“Do you like Zadie Smith?” I screamed over the sound of rock music blasting from the speakers of a tropical-themed bar in Brooklyn. “Who?!” My Tinder date shouted back. He'd described himself in his profile as a 25-year-old journalist living in Bushwick. I try to go out with fellow writers because I think it gives us common ground on a first date, and I assumed he just couldn't hear my Zadie Smith question because the bar was deafening. “She wrote On Beauty and White Teeth,” I replied, thinking he would recognise the titles, at least. “I'm not sure if I know her. Does she write for Vice?” he asked. I paused, trying to keep my casual first-date smile from turning into a grimace. No, Zadie Smith does not write for Vice. But it was what he said next that really made me raise an eyebrow: "I don't really know much about any books that are out right now,” he told me, without a hint of embarrassment. “Or any women writers. I've never read a book published before 2005.”
Annoyingly enough, I can’t say I was surprised: One thing I’ve learned dating in New York is that it’s easy to find men who read, but it’s very difficult to find men who read novels written by women. Sure, I read about the trend of men starting their own book clubs, but I'm talking about female writers in particular. Once, an architect, during a lunch-break date in Midtown one sunny afternoon, told me he doesn’t read anything written in the last century. Another time, a Williamsburg dweller said he hadn’t heard of the award-winning novel Swamplandia!, but wanted to educate me on Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle. So this Bushwick date was part of a larger trend.
Over drinks, while my date launched into an impassioned speech about Cormac McCarthy, I made some shrewd calculations: McCarthy hadn't come out with a book recently, right? Was it possible that his last novel was released in 2005? I confessed that I had read a McCarthy novel, but I couldn’t remember which one. He probed me for clues, but all I could come up with was that it seemed like an old Western, and maybe a key female character had died. Last year, when I read the Cormac McCarthy book, I was preparing to move across the country, working 50-hour weeks, shedding a dysfunctional relationship, and experiencing more intense episodes of anxiety than I had in years. Reading was one of the only things that helped to quiet the din in my brain. I was constantly escaping into a book: Between the World and Me, The Folded Clock, A Little Life, Citizen: An American Lyric. “It was probably No Country for Old Men,” my date suggested, looking a little smug. I flashed a tight smile and took a sip of my beer, about to apologise for not recalling more. But then I stopped myself. Why should I feel bad for not remembering the details of one of his reading picks when he didn’t recognise one of the most lauded female authors of contemporary literature? And furthermore, why should I regret not knowing more about a novel written by a man when my date was so quick to confess that he mostly read books from the lauded canon of Dead White Guy literature? Unfortunately, this guy is far from alone, and the frequency of these sorts of interactions is troubling to me. Growing up, we’re assigned classic novels written by men in school, and are consistently told that those books are the most important works of literature. We get trained to think of men as true literary artists, and female writers wind up being overshadowed. But the real problem is that, beyond the classroom, it seems like many male readers continue to exclusively read male authors — and that they’ve internalised the idea that men’s ideas are more valid than women’s, particularly when it comes to literature.
Case in point: In 2015, when Esquire published a list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” only one of the books on that list was penned by a woman. The mag ultimately went back and updated the piece after major backlash. But it’s a huge problem when a major men’s magazine simply forgets that women belong on its list of writerly icons, because the message that it sends to male readers is that female authors are somehow subpar — that women’s ideas belong in the realm of afterthought, rather than first instinct. None of this is to say that there aren’t men out there who do read female writers. Of course there are. I have guy friends who devoured The Flamethrowers, who quote The Argonauts to me in text messages. The first night I met my ex, we bonded over a moment in a recent Meghan Daum essay. These men exist. I’ve seen them, out in the wild. But Bushwick homeboy wasn’t one of them. As it neared closing time at the loud bar, my date stopped talking about Cormac McCarthy and started sending me some not-so-subtle vibes to invite him back to my apartment. I declined and told him I wanted to head home alone. Here is what I did not say, but was definitely thinking: I know I would be much happier falling asleep next to a dog-eared Maggie Nelson book than a guy who thought quizzing me on my memory of No Country for Old Men was good foreplay.