Jonathan Friendzoned: Some Thoughts on Purity

Our next #FranzeninFebruary guest post is courtesy of Matt Bowes, who’s pun game is on point (see post title). Matt is the General Manager at NeWest Press, my favourite Edmonton publisher. He sent me my very first review book  back when I was a just a baby book blogger. He used to dabble in book blogging himself, but these days you’ll find him podcasting about Bollywood movies at Bollywood is for Lovers.

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Jonathan Franzen can be a hard writer to like sometimes, but paradoxically I find him to be easy to love. The eternal English major in me thrills to see his recurring writerly tics crop up in each new fiction work, stuff like detailed descriptions of bird species, bathroom humour, the Club of Rome, and an uncomfortable sense of détente with the modern world. It’s one of the reasons people also like Wes Anderson: when an artist sets the table with recurring themes and preoccupations, it breaks down a sort of barrier, allowing readers to see what the deeper truth on offer is this time out. It’s like Commedia del’Arte, a set of agreed-upon motifs that act as a gateway to entertainment.

I’ve only read The Corrections, Freedom and now Purity, so I’m not entirely sure if these recurring traits appear in his earlier novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I would be surprised if they weren’t in there somewhere.

So while it’s easy to see a critic latching on to Franzen’s straightforward obsessions and calling them out as being on the nose, it’s this exact heart-on-the-sleeve nature of his work that makes me really like him, and stick up for him in conversation, even as Franzen the reluctant public personality often gets himself into trouble. His jeremiads against social media and its practitioners, his bemoaning the state of book promotion and his attempts to embody The Great American Writer archetype are well-documented and rightly mocked, but unlike some other claimants to that throne, Franzen always comes correct with the literary goods in the end. Continue reading

On not reading The Corrections

And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!

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I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years.  All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading

Literary Jonathans

Portraits of the Jonathans as young men

Remember when Jonathan Franzen took a minor swipe at his not-quite-contemporary, Jonathan Safran Foer, in Purity?

“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are…So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.”

I don’t know that I’ve noticed a plague*, but I did just finish Foer’s latest, Here I Am, so let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.

Comparing the Jonathans

  • Breakout novels in the early aughts (The Corrections and Everything is Illuminated)
  • American Novels with side trips across the ocean: Chip’s Lithuanian vacation in The Corrections, Berlin in Purity, the whole Israel thing in Here I Am
  • Voice of their respective generations: Franzen gets that label more than Foer, maybe, but remember, Foer isn’t even forty**. Give it time.
  • Insufferable public personas: Do I really need to link to something for Franzen? And in case you missed it, Foer did… whatever this is.
  • Environmentalist: Franzen is all about looking at birds, Foer is all about not eating them.
  • Fascination and disgust with technology: I love how both include realistic technology in their novels (email exchanges in The Corrections, text messages in Purity; sexting, constant screen time, and a Minecraft-like online environment in Here I Am) but they both really hate it, too.

Contrasting the Jonathans

  • The generation they are supposedly the voice of: Franzen’s a boomer, and Foer is technically a Gen Xer. Really though, he’s on the edge of Gen X and Millennial – just like me. Some call us Generation Catalano, but I prefer baby Gen Xer or elder Millennial, depending on my mood.
  • Experimental vs realism: Franzen has a lot of range, but most of his writing is pretty straight up, realistic, and chronological. Foer experiments; not so much in Here I Am, which is much more Franzeny than his previous work, but in the invented language and mythology of Everything is Iluminated, and the flipbook at the back of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Wunderkind vs Late Bloomer: Franzen was in his 40s with two novels behind him before he found success, while Foer was 25 and a debut novelist.
  • Adaptation: Attempts have been made, but so far, Franzen’s work has not been adapted (Purity was in the works as a mini series but I haven’t heard anything in quite some time.) Both of Foer’s previous novels were made into movies; I wonder if Elijah Wood is free to play Jonathan, I mean, Jacob of Here I Am?

As for the books, I’ve only read two of Foer’s but each of them affected me more than anything of Franzen’s. I love ’em both, don’t get me wrong, but Franzen’s writing is a bit too sterile to give me that emotional devastation I crave. I have teared up for Franzen – but only for The Corrections, and only for one late, revelatory scene which I won’t spoil. Foer’s books don’t just make me cry, they have me weeping through entire chapters. Or the last 100 pages, in the case of Here I Am.

