It’s time to read with women, by women, about women. And this is the year to do it.
By CLAIRE WRIGHT
When we waved goodbye to 2014, we also farewelled one of my favourite initiatives – The Year of Reading Women.
After reading Joanna Russ’ 1983 book How to Suppress Women’s Writing in December 2012, author Lilit Marcus decided to dedicate herself to an all-female reading list as a way of advocating for women’s writing. What began as a personal resolution in the year 2013 became a well-publicised and widespread movement in 2014.
This is something I greatly admire – and have been actively engaged with since reading Carol Shields’ brilliant novel Unless in 2003 and being immediately annoyed that, despite having a degree in English Literature from an excellent university, I’d never encountered Shields’ work before.
My university reading list, much like my high-school reading list, was comprised of predominantly male authors. For the last 10 years I have been reading books by women authors, with the occasional male author thrown in, but my reading list is unashamedly female.
Like Marcus, I found that reading women did not make me feel limited in any way. Marcus writes:
There was one happy benefit of my all-female reading list: it felt completely, utterly ordinary. I don’t feel like I was missing anything. I didn’t feel deprived.
After her article was published online, Marcus’s personal resolution was picked up and promoted by a number of authors and critics, many of them men, and 2014 became known as the year for reading women.
Of course, this initiative was not without its detractors. As Marcus wrote later:
One Flavorwire commenter dismissed the significance of focusing on female authors and announced that he would only be reading books by authors who were tall.
Marcus was labelled as sexist and a misandrist. It is troubling that a woman who publicises the fact that she is reading predominantly female authors as a means of advocating for women writers should be treated this way. Famous men who show this same gender bias are not.
Take, for example, a list recently published on Brain Pickings website, grandly labelled Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read as chosen by astrophysicist and science commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson. This list fails to include even one female author.
On its own this wouldn’t be worthy of comment, but it comes in a rash of book-lists; the best books of 2014, the best of 2015, the books that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Carl Sagan, Leo Tosltoy recommend, all published at this time of the year and all of them, to borrow a phrase from Carol Shields’ novel Unless, forming “a testicular hit-list of literary big cats”.
These lists have two serious ramifications. Firstly, the increased attention on men’s novels mean that the work of male writers typically sells more and therefore becomes more attractive to publishers. Secondly, work by male writers is judged to be more significant and becomes an unconscious yardstick of “good” or “important” literature. If we keep ignoring women’s work, then how likely is this to change?