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Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Lady-Lacking Reading List

As I was perusing the New York Times book reviews this weekend (yes, the section whose cover features a review by Woody Allen), I happened upon an interview with French-Jewish writer and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. As someone with an above-average interest in French and Jewish (I’ve got a doctorate in just that topic, and have subjected undergrads to my thoughts about the Dreyfus Affair), and long familiar with BHL in particular, I dove in. And I tried to focus, really I did, but I got distracted. In the print edition, I counted 11 writers named (not including BHL himself, who also gets a friendly shout-out) and… all dudes. Some but oh, not all, from eras where uniform dude-ness might be expected. In cases where the name was ambiguous and not one I was familiar with, I Googled to check and… yup. Dudes. The extended online version of this interview does mention one woman writer: Lévy’s daughter. As far as I can tell, only one other writer also noticed this.


I get it. I get that call-outs of otherwise reasonable (or reasonable-ish) thinkers for likely unconscious missteps are, if not What Caused Trump, a distraction from the big issues like, well, Trump. I also don’t see much to be gained by shaming BHL, who after all said what popped into his mind, and is not necessarily any more ill-intentioned in his omission of women writers than I was when, assembling lists for my grad school exams, it took professors pointing this out for me to include more female authors, despite being a woman and a feminist. The problem isn’t BHL personally.

And yet, much as I wanted to focus on the content of the interview, the tremendous list of dudes distracted me. Especially when I got to this bit:

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The inducement of a feeling, a shiver, a way of viewing or assessing the world of which I had previously been wholly unaware. That is the sole attraction of literature for me: to add something to the world and to my idea of it; to explore other ways of existing.”

Maybe, if you’re a man, this might make you think to… never mind.

What, then, do we do with this? What, if we are not able to resort to a silent ugh, is the takeaway here?

-The oft-discussed hope or theory or whatever it is, that men with ambitions for their daughters will be the road out of sexism, is bunk.

-The interview with Lévy is a sweeping discussion of Greatness. Of literary Genius. And a big part of sexism, impacting even the women who Have It All TM, is the (generally implicit) belief that Greatness is a trait that can only be possessed by men.

-Before full-on scrapping “elite” feminism, let’s consider instead fixing it. That is, let’s address systemic injustices, such as the racism and classism in who gets to be “elite”, and a society with a wealth distribution that means only “elites” have a decent standard of living. Let’s have a feminism that doesn’t restrict itself to glass-ceiling concerns. But let’s accept that even in a perfectly just society, there will be leaders, great artists, Greatness. And let’s not let men (or women!) go on thinking maleness is a prerequisite for noteworthy achievement.

-Read Elena Ferrante. The third Neapolitan novel especially.

-Statement-of-fact counting, such as VIDA, works.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.




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