go hand in hand. It’s only Madeleine who is confined to the tunnel vision of the romantic. The book makes clever connections between semiotics and the marriage plot, but Madeleine doesn’t; so the female reader is sidelined from the book’s own intellectual metaplay.
The conclusion of the book attempts to update the traditional marriage plot. Madeleine and Leonard have broken up; Mitchell, though he loves her, doesn’t propose, because Madeleine has to find her own way. The final scene ends in Mitchell’s point of view:
She wasn’t so special, maybe. She has his ideal, but an early conception of it, and he would get over it in time. […] Madeleine kept squinting, as though Mitchell was already far away, until finally, smiling gratefully, she answered, “Yes.”
This scene situates female freedom outside of romance, reminding Madeleine that she can’t find her entire identity in relationships. Yet it is Mitchell — the book’s most deeply felt and sensitively drawn character — who makes the final choice not to propose at the end. It is by his agency that the choice is made. It’s his gift to bestow, another wrapped present. And she is grateful.
These two books seem to court the female reader by including marriage plot elements and by featuring the female reader as a central character. Yet in the end their ideas about how and why women read feel narrow; their narrative structures seem to confirm old-fashioned notions of gendered reading rather than updating them, with the male characters exhibiting greater agency, creativity, and drive.
The marriage plot once served as an engine for the novel because marriage was the vehicle by which women changed their futures: their economic, geographic, and social statuses were highly determined by their husbands. Marriage was, if not a matter of life and death, at least a matter of life, period. That’s not true anymore, at least not in the same way. What then does marriage mean to women now (and, for that matter, to men)? One might also be asking, what does the female reader want? Perhaps it’s not ungrateful to say: more than this.
(1) These and other shifting cultural assumptions are lucidly described in Leah Price’s The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel. (Back to text)