So, who’s your fav literary Jonathan? Meet me here for #FoerinFebruary in 2018?

*Jonathan was the 124th most popular name the year Franzen was born, and the 28th by the time Foer was born in 1977. It peaked in 1988 at #15, which suggests that the plague of literary Jonathans is far from over.

**He turns forty on Tuesday!

 

 

Good grief, Franzen!

Jonathan Franzen is a Peanuts fan. Big time. It’s well documented in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (excerpt here):

Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house… He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.

I bet he set Freedom in St. Paul just so he could visit Charles Schultz’s hometown and these sweet statues:

statues

Photo by yours truly; also just realized that the heroine in Freedom is named PATTY

In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen draws parallels between Peanuts and his own life, but did he draw Peanuts into his fiction? Santa brought my boys a Peanuts collection this Christmas, and I’ve been compiling the Franzeniest strips. Here’s a selection with accompanying quotes:

Unnatural relationships with inanimate objects:

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The night of Alfred’s seventh-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue. (The Corrections)

 

Brain chemistry

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Gary understood this feeling. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks. His circadian schedule was 180 degrees out of phase, he was revved all night and sandy-eyed all day, and he found it ever more arduous to believe that his problem wasn’t neurochemical but personal. (The Corrections)

Turning into the thing you hate:

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His conception grew dropsical and comprehensive. What if he was the city? More than centrally located: the thing itself? (The Twenty-Seventh City)

Adult-speak (panel wasn’t in this collection, but the passage was too good to pass up)

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“Noun adjective,” his mother said, “contraction possessive noun. Conjunction conjunction stressed pronoun counterfactual verb pronoun I’d just gobble that up and temporal adverb pronoun conditional auxiliary infinitive-” (The Corrections)

As an aside, we didn’t read Peanuts as kids, and I recently found out why: when my mom saw that Santa has brought the kids this Peanuts book, she told me that she hates Peanuts, and it’s the unfunniest comic strip ever. This was not an offhand comment; she was angry and rather suspicious of my (or Santa’s) motives. Henry adores it.

Franzen blaming

Sometime during the Purity publicity blitz of 2015, I added “Franzen apologist” to my Twitter bio. I was tired of defending every out-of-context interview quote and excerpt individually. The only truly snark-worthy event was the “adopting an Iraqi war orphan” thing, which I maintain was just a joke (right?).

So it’s rare for me to directly address Franzen haters, but, it is Franzen in February, and I’ve just come across an instance that’s too good to pass up. It’s not the usual “uh, I’ve never read him but he’s like, gross” hating, either. It’s a clear cut case of Franzen blaming.

Earlier this year, someone took it upon themselves to purchase the URL ciswhitemale.com and redirect it to Franzen’s Facebook page (try it, it still works as of this writing!) which is not the instance I’m here to write about today, but illustrates the phenomenon of Franzen blaming. Think about it, what’s the point of this stunt?

  • That Franzen *is* a cis white male (duh)?
  • That he only writes *about* cis white males (not true)?
  • That he only writes *for* cis white males (…nope)?
  • Or, that he is the poster boy and scapegoat for cis white male bias in the publishing industry (ah ha!)

Today, I direct your attention to “The Unsung Letter”, published by writer Helen McClory, “featuring one new(ish) under-hyped book, sung to the rafters by a different writer/poet/critic/book-pusher every time.” In its second issue, the writer is A.N. Devers and the unsung book is Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai – already on my radar as an overlooked classic, and it’s recently back in print. So far, so good.

Then this:

Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.

Typos aside, we’ve got a classic case of Franzen blaming on our hands, with some DFW blaming for good measure! I double checked my dates when I read “notably published their big books around the same time” because… no they didn’t. The Last Samurai came out in September of 2000. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say DFW specifically was taking up all the room nearly five years later. DFW didn’t publish any books in the year 2000, and his next novel didn’t come out until after his death, in 2011. But sure, he was a well-known writer at the time, and a poster boy for a certain kind of bro-literature.

But Franzen? In September of 2000, he was the author of two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novels: The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He didn’t start taking up cultural space until The Corrections came out in 2001, and the only thing “notable” about its publication date is that 9/11 happened nine days later. A full year after The Last Samurai.

