I made a pledge to myself that for one year I would only read books by women. I did this after realising that the vast majority of books on my (overstuffed) bookshelves are by men. It shocked me, that despite my feminist credentials, my shelves were still packed full of male authors. I like to consider myself well read but I realised I couldn’t name female equivalents of Dostoevsky, Orwell or Steinbeck (my favourite authors). I just didn’t have a library chock a block full of amazing female writers and I felt the need to right this with a year of literary exploration in to women’s writing.
A quick search on where to begin told me that I wasn’t the only one to have ever had this brilliant idea (I know, shocker) and there’s even a literary magazine called Women Writers, Women’s Books that was set up in 2011 specifically to encourage and promote the visibility of women writers.
Women read more than men and actually, looking at the top 50 lists for fiction on Amazon and Waterstones in mid July, they are more popular writers than men: Amazon: 32 women and 18 men; Waterstones: 34 women and 16 men (12/07/17). So why, then do I, and so many others, feel that we need to actively make a concerted effort to read books by women? Well, still when I walk in to a bookshop, it feels as if the vast majority of books I see prominently displayed are by men. When I look over the list of suggested texts for GCSE English Literature, the numbers are still skewed in favour of male authors/playwrights and, although it is improving, males still seem to dominate the pages of journals known to further a writing career (VIDA Women in Literary Arts).
One acquaintance who similarly decided to have a year’s break from reading male authored books actually lost a friend on facebook, so offended was he by her choice to undertake such a personal challenge. Personally, I can’t see why it might be offensive or challenging to men but clearly this chap felt threatened. Perhaps he feared that if women go wild and start deliberately reading books by incredible female authors, the game would be up and we’d suddenly realise that men aren’t the only talented writers. Who knows where that would end.
So, how did my year go? Well, let’s just say I paid less attention to my kids than I might have had I not set myself a reading challenge! Actually, I discovered some phenomenal books, books that I’d probably never have read had I not embarked on my quest. I also read authors I’d always meant to read but had never got around to, such as Roxanne Gay and Audre Lorde. I read authors recommended by friends including Robin Hobb, Tove Jansson and Shirley Jackson and I spent hours chatting to the incredibly knowledgeable people working in bookshops to get their recommendations too. They gave me Elena Ferrante, Ruth Ozeki and Marilynne Robinson. What gifts!
Everyone I told about my plan was supportive and enthusiastic, many asking for my own recommendations from the eclectic list I was collecting. My year felt like one delicious meander through worlds I might never have discovered had I not taken time to stop and really consider my reading habits. I read some obviously feminist tracts such as Catlin Moran’s Moranifesto, Catherine Mayer’s Attack of the Fifty Foot Women, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Bee Rowlatt’s In Search of Mary but I also read books that just happened to be written by women, they weren’t necessarily about a woman’s lot or women’s “issues” but were books about amazing worlds or ideas that needed to be written and needed to be read.
I don’t think I realised how much I craved something like this. I understand now that I was fed up with seeing the world through male eyes. So much of life is dictated by white males, I wanted to see something different, maybe gentler, something that might be closer to my own experiences or understanding. I needed to see how other women, those more eloquent than I, view the world. What I found in some of the literature I chose was a slower, calmer, less violent world . I felt myself calm down in my reading, I savoured language, let phrases and sentences roll around my mind and revelled in them.
Of course, there are incredibly talented men out there too, writing wonderful, delicious prose but I was reading deliberately here, looking for something different, probably deliberately choosing gentler books.
I feel so much richer for having spent a year thus. I have returned now to a less prescriptive reading world but I am more aware of the need to maintain a balance and to continue reading the world through female eyes. This year has also opened my eyes to intersectionality within literature: I’m aware that Roxanne Gay, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde aren’t exactly writing softer texts, and that there’s a whole new year of reading books by BAME women for me to consider.
Ten Best reads (no particular order)
- Station 11 Emily St. John Mandel
- Home Marilynne Robinson
- My Year of Meats Ruth Ozeki
- Goldfinch Donna Tartt
- A Little Life Hanya Yanagihara
- My Brilliant Friend Elena Ferrante
- In Search of Mary Bee Rowlatt
- He, She and It Marge Piercy
- The Fitz books Robin Hobb
- The Summer Book Tove Jansson