My bookcase in my bedroom in my childhood home is bursting full of books that have shaped my education and, come to think of it, my entire life to date.
During a recent visit home, I observed that the overwhelming majority of these books — many of which were prescribed texts during my sixth form studies and my literature degree — are authored by men.
However, among those books gathering dust, the most dog-eared, well-thumbed ones were written by women. These books were old friends I’d revisit time and again throughout my teens and twenties. Their authors: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot (AKA Mary Anne Evans), the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Edith Wharton, Maya Angelou, Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, to name a few.
I was hungry for a woman’s voice, for a story that resembled my own life, for pages that read like the inside of my mind.
But, after studying English literature at university, something turned me off reading for many years. The vast majority of books I read during my studies were penned by male authors, and more often than not, they told stories about male characters. I was hungry for a woman’s voice, for a story that resembled my own life, for pages that read like the inside of my mind. But, my university studies didn’t provide the nourishment I so desperately craved. Fast forward a few years and I had pretty much stopped reading altogether. “You don’t read,” my best friend said to me last year. How had I, a former bookworm, become so far removed from something that defined the first 20 years of my life? I didn’t know how to rekindle my romance with reading.
But, something happened earlier this year that changed everything for me. During a lunch break in early March, I wandered over to a pop-up bookshop called Like A Woman in east London which was only stocking titles penned by women. The shop was set up by publishing house Penguin Books to coincide with International Women’s Day — but it was during an interview with its creator that I realised that this wasn’t just yet another stunt by a brand. Zainab Juma, creative manager at Penguin and the creator of the bookshop, told me that female authors account for a huge swath of literary fiction’s commercial success, but they’re grossly undervalued when it comes to awards. “The majority of the bestsellers on the literary fiction list last year were written by women, but out of the 114 Nobel Prize laureates, there have only been 14 women. Fourteen out of 114, that’s bonkers,” Juma told me. “Women make an awful lot of contribution without necessarily the recognition that goes with it.”
Prizes aside, research has found that books by male authors are more likely to be reviewed by critics at esteemed literary publications like the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. British-American novelist Nicola Griffith analysed 15 years of literary fiction awards including the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, among others, to look at the gender breakdown of winners. The results showed that between 2000 and 2015 “not a single book-length work from a woman’s perspective or about a woman was considered worthy” of a Pulitzer Prize. “Even when women win prizes, it is generally for novels about men,” Griffith told me over email. “So do we see much progress in terms of more novels about women winning prestigious literary prizes? Perhaps a little, but not much. Not nearly enough.”
Incidentally, women also account for two thirds of those buying novels in Britain, but male authors and narratives still dominate literary criticism. So, who’s responsible for the cultural devaluing of women in publishing — an industry where women dominated the bestsellers list in 2017. Griffith believes that gender bias in education is to blame.
“If I had to point at a single culprit, I’d say education. That is, the standardisation of syllabi, and therefore canon/s,” says Griffith. “If we grow up reading and being examined on books by and about men, and if we watch film and TV by and about men, how can we avoid internalising the understanding that women are less interesting and prize-worthy than men?”
“How can we avoid internalising the understanding that women are less interesting and prize-worthy than men?”
“Prize jurors are people, products of our culture. Women and men on prize juries often genuinely believe they are choosing the objectively best book. The problem is that we all grow up being taught that ‘best’ = male,” she adds.
In 2017, a mere 30 percent of set texts prescribed by GCSE specifications are books written by women. These shocking statistics have sparked petitions and campaigns for more female representation in school syllabi — curricula which inevitably shape students’ perceptions of what is considered the very best literature.
We, as readers and writers, are not necessarily in control of what educators choose to include in syllabi, but there are some things that we can do to affect change. “What *readers* can do is easy: buy books about women, read them, and talk about them,” says Griffith.
