About five years ago I decided on a whim that I should really read more women authors. There was no particular reason for this except for the fact that after making my way through the (almost) complete works of Steinbeck, Orwell, Garcia Marquez, McKewan, Eugenides, Franzen, and many more, the number of women authors I had read since leaving secondary school probably amounted to no more than three or four for pleasure, one course on literature and gender in college and a sprinkling of chick lit for some light escapism.
When I decided to expand my reading beyond the (mostly) dead, heterosexual, white, male literary canon the first thing I realised is that I didn’t even know where to start. There were no women writers that immediately jumped out at me apart from those I had already read. This was my first indication that the world of literature is completely skewed in favour of male writers and women’s writing is largely invisible or trivialised.
Women, such as Austen, Elliot and the Brontés, were among the pioneers of the modern novel. Now all classic authors at the time they wrote they faced ridicule and derision, often publishing under male pseudonyms. Novels were considered dangerous for women’s fragile minds and worse still if the author happened to be a woman. Nevertheless as time went on and the novel gained more prestige as a literary genre it was male voices that began to dominate. Women were consistently relegated to romantic or historical fiction.
One only has to look at the endless lists of the ‘The 100 greatest books to read before you die’ or ‘100 Greatest Novels ever written’ to see how few women actually make it on to those lists, with even less representation from women of colour and perhaps no women from the LGBTQ+ community. The annual book awards are largely dominated by male authors. JK Rowling was advised to only use her initials as her publishers thought that boys would be put off reading a book written by woman. At university you have to study courses such as ‘literature and gender’, or ‘women’s studies’ in order to come in contact with a diversity of women writers, fiction or non fiction. These are ‘specialist’ or ‘minority’ topics, despite the fact the gender does not actually apply solely to women and women do make up more than 50% of the world population.
What started off as an experiment has now lasted five years and I am happy to keep to keep going for the moment as I feel I have only scratched the surface of the wealth and diversity of women’s writers Initially it took quite a lot of effort at the beginning to seek out new authors and not just stick to the most familiar or famous ones. As I continued reading however, one writer would draw me to another, and I began to move beyond the straight forward novel that had always been my go to, and explore more queer literature, literature by women of colour and science fiction.
What I have learned over these five years?
- Women’s voices are marginalised, women’s stories are not considered important or worthy and so women’s experiences are lost to many who would benefit from reading about the world from another point of view that is not that of a white, hetero, cis-gender man (dead or alive).
- The male canon of literature is rife with misogyny, women are written terribly or portrayed as one-dimensional characters, the self-sacrificing mother, the chaste wife or the whore for instance. In fact I think much of my own internalised misogyny has come from reading books which are full of sexual violence and hatred towards women, something I have been trying to disentangle for at least the last five years.
- When men write about the existential crises faced by the average white male it is labelled as ‘literature’ and declared ‘philosophical’ or ‘deep’ or heralded as a ‘universal truth’. When women write about their lives it considered ‘women’s literature’, a niche topic, that is specific to women’s experience and not in fact universal.
- I enjoy reading novels that somehow relate to or reflect my experience living in the world as a woman. It is rare that male authors writing about women are interested in this or achieve this.
- Reading books by women about women has expanded my understanding of what it means to be a woman, the diversity of women’s experiences, feminisms, and the multiple, overlapping and pervasive forms of discrimination faced by women on a daily basis. While it does not mean that I can identify with all of those experiences, I can learn from them and question my place in the world and my privilege.
- Women (particularly feminist) writers frequently challenge our preconceptions of sex and gender, what it means to be a woman, how we form and maintain our relationships, our expectations from romance and what love means and how we practice it.
- Reading books by women about women has helped me connect with and explore my own sexuality. Reading non-patriarchal representations of sex, relationships and love has helped me in realising that I do not have to accept hetero-normative, sexist and romantic standards in my own life. There are literary models and examples on which to construct alternatives.
- Women are strong, creative and have tremendous courage in the face of adversity.
5 novels in 5 Years
I have read many, many women over the last five years but the following five books have been highlights
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) & anything else by Margaret Attwood
The classic feminist dystopian novel that has experienced a recent surge in popularity since the launch of a new Hulu series and the election of Trump with many finding echoes of his administration’s attacks on sexual and reproductive rights in Attwood’s world of Gilead. Much has been written about this lately so I am not going to elaborate but this was the first book I read on my ‘read only women challenge’ and I was hooked from page one. Attwood creates terrifying dystopia set in a not to distant future where women from the USA have become the property of men, are denied the rights to handle money, read or write, participate in public life and are valued for their ability to reproduce alone (sound familiar anyone?). Sex is permitted only in the context of a monthly religious ritual decided by the moon cycles and ovulatory patterns of the few fertile women left in Gilead, who are, incidentally, captives of the state.
