An earlier book of conversations on this subject was called What We Should Have Known. It existed to give some guidance to college students—or roughly college-aged people—on what to read. The participants, all writers and editors close to n+1 magazine, were asked: What books are worth reading? What did you read too late, or too soon? What changed your life?
The book turned out to be full of regrets. The speakers regretted their majors, what they read, what they didn’t read. I read the book when I was still in college, and even I developed regrets after reading it. Here was an incredible list of books I’d never heard of, books I could have been reading instead of the ones I’d been assigned. I had already wasted two years reading the wrong things! This was the irony of the project. What We Should Have Known chronicled other people’s regrets so that I might have none. And yet, as the book acknowledged, this made no sense. No sane young person is capable of learning without error or regret. The idea that anyone could become herself more quickly, or less painfully, by not making the necessary mistakes, was a perfectionist’s fantasy. Maybe for this reason, the parts of the book I liked best were those that rejected regret out of hand. “Why should we regret anything?” Marco Roth asked in the second panel. “You make mistakes, you’re supposed to be allowed to make mistakes. . . . Why did [Proust] spend so much time with the Guermantes? Why did he hang out with the anti-Dreyfusard snobs? In order to become Proust.”
Since n+1 published What We Should Have Known in 2007, the community surrounding it has expanded. Six years isn’t a long time, but it is long enough for the cast of characters around a small magazine to change, and this seemed reason enough to repeat the experiment of What We Should Have Known. When the time came, I decided to include only women. I had several reasons, none of them entirely satisfying. One was that I already knew what the men in my life had read. The women, by contrast, were harder to shake down for lists of influences, and I suspected their lists would be different. Another was that the word should has a special place in the lives of women, as it’s been a tool of their subjection through social strictures (“women should be X”) and their emancipation through feminism (“women should reject the authority of anyone who says they should be X, or Y, or Z, or anything else”). Should, in other words, gives us both The Rules and the injunction to break them. I wanted to know how these pressures on women as women did or didn’t intersect with their lives as readers, writers, artists, and thinkers; how the shoulds that stalk women through life influenced the should of what we should have known. Finally, I knew that women speak to one another differently in rooms without men. Not better, not more honestly, not more or less intelligently—just differently, and in a way one doesn’t see portrayed as often as one might like.
The challenge posed by a book containing only women was well put by Susan Sontag (a figure surprisingly absent from the conversations that follow) in her introduction to Annie Leibovitz’s monograph Women. “A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women—there is no equivalent ‘question of men,’” she wrote. “Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress. . . . No book of photographs of men would be interrogated in the same way.” Similarly, no book of conversations featuring only women will skate by without answering for itself in advance. That women are a “work in progress” means something different to this book than I think it did to Sontag, and perhaps more literal—No Regrets is, straightforwardly, a book of women talking about the processes of becoming themselves. But I take Sontag’s point to heart. It might be unfortunate that these conversations make a statement even before they begin to speak. On the other hand, if they must make a statement—an argument for more casual depictions of smart, interesting women; a refusal to represent smart women in a way that marks them out as supposed “exceptions” to women universally; a call for more written records of conversations between women that capture everything that’s unique to them, and everything that’s not—those are statements I’m happy for us to make.