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Franzen reacts.

I dug a bit deeper to see who was taking up literary cultural space in the year 2000 (I was 19 and the main cultural space I inhabited was Rum Jungle at West Edmonton Mall):

  • Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin
  • Michael Ondaatje won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Anil’s Ghost
  • Susan Sontag won the National Book Award
  • Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer
  • JK Rowling dominated the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list.

Not a cis white male* among them.

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Jonathan Who-zen?

Bias towards cis white male authors in literary culture is real. They are reviewed more; they are more likely to be the reviewers. They are longlisted and shortlisted for, and winners of, literary prizes in numbers that far exceed their natural incidence in the population. Did DFW and Franzen benefit from this bias? Surely. Are they specifically to blame for one novel by a cis white woman failing to find an audience, in a year in which neither of them published a book, and in which several women and people of colour enjoyed mainstream and critical literary success? Well.

*I’m not 100% sure about Michael Ondaatje’s ethnicity, and in light of recent events I hate to speculate, but his Wikipedia page says his ancestry is Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil so I’m running with that.

 

When a comfort read is discomforting: Mary Green by Melanie Kerr

My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:

This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.

With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.

It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?

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Photo by Melanie Kerr

Continue reading

Franzen in February 2017

It’s that time of year when Reading in Bed pauses and takes a moment to alternately love, hate, and love-to-hate that great American novelist (it’s okay when it’s not capitalized) Jonathan Franzen.

Last year I debuted this feature and it was so much fun. I was drawing on a couple years’ worth of ideas, though, and at the beginning of 2017, I considered leaving it at that: a one-time thing. Do I have that much more to say? Two years out from his last book, the Fran Man is not in the news much lately, and reacting to his media presence is half the fun. Nor do I have any new conspiracy theories, unfortunately.

But then I kind of forced my hand by writing him a letter and letting him know about the whole Franzen in February thing:

franzenletter

D’ya think he reads his fan mail?

So! Here we are. I have a couple ideas up my sleeve, and I hope a couple of you contribute a guest post or two. If you would like to review one of his books, or write anything at all, loving or not, get in touch in the comments. No sign ups or prizes, just good, clean Franzen fun. Here’s what I’m working on:

  • The start of a”Complete Works” project with a review of Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City
  • A review of Nell Zink’s Nicotine, which pairs nicely with Purity
  • Chip Lambert and Charlie Brown: The Influence of Charles Schultz on the works of Jonathan Franzen (sounds academic, right? It’s just going to be Peanuts comic strips and quotes from The Corrections, don’t worry)
  • Show and tell: my Franzen collection, from ARCs to signed first editions

In the meantime, check out this wonderful Author Spotlight at new-to-me book blog bibliotaphs, or check out the Franzen in February archives.

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On my shelf

 

2017 Reading Plans: Hello, boys

After numerous self-imposed reading restrictions in 2016, I’m leaving 2017 wide open in terms of what and how many books I read. I plan to reintroduce men into my reading life, after a 2016 of #readwomen. I toyed with the idea of reading only men this year, but would rather have some freedom.

I have some projects in mind, of course. This wouldn’t be a book blog without needless complication of the simple act of reading!

  1. Author of the Year – or, The Complete Works of…: Adam at Memento Mori read all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, in order of publication, in 2016 and he’s doing it again this year with Faulkner. Some other Booktube types are taking the challenge with other authors, like Steinbeck. I don’t want to settle on an author just yet; rather, I’m going to read debut novels and embark on the project when the mood strikes. My shortlist includes:
    • Gabriel Garcia Marquez (debut novella The Leaf Storm)
    • David Adams Richards (debut novel The Coming of Winter)
    • Charles Dickens (The Pickwick Papers)
    • Haruki Murkami (Hear the Wind Sing, #1 in the Trilogy of the Rat)
    • Jean Rhys (The Left Bank)
    • Dostoyevski (Poor Folk)
    • Zadie Smith (White Teeth)
    • Jonathan Franzen (The Twenty-Seventh City).
  2. Franzen in February: Speaking of the Fran Man, I do plan to reprise Franzen in February in some manner, and you can help! Get in touch if you want to write a guest post, particularly if you’ve never read Franzen and want to review one of his books. I would love someone to do The Corrections! Last year my Franzen first-timers were not impressed by either Strong Motion or Freedom.
  3. Canada Reads: The longlist is out, the “theme” is announced. Though I’m not sure “the book Canada needs now” is a theme. At the very least, I will watch, and possibly, do a shadow or parallel Canada Reads with WriteReads – check out their latest podcast for details.
  4. Authors in Edmonton: Emily St. John Mandel and Heather O’Neill: Yep, I’m finally going to read Station Eleven, as it’s the 2017 Macewan Book of the Year. Hype be damned. And O’Neill is giving the 2017 Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, which will force me to read more of her work – I’ve been afraid that nothing can surpass Lullabies for Little Criminals.
  5. War and Peace Summer Readalong: No details just yet, but after completing a thousand page readalong last year, naturally I’m going to go for a twelve hundred pager this year. Watch this space.

