My Year of Reading Women
Written by Jess Downs, Copywriter for GeekGirlCon
It’s a truism among those of my friends who use OkCupid that if a guy fills up his “Favorites” section with Important Male Authors and Classic Dude Rock, it’s a red flag. You’ll probably spend the first date listening to his Deep Thoughts, and if he doesn’t bail when he hears you have every Tori Amos album, it’s probably only so that he can show you the error of your ways.
Similarly, when magazines and websites publish lists of “100 books to read before you die,” they’re overwhelmingly male. (And white, but that’s a topic that deserves its own post. Typically, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison are allowed into the hallowed halls, so the list-makers can say they did their due diligence.)
Let’s have a quick overview, shall we? (I did the counts here by eye, so I may have missed one or two, but they’re generally accurate.)
- Modern Library’s 100 Best Books clocks in at 91% male for the board’s list, and 87% male for the readers’ list (seemingly because their readers have an objectivist streak, and filled the top 10 with Ayn Rand).
- Amazon’s 100 Books To Read in a Lifetime: 69% male, and you get the sense that they made a concerted effort to diversify their list.
- The Guardian’s top 100 books of all time 89% male.
- Time’s All-Time 100 Novels: 80% male.
…You get the picture.
This is a strange turn of events, when you think about it. The first novel ever written was penned by a Japanese woman in 1010. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, women kept alive the novel as a medium, while it was written off as trivial by male intellectuals. Nowadays, genres dominated by female writers are less respected–just look at the common reactions to young adult, romance (on the subject of which we had a panel at GeekGirlCon ‘13 called “Romance is a Feminist Genre”), and urban fantasy. And as that last example indicates, even within science fiction and fantasy the women-heavy subgenres are less well regarded than, for instance, hard sci-fi (which has a scientific or technological rather than social focus).
All this is well-trodden ground; Joanna Russ’ book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing was written in 1983, and sadly much of it remains relevant.
It used to be that I kept a running “to-read” list of things I’d seen mentioned, things friends had recommended, other books by authors I’d enjoyed, and so on. A few years ago, it occurred to me that almost all of these books were from a male perspective–if not from the point-of-view characters, then certainly from the author. I realized that if I just kept reading things that the ambient culture recommended, I could go months without reading a single book authored by a woman. I’m sure this was made worse by the fact that my go-to genres–sci-fi and fantasy, and classic lit–are among the most male-dominated.
I set out to rebalance this situation. I was already running a massive deficit of female authors, so I resolved that for one year, I would not read any books by men.
At first, it took some effort. It wasn’t enough just to pick up the next in the series I’d been reading, or idly browse book lists. Recommendation algorithms on sites like Amazon were skewed by what I’d previously been buying.
Another thing I had to work on was getting over some of my own internalized misogyny that told me certain female-centric fiction was “chick-lit” or “trashy” or somehow not worthwhile reading. Not reading that would improve my mind, as if that’s the only or even main objective of picking up a book.
Some of the stuff I read that year did indeed come under the category of serious or important literature. I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, and Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. Both are memoirs by women living under incredibly oppressive circumstances, about the compromises they had to make–and refused to make–as a result. Both describe the specific horrors inflicted on women over and above the general ones; the sexual abuse and rape that enslaved women faced in the antebellum American south, and the massively curtailed freedoms of women in 1980s-1990s Iran.
I finally got around to some of the classics I’d been meaning to read, like The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, Orlando: A Biography, by Virginia Woolf, and Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Again, these novels have interesting things to say about gender, mostly quietly depicted in the characters’ behavior and choices. The Age of Innocence shows the disparate fears that a man and a woman have about their societally-unapproved romance being revealed. Middlemarch features a number of female characters, most notably Dorothea Brooke, who can’t pursue their own dreams, but try to achieve second-hand satisfaction through their husbands. Orlando is a more pointed exploration of gender, being a magical-realist novel in which the seemingly immortal main character inexplicably changes gender mid-way through the book.
It wasn’t all serious business, though. That was the year I got around to reading The Hunger Games. I devoured several more books by one of my favorite authors, Cherie Priest (of whom I have a cherished memory of meeting at the first GeekGirlCon in 2011). She has a fantastic steampunk series, an urban fantasy series, and a southern gothic/horror series–and I’d be hard-pressed to choose which is my favorite.
I also read the first three books of Gail Carriger’s immensely enjoyable Parasol Protectorate series, which is a sort-of-steampunk paranormal romance.
All in all, it was a very entertaining, enlightening year of reading.
What became of my experiment?
Well, I enjoyed it so much that I rolled it over into a second year. There were so many interesting voices that I didn’t want to stop. In the third year, realizing that what I really wanted was to avoid the endless stream of midlife crisis novels by well-off white men that make up most of what’s considered Serious Literature, I relaxed my restrictions so I could read some books by men of color.
These days, I don’t have any rules about who and what I won’t read, but doing this experiment certainly opened up my eyes, made me more aware of what I’m choosing. When I read a book from which women’s perspectives are completely absent, it feels wrong. Sometimes, I just put it down altogether. Don’t get me wrong; some of those Serious Literature books are genuinely great, and I’ve gotten a lot out of them. It’s just telling that women are missing from so many of them, except as objects of the male characters’ (usually thwarted) desire. I already knew this intellectually, but it took a fairly drastic conscious experiment to get my instincts calibrated with that.
Image source: Mycassandra