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For anyone under the impression that Oprah's Book Club is the territory of Women's Novels about Women Doing Womanly Things in Very Unmanly Ways, note that previous picks include brutal books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and, yes, even Freedom by former Oprah denier Jonathan Franzen. He's the author who famously expressed reservations when his novel The Corrections was chosen for the book club, saying on NPR's Fresh Air that he worried it would be labeled as a book for women, therefore turning off male readers.
Strayed makes no secret of her dislike for the continued and, as she puts it, "discrete" ways that women and men's stories are vetted and marketed differently by publishers. She's a founding member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization that dedicates itself to making conscious the oftentimes unconscious framing that occurs based on gender. Last year, VIDA released a study titled "The Count" which revealed stark differences in the number of male bylines in national magazines such as The New Yorker, The Boston Review, The Atlantic and even The Nation versus female bylines.
"We kept thinking, 'Well, is it just us, or does it seem like The New Yorker publishes way more men than women?'" says Strayed. "Or, 'Is it just us, or does it seem like books by women are talked about differently in reviews'—somehow made smaller or cuter or whatnot—whereas works by men were taken much more seriously?"
From the start, Strayed was adamant that Wild not be framed in a way that made the story seem smaller or softer than it was. She requested a gender-neutral cover and wanted assurance that the memoir would be marketed to everyone, not just women. Still, among other things, she's had to deal with male radio hosts who've said they read the book and loved it before going on the air, but as soon as the show goes live, do the old fallback and describe it as a book for women. Strayed corrects them, saying, "No, that's not true, I was really trying to tell a universal story. It's not for women; it's for people."
So what can writers do, specifically women writers, to avoid being categorized as less universal, less serious and, ultimately, somehow less important than male writers?
"Be really mindful," Strayed answers, "of not consenting to be small."
"Small" is the absolute last word that could be used to describe Wild, which tells, in gripping detail, the story of Strayed's hike at the age of 26 along the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail that spans from Mexico to Canada. Though she officially set off from the Mojave Desert in 1996, the true journey started four years earlier when Strayed's mother, a nonsmoker and seemingly healthy 45-year-old, died a few weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
"Everything about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath," Strayed writes in the book.
Strayed, now in her early 40s, had a soul connection with her mother, and the death of the woman who had borne poverty, abuse and divorce as best she could, raising her children in an atmosphere of love, hit the 22-year-old Strayed with the impact of a sudden, natural disaster. Strayed details her slip into the wilds of her own fractured consciousness and her compulsion to escape her body, fissured by loss and despair, through meaningless sex with strangers. Eventually, she landed in Portland, where she began using heroin with an aimless gadabout punk-rock boyfriend. Her estranged husband drove seventeen hundred miles out from Minneapolis, brought her home, helped her get cleaned up, and soon after, sent her packing with divorce papers.
By the end of her four-month journey down the Pacific Crest Trail, when Strayed crosses the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River, she's traveled 1,100 miles by foot, lost multiple toenails, survived countless injuries and one encounter with a bear. She's learned how to ford a river, navigate with a compass, read a topographical map and stay alive in the wilds of California and Oregon. And she's managed to come to relative peace with her mother's passing. It might not be redemption—life is still messy and her mother is still dead—but it is a form of acceptance.