One thing I didn’t realize til I wrote this all out is that by reading men again, and focusing on debuts, I’ll end up reading a lot of novels by men in their early-to-mid twenties.

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Ew! The semi-autobiographical musings of a 23 year old!

Wish me luck!

(If this is tl;dr you can check me out on Booktube talking about my reading goals here.)

 

 

2016 Year in Review #2: Best books, worst books, and my book of the year

Despite restricting myself to only 35 new-to-me books in 2016, I had trouble narrowing down a top and bottom five. I also set out to document my 35 books on Instagram but kind of failed… I managed to get a few decent pictures though!

Best books of 2016, in order of when they were read:

  • Birdie by Tracey Lindberg: Like nothing I’ve read before. A travesty that it didn’t win Canada Reads, Alberta Reader’s Choice Awards, and wasn’t nominated for many others. If there ever was a book that Canadians need now, and that has literary merit and does something new with the novel. this is it!
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: Yes, we’re all mad at her right now. And this book, about how horrible women and girls are to each other, is perhaps fitting. I went through the strangest emotions while reading this: a mixture of sadness and relief that I’ll never have a daughter.
  • After Claude by Iris Owens: So good I read it twice this year. So funny for the first two thirds that I forgot how devastating the last third is.
  • The Diviners by Margaret Laurence: There are a lot of reasons to love this book. I’ll choose the fact that we witness the heroine lose her virginity in a scene where she is in total control, and she doesn’t 1) instantly orgasm 2) marry the guy 3) pay for it for the rest of the book. Sex positive CanLit circa 1973.
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: Speaking of books that are ahead of their time! All these books are about strong women (but not “strong women”) and Sasha is the strongest and brittlest of them all.

Book #7 and future winner of Canada Reads. This book blew me away. #bookstagram #canadareads2016 #CanLit

A post shared by Laura Frey (@lauratfrey) on

Spring. Also book 11 of 2016, THE DIVINERS by Margaret Laurence. #bookstagram #amreading #readingoutside

A post shared by Laura Frey (@lauratfrey) on

#FridayReads and #FridayWaits to get my dang phone fixed (they're on 39, time for a few pages)

A post shared by Laura Frey (@lauratfrey) on

 

Disappointing books of 2016, in order of when they were read. I don’t have pictures of all these, because, ugh.

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson: Read more like an educational pamphlet than a graphic novel.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: I love an unreliable narrator. In fiction. In memoir, not so much…
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson: I just didn’t get it. Nelson is a writer I think I *should* like but just… don’t. And the fawning over her is just too much. I listened to her on a few podcasts this year and the hosts just grovel, Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy” style.
  • In-Between Days by Teva Harrison: I didn’t connect with the drawing style. When you look forward to the text-only pages in a graphic novel, that’s not good.
  • The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin: If Eat Pray Love was re-imagined as Eat Read Fuck. Which is funny since Crispin wrote a takedown of EPL (and even stranger, a defense of it six years ago.) This was my biggest disappointment. Crispin is an OG book blogger who’s gone on to be a respected literary critic. She is contrarian and sarcastic and smart. But this book swung between too show-offy and obscure and too juvenile (pretending not to know what the solution is to an affair with a married man that won’t leave his wife…) Won’t stop me from pre-ordering Why I Am Not A Feminist, though!

 

And now, the 2016 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:

Continue reading

A #readwomen of one’s own

woman-reading-robert-james-gordon

When you realize the introduction to your novel was written by a man and you’re not sure if that’s #readwomen approved (Woman Reading by Robert James Gordon, late 19th century)

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about my 2016 reading rules– only read books I own for the first three months, only read 35 books total –  but didn’t mention the most significant restriction on my reading: In 2016 I only read books by authors who identify as women*.

