At the start of 2014 I set myself a challenge: I would spend the entire year only reading books written by women. I didn’t do this because I wanted to think of myself as lovely and progressive, but because I wanted to address an imbalance in my reading habits. The fact that I considered a year exclusively reading books by women something of a ‘challenge’ probably shines a light on the nature of that imbalance.
I read quite a lot, but when, at the beginning of the year I went through my list of favourite books I got embarrassed: none of them were written by women. And none of my favourite authors were women. I’ve read a fair number of books by women, sure, and I liked many of them. But the vast majority of what I read, and of what I fell in love with, were written by men.
It wasn’t like I’d been actively avoiding books by women, it’s just that they hardly ever ended up on my reading list. If I’d thought about it a few years ago I might have chalked it up to chance, or how more great writers happened to be men, or some vague, poorly-considered distinction between books by men and books by women. I suppose I would have thought that, in general, books by women are often in some central way about being a woman, whereas books by men are generally more concerned with universal qualities.
Over the years I’ve become more and more aware of the ways subtle, unconsidered biases permeate our society. And as a result I’ve become more and more frustrated with the rationalisations above, because they’re obvious, obvious bullshit, and I’ve heard them so many times before.
Broadly speaking, society teaches us that male is the default, and the male view is the default view. If you took a poll pretty much everyone would disagree with the idea of male as the default, of course. But even though nowadays we don’t consciously believe it, the belief still survives in an unconscious form: in the ways we act, and the way we treat men and women differently, often without realising it. This is as noticeable in art as it is anywhere else.
Think about how often books by women, and popular with women are widely criticised as being amateur or poorly written. Sometimes they are, as is the case with Fifty Shades of Grey, but often it feels like they’re a target because of who they come from, and who they’re for, rather than because of any inherent lack of quality.
Think about how we never stop picking apart women musicians. Taylor Swift is fluffy and her music is awful. Lady GaGa is probably a man. Nicki Minaj is too arrogant. Beyoncé is…well, I’m not sure why so many people are perpetually annoyed about Beyoncé but there always seems to be some new reason.
Think about how few women are in movies for a reason other than to support or to fall in love with the male protagonist (and think about how all this works intersectionally. How black male musicians are often subject to similar constant, overbearing criticism. How few people are colour are even in our movies, let alone filling central roles. etc. etc. etc.)
Think about how often people, especially men, dismiss books like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice as ‘books for women’, but literally never make the same complaint about books written by men. Men write about the world; women write about how women see the world. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are about something inherently to do with women, but other classics like Crime and Punishment or Jude the Obscure are about universal qualities of ethics and humanity.
Not everyone believes these things, or takes part in these behaviours,of course, but they’re there. Society privileges men as the default, and women are attacked or dismissed in ways men aren’t. This is especially true for visible, successful women, including those in creative fields. She’s arrogant? So are a thousand other male musicians. Her writing style has issues? Have you read Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, or any of the other sloppy male writers who nevertheless find a place in the literary pantheon of largely straight white men? Pride and Prejudice is just about women? I suppose Cormac McCarthy isn’t writing about masculinity, but rather universal human nature when he writes five hundred pages about emotionally crippled men scalping Native Americans in the deserts of Mexico?
All this is to say in an excessively roundabout way that among other things, the kind of art that we expose ourselves to, and the way we think about it, is partly a result of the way society has conditioned us to think. When we see the male perspective as the default, we start to forget that it’s a perspective just like any other. Male writers may write about universal aspects of humanity, but they do so through the lens of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences as men (and of a thousand other aspects of their personality and experiences). And women writers do the same, only from a different perspective – one that we privilege less; that we often wrongly see as specific rather than general, ancillary rather than central.
Last year I realised how little I’d chosen to expose myself to works by women, and how often I’d chosen to fall back into comfortable defaults. So I decided to make an effort to get out of this cycle, and expose myself to more women writers.
That’s neither a defence nor an individual condemnation of how awful I am. I’m not writing this article to defend myself, or to atone for my literary sins, and I’m certainly not writing it to show everyone how great I am for reading lots of books by women. I don’t feel proud of spending a year only reading women writers; I feel hugely embarrassed that it was even necessary. And I especially feel embarrassed that I initially worried about whether I’d find enough great books to keep me going throughout the year.
I was wrong, obviously. I mean, god, obviously. Not only did I read countless amazing books by amazing women writers, but I feel it changed my outlook on life in a small but important way. Fiction is about exposing yourself to the experiences and the perspectives of others. It allows you to grow as a person by exposing you to new aspects of life you’ve never seen before. Reading fiction written from only one narrow perspective, especially one so close to your own, is hardly going to help you to grow a great deal.
This year I’ve exposed myself to a wider range of perspectives, and I’ve become a little more open as a result. If you think reading books by women will teach you what it’s like to be a woman then you’re being incredibly naive in a dozen different ways. It isn’t about coming to fully understand and incorporate other points of view. But it can teach you something about perspectives – how many there are, how monolithic they aren’t, and how limited and fallible your own one can be. It made me think about the way we privilege some perspectives over others, and how all writers – regardless of gender, race, sexuality, etc. – write about things that are both wholly universal and incredibly specific.
It’s not much, but it’s a start, at least. If nothing else, I added quite a few entries to my list of favourite books, and I now have a long list of books by women writers that I’m excited to read next year.
[Next time, in Part Two – a few paragraphs on some of my favourite books from last year.]