Recently at The Atlantic, reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany profiled a movement led by women who call themselves “femcels.” These are involuntarily celibate women — distinguished thereby from “incels,” or involuntarily celibate men. But, as Tiffany shows in the article, “femcel" has been adopted by many cheerfully partnered women who simply want to express some form of heterosexual dissatisfaction. “Tumblr users,” she writes, “are adding #femcel to images of antisocial icons like the super-skinny and delusional Natalie Portman in Black Swan, the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, and of course Lana Del Rey, from whom they learned of the joys of cigarettes and cherry schnapps.”
I think this is unfair — not to mention rude. “Incel,” as a term, was a woman’s invention in the first place, meant to describe the situation of both women and men who were “lonely, had never had sex or who hadn't had a relationship in a long time.” Then that word, for obvious reasons, became less enticing to the lovelorn ladies. Now the new one is being taken up by girls with boyfriends. Much like when Kate Bolick, also a reporter for The Atlantic, published a book called Spinster, which focused on five literary figures who were all married, the girls who have everything want this too.
Luckily, the true femcel has resources at her disposal beyond the caprices of internet slang. She has, indeed, a noble if only dimly recognized literary tradition at her disposal. But it is possible that nobody has pointed her in this direction. Introducing — here — the first notes toward a femcel canon.
For the purposes of this list, something is femcel if it involves 1) being a woman 2) who is experiencing romantic and sexual rejection 3) and does not want to be. As we will discuss, there are books for the better-adjusted femcel, about the pleasure of living life on your own terms or whatever. But this list is, primarily, for the brooders. There are of course many other micro-canons which overlap: sad girls, alcoholic girls, crazy girls, and so on. But this list is for the girls who are out there listening to “Somebody To Lay Down Beside Me” on repeat.
Finally: Am I, your guide, a femcel? Not at this time. But I have been in the trenches. I asked somebody out once who flatly told me I was not attractive. I got my first kiss at twenty-seven. I also once asked somebody out on a date who told me that while he respected me he’d murder me if he had to spend any extended amount of time around me. A couple years later he went to go live in a cave near the Russian border. So, as you can see, I’m a woman of taste and discernment.
Barbara Pym is the ne plus ultra of femcel lit. It doesn’t get better than this. When you type “femcel” into a search engine, the government should instantly send you a free copy of Excellent Women, her 1952 comic masterpiece about women who are meant only for “respect and esteem,” but not for love. Mildred Lathbury is one such woman and she runs herself ragged over the course of the novel thanks to being a sensible person upon whom others can rely.
But all Pym novels are recommended to the novice femcel. For those who wish to explore their darker passions, Quartet in Autumn (which explores the plight of the elderly femcel) and The Sweet Dove Died (in which an older woman falls in love with a younger man who jilts her) are particularly recommended. For those who wish to nudge themselves in a healthier direction, Some Tame Gazelle and No Fond Return of Love, which have sweeter and more romantic dispositions, are good choices.
Your dad was right and nobody will ever love you. Nobody! Nobody!
FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S SHORT STORY “GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE”
Men only want one thing and it’s to take your prosthetic leg and strand you in a barn.
CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING
This book is a little tricky because it’s really about being a femcel for your twin sister, but not in an incest way. Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding chronicles unhappy, alcoholic Cassandra, who is stuck attending the wedding of her twin sister, Judith, who, by the simple act of marriage, has betrayed her. “I seldom get praised for the hard things I do,” Cassandra tells us, “and I do some of the hardest things. Things like waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night, all all alone except when I’m with someone; and it’s getting harder and harder for me to be really with anyone. And more or less impossible, on the other hand, not to be frequently with someone.”
According to one twin of my acquaintance this is the only good book about twins, so if you are a twin and a femcel, it is doubly recommended. Get one for you and one for your twin — as a wedding present if you can swing it.
THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE
This is the most upsetting book in the world? The titular Judith spent her whole youth looking after her late abusive mother. She is ugly, a big drag to be around, an alcoholic, and nobody likes her and everybody tolerates her, and it all just goes downhill from there. This is a feel bad classic and you should read it if the dark Pym books are too chipper for you.
But it’s also very beautiful. Take this description of drinking, for instance: “The yellow liquid rolled slowly in the glass, opulent, oily, the key to contentment. She swallowed it, feeling it warm the pit of her stomach, slowly spreading through her body, steadying her hands, filling her with its secret power. Warmed, relaxed, her own and only mistress, she reached for and poured a tumbler full of drink.”
If you are going to break your sobriety and enter a downward spiral that will somehow ruin your life even though that should be impossible because your life sucks so bad already, you might as well be warmed and relaxed about it. Fun femcel fact: Brian Moore, the author of this book, suddenly left his wife of many years for another woman, a fact recorded in the memoirs of his editor, Diana Athill. Which brings us to…
THE MEMOIRS OF DIANA ATHILL
Diana Athill is probably the fudgiest member of this list because she had, in point of fact, lots of sex with lots of men, they just all — apparently — hated her, or something. You can really pick up any Athill memoir to get the gist here, but Instead of a Letter (1963), which records how her fiance ghosted her to marry somebody else and then die in a war is probably the best place to start. You could also read After a Funeral (1986), in which she discovers a diary entry from a man she shares an apartment with (and with whom she sleeps once) that opens “I have started to detest her” and only gets worse from there.
Another great thing about all of Diana Athill’s memoirs is that as they go on, she clearly expects to die any minute, so she’s just putting it all out there. But she lived to be a hundred and one instead. Ain’t that the way.
THIS SPECIFIC SNL SKIT
“You know I feel like I could hang out with you all day and laugh. And then just go see her at night and, like, have a make-out sesh.”
THE POETRY OF RACHEL WETZSTEON
If Philip Larkin was a wry American lady he’d probably seem kind of like Wetzsteon, whose poems are mostly bruised and wary if romantic in their way. “Love and Work” and “After the Bachelorette Brunch” are both arguably small femcel masterpieces, but without the bitterness you might worry will start to characterize your reading materials if you follow this list.
OKAY LOOK: I’M JUST SINGLE, I DON’T HATE MYSELF. WHAT ARE SOME BOOKS FOR ME?
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes is the book for the extra woman who actually doesn’t mind it so much, all things considered. Also recommended are her letters, for various reasons, but partly to track her frequently unhappy relationship with her lover, Valentine Ackland, who had at various moments left Townsend Warner for both the Catholic Church and for other women.
“Here I am,” Townsend Warner, in her late fifties, wrote to one friend, “grey as [a] badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand—except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”
No, I don’t know exactly how to take that either.
FEELS LIKE YOU SLIPPED IN HATING YOURSELF IN THE BACKDOOR THERE.
Well, that’s literature for you.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.