In that post I referenced LitHub’s “Reader’s Manifesto“, in which a male literary editor sought head pats for deigning to read (certain, hip) women and minorities. My decision to take on a #readwomen challenge without telling anyone was a direct response to it. Is reading women, or “reading diversely” (i.e. not reading white men) still worthwhile if nobody knows you’re doing it?

I may not have told anyone, but between this blog, YouTube, Instagram, and Litsy, my reading habits aren’t exactly a secret. I wondered, vainly, if anyone would notice. Could I host a month-long Franzen Fest with out actually reading Franzen? Could I do a big, chunky classic readalong and not pick a dead white guy?  Yes. Easily. Turns out, no one really cares what you’re reading (unless they stand to make money off it, probably).

I also wondered if I would react like other #readwomen-ers? Would I have a better year of reading? Would I learn something about myself? Be a more discerning reader? Renew my commitment to feminism? Would I vow to never go back, and read mostly or only women from now on?

I went in cynical. If you read my blog, you know I’m dubious of reading challenges. Reading women, in particular, means subscribing to a gender binary, and assigning genders to authors, which can be dicey. Yes, I included trans and queer authors, but is that enough? Really, it’s more #dontreadmen than #readwomen. That doesn’t sound as good, does it?

So, my conclusion after a year of reading women: it was fine. I read some great books, and some not-great books. I read some new-to-me authors that I’ll never read again, and some that I’ll eventually read in their entirety. I didn’t come to any grand realizations. I’m still a feminist, but still struggle with hashtag #feminism. I still think “reading diversely” is often more about virtue signalling than actual commitment to diversity.

I did notice a few things. They just didn’t have much to do with what I was (or wasn’t) reading.

  1. Maybe it’s not books we should be worried about: Reading women made me notice gender imbalances in other arts and media, particularly music. I have a 25 minute commute, and can flip between four rock radio stations (3 local + CBC) and not hear a single woman’s voice, which I’d never noticed before. The indie music scene is super male dominated, too. My husband joined a band in late 2015, which means I’m going to local shows for the first time in many years. Between dozens of opening acts and battles of the band entries, in 2016 I saw a total of one band with a (single) female musician.
  2. Or at least, not fiction we should be worried about. I delved into some work-related reading this year, and found myself in the business section of my local Coles. If you wanna #readwomen but don’t want to #leanin with Sheryl Sandberg, you’re pretty much out of luck. I’m also into productivity lately (ask me about my #bujo!), and you’d think that since women are so famously into multitasking and having it all, there’d be plenty of #readwomen books to choose from, but you’d be wrong.

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    Coles City Centre, Edmonton, circa September 2016. Spot the single woman in this display of “Essential Business Books”!

  3. Maybe I should worry about myself. It’s easy (and satisfying!) to bitch about how traditional media and publishing is still male dominated, but what about the media that I curate for myself? In 2016 I started listening to podcasts, and really got into Booktube. Of the 21 literary podcasts I’m subscribed to, 11 have at least one woman host, and about three quarters of the literary YouTube channels I subscribe to are hosted by women. Sounds pretty great, right? What you have to realize is that literary podcasts and Booktube, like book blogs, are super female dominated. The fact that I’m not subscribed to 90% women means I’m skewing things. And I don’t have stats on this, but I know that the small fraction of those subscriptions that actually get watched or listened to are even more skewed towards men. Sometimes for superficial reasons – a soothing voice is an absolute must and I cannot abide vocal fry or uptalk, and yes I know it’s problematic for me to say so – but there might be more to it and I’ve not figured it out yet.

Where to go from here? I considered reading men for a year, or, at least the first 35 books of the year, to even things out. I also considered only reading books by people of colour for a year. I don’t think I’ll do either. I was worried that my year of reading women would become a year of reading white women, but it didn’t, so I trust myself to read broadly without making it a numbers game. I’ve got some other plans in mind that have less to do with who the author is and more to do with who I am as a reader. Less “read women” and more “woman reading”, you could say. More on that soon!

*I cheated by reading The Short Story Advent Calendar, which included male authors. It’s a tradition!