This year I will read books by women. I do not say “only”, which implies that my choice of reading material will be somehow limited or insufficient, but rather exclusively. I’m not the first to try this experiment – Maddie Crum and Rachel Perkins both found it enlightening – and I probably won’t be the last. Every novel, every autobiography, every collection of poetry, every play that I read this year will have been written by a woman. Every anthology that I read will have been edited by a woman. Why not do a 50/50 gender split? some among you ask. But – as the more observant among you will have noticed – we don’t live in an equal society. Under a third of our MPs are female, men in full-time work still earn 14% more than women in full-time work, and in Britain a woman dies from male violence every 2.98 days. Even the arts, assumed to be liberal, still have a long way to go.
During my time at school, the curriculum for English was almost entirely male and certainly all white. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was haunted by the cruelties of institutionalised mental health care as exposed by Ken Kesey. I read Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust and marvelled over Evelyn Waugh’s dry take on the English upper-classes as surely as Charles Ryder marvelled over the architecture of the Marchmain family’s ancestral home. I read Brian Friel’s plays and was awakened to the magic of stagecraft, the important role played by language in shaping identity. I read Fergal Keane’s Letter to Daniel, the significance of which was largely wasted on my 14 year-old self. I read Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, over which I fumed and developed an ongoing horror of marriage. And so on. Carol Ann Duffy was the token woman on the English reading list – I suppose ignoring the Poet Laureate would have been pretty hard to justify.
Though I am glad to have read each and every one of these texts, at no point did I see myself reflected in any of them. Every valuable lesson these books taught me was accompanied by the tacit message that ‘male’ and ‘white’ were characteristics key to the production of truly great literature – that the male was standard, an objective interpretation of the world, whereas the female gaze was subjective, and somehow less worthy of serious consideration. When I went on to study Politics & Journalism at undergraduate level, regular all-male lists of required reading only compounded this message.
Fortunately, during my first year of university I started to read much more widely. I began actively pursuing books by women upon realising that I had, perhaps, been undervaluing women’s contributions to literature. As well as providing me with endless hours of enjoyment, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, the Brontë sisters, Jackie Kay, and Daphne DuMaurier also forced me to confront the assumption I had been harbouring about women’s writing – that, secretly, it was the soft option. And Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was like a white, liberal gateway book to harder feminist texts. These women’s insights into human nature taught me just as much about the world, arguably more, than any of the theoretical frameworks covered in my Politics classes. Their writing fascinated me – so much so that it was often a distraction from writing assignments or studying for exams – but, overall, I suspect their books did more for my critical development than that module on Non-Governmental Organisations.
Doubtless someone is getting ready to cry misandry by this point. Don’t you care about male writers? Certainly, I care about male writers. (If Neil Gaiman is reading this: Congrats on the new baby! ILY and we’ll definitely catch up in 2017.) If George R. R. Martin finally drops The Winds of Winter – and that ‘if’ is bigger than Balerion, the Black Dread – it will be the biggest struggle of this personal challenge. Having parted ways with Game of Thrones on account of the gratuitous and non-canon rape scenes, I will simply need to wait until a minute past midnight on the first of January 2017 to find out which (if any…) of my favourite characters are still alive.
Are you saying that male writers aren’t important too? Nobody is saying that male contributions to literature aren’t important. In fact, it is because male voices are often celebrated, studied, and centred to the extent that female voices are marginalised that I am carrying out this experiment.
Why not go on reading female writers and male writers?, you ask. That’s a fair point. I will do exactly that from 2017 onwards. For years of my education, I prioritised books my men under the illusion that this made me a Serious Reader who read Serious Books. Despite having read voraciously from a young age, there were long stretches of time when I would go without reading books by women and not give it a second thought. Female authors are so often dismissed by marketing and critics alike as producing “beach reads” and “chick lit” that it inevitably misshaped my perception of what the term “women’s writing” actually means. So, armed with determination and a borrower’s card for Glasgow Women’s Library, I’m going to challenge myself and my understanding of literature.
Reading women in 2016 is an experiment of sorts. It seems the best way to redress an imbalance, and if it dislodges any gendered misconceptions then so much the better. After all, how can any reader survive on a diet of the trivial?