Recent critics have rightly pointed out that the world Attwood created in Gilead is almost completely whitewashed, with only one mention of African-Americans (referred to as the children of Ham). At the same time she frequently references to the patterns of sexual oppression as well as forms of resistance that existed during North American slavery. It is perhaps unfair to judge a 1985 novel by todays standards of intersectionality, but bell hooks and Angela Davis had already begun challenging white feminism by then, so it would be equally untrue that black women’s experiences were unknown in 1984. Despite this I feel the book still has considerable merit, not least for Attwood’s captivating and skilled writing. Following on from The Handmaid’s Tale I read about nine more of Attwood’s novels in just one year and by now I have nearly finished her entire body of work, and I would recommend them all, particularly her recent post-apocalyptic trilogy, Maddadam.
Beloved (1987) & anything else by Toni Morrison
I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved at 15, right about the time when the movie starring Oprah came out, and I have to admit at the time I understood very little beyond the raw horror of slavery that Morrison so eloquently depicts in the book. I re-read it at 27 just after started my ‘read only women challenge’ and it blew me away. Based on the true story of a fugitive slave, Margaret Garner, who when threatened with being forcibly returned to her slave-owners plantation, killed her own daughter and tried to kill herself. Anything rather than return to a life of slavery. Beloved tells the story of life after slavery, how a woman who had been through so much horror might go about recovering some semblance of a normal life in the liberated North though the past is never far away from her protagonist.
Through flashbacks, Morrison recounts many of the horrors of faced by enslaved women in America, particularly the physical and sexual brutality that was inflicted on black women, as well as the lengths they went to and the risks they took to protect themselves and their children and to make a break for freedom. It is, to date, the most moving and raw work on slavery that I have read in any genre. Jenn Jackson captures Beloved’s power and beauty better than I ever could in her recent review for Bitch Media. I have steadily made my way through most of Morrison’s body of work and would unreservedly recommend all her novels!
Fledgling (2005), Octavia E. Butler
The first novel I have ever read by Butler turns the vampire genre on its head while addressing questions of race, sexuality, love, relationships and authority. Butler does retain some of the classic vampire themes, they sleep through the day, live hundreds of years and drink blood (without actually killing the humans). She also creates a whole new range of possibilities for the vampire novel and, in turn, our world. She imagines a world in which vampires are black (because they are more resistant to the sun, obviously), where they live in symbiosis with regular human beings, are bisexual, practice polyamory, live in rainbow families and where clan organisation is matrilineal. Butler achieves all this at the same time as creating compelling characters, beautiful prose and page turning suspense.
Her real innovation, however, is in envisioning the possibility of a world in which black skin is both valued and desired. In her world it is possible to live harmoniously within polyamorous pansexual relationships/rainbow families. The humans in the novel initially have to work hard on changing their perceptions of love, relationships and kin, and overcome their feelings of jealousies and their need to possess, in order to embrace another kind of freedom that the world of vampires offers them: freedom from the patriarchy and from mundane human concerns. Fledgling is the perfect antidote to the classist, racist and patriarchal, undertones of the likes of Twilight, the current bestseller of the vampire genre.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ursula Le Guin
In reading only women I have also begun reading far more science fiction than ever before, because so many women writers produce amazing science fiction. The undisputed Queen of feminist science fiction is Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps the most famous of her many books and the only one I have read so far. While I have to admit that my eyes glazed over many times throughout the detailed descriptions of the politics and intrigues of the world of Winter, there was enough of interest in her narrative to keep me reading, principally, the fact that Winter is inhabited exclusively by intersex people.
Le Guin creates a world in which to be defined as a man or woman is unheard of, everyone is intersex and their bodies are capable of adopting more feminine or masculine characteristics depending on their sexual activity. Their society is organised around sex: for three or four days of every month all other activities are halted so that people who have reached puberty can engage in sexual activity with one or multiple partners without restriction. Everyone has the potential to become pregnant, therefore society is also organised so that those who we would call ‘mothers’ are not prejudiced or disadvantaged during pregnancy, birth or the first few years of the child’s life. As far back as 1969 Le Guin had painted a rather enticing picture of what it might be like to live in a genderless world.
Written on the Body, Jeannette Winterson
This is the first and only book I have so far read by Jeannette Winterson who is most known for her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The narrator, whose name nor gender identification we never know tells the story of their relationship with Louise, how they met, fell head over heels for each other and how they negotiate the process of Louise leaving her marriage and surviving cancer. Winterson’s writing is beautiful and erotic. She challenges established notions of romance and how relationships can but often don’t work out. The reader is left deeply moved by the ups and downs of the central relationship and particularly the narrator’s difficulties in coming to terms with the fact that the woman they love may die prematurely.
Resources for Finding Women Writers
One of the particularities of reading women is that their books are not always that easy to find in a standard bookstore. There are few feminist oriented bookstore in the world like Bluestockings in NYC or Word Power in Edinburgh and often mainstream bookstores don’t even have a section on feminism.
Bitch Media has a great section on literary criticism and book reviews.
Feministing have regular book reviews which are a great way to keep up with new publications and revisit feminist classics.
Who are your favourite women writers? Why do you like them? Which of their novels would you recommend?