Griffith wrote a response to the 1983 book by Joanna Russ How to Suppress Women’s Writing outlining what we as readers can do to make women’s writing more visible and more culturally appreciated. “The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do to improve the visibility of books by and about women, and to secure that visibility for the future, is talk about them whenever we talk about books,” writes Griffith. “And if we honestly can’t think of books by and about women ‘good enough’ to match those about men then we should wonder aloud (or in print) why that is so.”
After visiting that book shop the day before International Women’s Day, I made a pledge of my own. For the next year I would only read books by women, about women. There began a journey of rediscovery of my love of reading, of returning to the thing I used to love more than anything else. Of course, I’m not advocating feminist separatism here or permanently entering into another echo chamber. For me, this is more about redressing a historic imbalance in the books I’ve been taught to value since my education began. It’s a recalibration.
Since making that decision, I’ve read so many books that made me want to shout about them from the rooftops.
The first book I read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year following the author’s sudden death and a touching reflection on the reality of grieving for a loved one. Next up was Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton, a beautifully relatable memoir about navigating relationships in one’s twenties. Continuing in my theme of devouring books of essays, I read Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley, who’s one of my absolute favourite writers.
Next up was Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay, a necessary text to emerge in the post-#MeToo landscape. Then I read The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, a book that was infused with so much raw emotion I found myself welling up on the Tube. On holiday in France I read The Pisces, which was a fast and fun summer read (who doesn’t love a bit of merman erotica?). As I fell back in love with reading, I noticed that I no longer viewed reading as a chore, as something I didn’t have time for. I now read whenever and wherever I — in bars, on public transport, in bed, in the breakout space at work.
I milled through Florida and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and loved it so much I instantly bought her previous book, Eileen. I read Heartburn by Nora Ephron and adored every page.
Then I read What a Time to Be Alone by Chidera Eggerue, She Must Be Mad by Charly Cox, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. The next book was perhaps my favourite one I’ve read in years. A book that felt like I was reading my life on a page, my innermost thoughts spelled out in letters — Normal People by Sally Rooney. Not for a long time have I read such realistic renderings of the intricacies of human emotions and relationships. I followed that immediately with Rooney’s brilliant debut novel Conversations With Friends.
As summer turned to autumn I sped-read Crudo by Olivia Laing, then moved to the dark The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. The latter book of essays was a beautifully written rumination on what it means to be a writer and a woman. I’m now reading Putney by Sofka Zinovieff and am finding it gripping and disturbing in equal measure.
I’m not alone in my mission to read only women writers this year. Some are choosing to read books by women of colour. Jalisa Whitley, founder of equality organisation Unbound Impact, told me she decided to only read books by women of colour this year “because we’re often not discussed in the ‘must read’ books lists.”
“I wanted to widen my frame of reference and expose myself to different types of stories that centre the experiences of women in ways that are layered.”
“Looking at my own Goodreads list I realised how male-dominated it was and wondered how that framed the way I saw the world,” she says. “I wanted to widen my frame of reference and expose myself to different types of stories that centre the experiences of women in ways that are layered, complicated, and represent the many ways we show up in the world including but not limited to our roles as wives, mothers, and love interests.”
Whitley says she reached out to people on Twitter for ideas of what to read and she ended up getting hundreds of book recommendations. “I could literally just read women of colour for the next five years,” she says. “I’ve been exposed to AMAZING books including: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan Cullors, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet, An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, In the Country by Mia Alvar and so many more.” She says that in this political moment these books have afforded her “community” and “comfort” as well as making her laugh, cry, and “re-energised for the resistance.”
I, too, share this feeling of re-energisation. I will forever be grateful that I chose to go on a walk that lunchtime in March. And I’m glad that I got to meet Zainab Juma, whose insights prompted me to question the types of books society tells us are more worthy of our attention.
Ultimately, this has been, and continues to be, a lesson in exercising choice over the pages I put in front of my face. What we’re told to read by our teachers, professors, literary critics, and even our friends are not necessarily definitively the best. If we amplify the voices of women writers through reading them, sharing them on social media, and recommending them to people in our lives, we remind readers that women’s writing is essential.