All my adult life, I've been served well by avoiding two categories of readers: people who like Jack Kerouac and people who think Humbert Humbert is the hero of Lolita. After today, I'm forced to add a third category: people who assume that women approach fiction with exactly the same mindset that drives us to read an article in Cosmo about 35 sex tips that will cause your man to ejaculate engagement rings. Apparently this belief is widespread enough that it popped up randomly this week in two disparate places. At the Millions, writer Stephanie Nikolopoulos assumes female readers are suppressing a love of Jack Kerouac because we think cad is catching, and at National Review Online, Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews a woman who has written a book based on the premise that Jane Austen's novels double nicely as dating manuals for the marriage-minded lady.
Of the two pieces, Nikolopoulos manages to pull off the incredible feat of beating out National Review Online in sheer irritatingness, arguing that women's inability to see (or admit they see) Kerouac's genius stems straight from their small-minded desire to only read books where they can pretend to be married to the male lead:
It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. ... If I am to be terribly stereotypical, I’d say the literary crush I hear most women talk about is Mr. Darcy, the cute fixer-upper worth the effort because of his money and social standing. Sure, maybe he’s a bit aloof at first, but in the end Mr. Darcy’ll put a ring on it.
I have an alternate, though perhaps less interesting, theory: It's because Jane Austen writes clever books that are fun to read and On the Road is babbling nonsense that mainly appeals to men under the illusion that it's somehow daring to be disdainful of women.
Naturally, Nikolopoulos wants you to understand that she's better than all those silly women out there that she assumes are reading for romantic fantasy purposes only. She understands, for instance, that the female characters in On the Road are two-dimensional stereotypes, but instead of correctly seeing that this is just more evidence that Kerouac-haters are correct in thinking he can't handle characterization, she just steps back and admires herself for being able to relate so strongly to a man who doesn't appear to think women can be relatable at all. Luckily for the rest of us, there are plenty of men we can admire for their disregard for women's lives if we wish, and there's no reason to slog through Kerouac's prose to get the cheap thrill of vicarious misogyny.
Elizabeth Kantor, the author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, comes across as less obnoxious and more addled by the quaint notion that because Austen's books are very old, they must therefore assert some kind of timeless conservative values that will somehow rescue women out of our supposedly miserable modern lives. The interview with Lopez is a fun read mostly for the density of howlers per page, such as when Lopez asks, "So is that a good question to be teaching our girls to ask? 'What would Jane do?' " The answer to that question is simple: We don't need to speculate about what Jane would do since we know what she did do, which is reject a marriage proposal and dedicate her life to her work. This, of course, is not the conclusion reached by Kantor and Lopez, who, at another part of the interview, work in some digs at women who look to work to fulfill themselves. Really, the only thing Kantor seems to grasp about Austen's books is that the female leads in them do not jump in bed with men right away, but they end up happily married. All this means Austen is clearly rejecting the horrible influence of Sex and the City instead of the traditional explanation for the lack of sexing in the books, which is that she was writing light romantic comedies during the early 19th century.*
I realize that this might be a hard thing to wrap our minds around in an era of endless bridal shows and how-to-snag-a-man books, but there's really no need to assume that women's fiction reading habits are shaped primarily around their mating urges. It truly may be that women just enjoy a good story. We don't assume that audiences watching Breaking Bad are eager to light up a Bunsen burner and start cooking meth for themselves, so why must we insist that women's reactions to books are rooted in an obsession with finding some guy to marry us?
*Clarification: This post originally placed Austen's career in the late 18th century. Her publishing career did not start in earnest until the early 19th century.