Above: The first book of my year reading only women authors.
As I said at the beginning of my challenge, I tend to read women writers in equal measure to male writers. Using Goodreads to measure, I found that I tended to be split down the middle with my reading the three years previous to my challenge (almost exactly 50/50, if not a little more towards women writers).
I undertook this challenge not to push myself totally outside my comfort zone, but to be more conscious about my reading. I wanted to see if I could meet a challenge that limited the books that were available to me and see if I could help dispel some of the myths about female writers.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to change the way people view women who write, but I have a new appreciation for the women who have come before me and for the struggles facing underrepresented authors like women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
We’ve come a long way from a view of women writers that prompted Gilbert and Sullivan to denounce lady novelists as some of society’s worst scourges (but the issues with sensitivity in The Mikado certainly do not end or even begin there). However, the idea of women writing for women is still regarded as not serious–and called chick lit.
But this post is less about the state of publishing and more of a discussion of what I learned in 2015 from reading women writers. So let’s jump in.
The most difficult part about this challenge was thinking ahead. No longer could I pick up any old book in the library. I had to put things on hold much more (though this is true of the Boise libraries anyway. Their collection is spread out throughout their branches). I had to check on an author’s bio, especially for authors with names that didn’t immediately proclaim their gender.
I made a lot of new discoveries. I found Kelly Link, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, Isabel Allende, Ursula K. LeGuin and many more. It may be safe to say that I would have found these writers at some point, but I’m glad I didn’t have to wait. I branched out more into YA than I have in years. I read less poetry than I wanted, but discovered new poets and delved into Sylvia Plath’s work fully for the first time. I read more short stories than I have since being forced to read many in my writing classes in college. I read across genres, discovered all kinds of interesting protagonists, and fell in love with books all over again.
Some fun stats (I read 75 books, so that’s what percentages are based on, unless noted):
- 25.33% nonfiction, 72%fiction, 1.33% graphic novels, 1.33% poetry
- of nonfiction: 42% memoir, 37% biography, 21% other nonfiction
- of fiction: 22% male protagonist, 59% female protagonist, 19% mult. protagonists, both genders
- of fiction: 4% mystery, 6% classic (much lower than usual), 9% short stories (higher than usual), 11% YA, 13% Sci-Fi/Fantasy, 20% historical fiction, 37% literary fiction
In short, it wasn’t that different from any other year reading. Except that being more conscious about the writer let me think about the relationship between the writer and the text. Does gender color a person’s work? Personally, I’m not sure. A writer’s experiences and interests certainly have the potential to color their work, but writers can also write about things they’ve never experienced with skill and insight. Gender might color things, but so does economics, education, hobbies, age, ethnicity, ancestry, and religion. Women write deep, provocative portrayals of both male and female characters. They write about war and human nature, death and tragedy, work and play–in short they are writers. They write about what interests them and what upsets them, what holds them back and sets them free.
When there were differences, I mainly found them in nonfiction. Obviously if I was reading memoir or autobiography the focus was on women or a woman. And many scholarly nonfiction writers I read were focused on the biographies of women or subjects that were associated with feminism or women’s rights. This might have been more a result of my own biases in choosing reading material than anything. But it also makes sense that women might focus more closely on female subjects given that many of them have been ignored or downplayed in the past.
There were also far fewer classics available to me, especially those that I had not already read. Normally I read at least a good-sized handful of classics a year, so 3 is way lower than normal, prompting me to think about how it’s only fairly recently that so many women writers are published with their male contemporaries.
So while I may not have had a reading epiphany last year, narrowing my reading focus helped me think about the way I read and the way I want to write. It showed me that as a writer, one that will hopefully be published one day, I’m in very good company.
Did you make any reading discoveries last year? Let me know in the comments!