Why I’m Only Reading Books by Women

I’m trying to remember the last time I read a book by a man. Or, for that matter, the last time I watched something that didn’t have a female character in a dominant role. It seems that, perhaps unconsciously at first, I’m moving away from things created by men, or at least things that have a dominant male perspective.

That might seem pretty reductive, to some. Surely only viewing the world through one lens is restrictive, no matter which one you choose? That would be true, if I hadn’t spent an inordinate amount of time limiting myself in the first place. I did a literature degree, so spent many hours poring over the words of the great white dead men, the stultifying literary canon that has been trotted out to undergraduates for far too long, giving us the false impression that these are the only voices worth hearing.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to do the same for my students. The new English Literature GCSE specification gives you an incredibly narrow scope, with three female 19th century novels and two post-19th century writers from other cultures. Everything else is British, male and white. We do out best at Keystage 3 to vary their experience, but it’s uncomfortable, teaching at a hugely diverse school, where children grow up encouraged to see literature and poetry as the property of someone else, an other they can’t relate to. Hardly inspiring for the next generation of writers. 

It’s the same reason I didn’t bother watching Narcos, or anything past the first episode of True Detective. So many crime films, gangster films, edgy thrillers, they don’t give me anything I haven’t seen before. Men dominate the screen, and women are merely victims, decorations or plot points, with the occasional ethnic minority or diverse sexuality character slipping in as a token effort. It’s not the world I live in, it isn’t the kind of woman I am, or want to be, so I’m pretty bored of the world being reduced to that.

 

So I’m listening to some different voices for a while. On leaving University, I travelled to Asia. There, I discovered that there was a plethora of voices, telling their own truths, their own histories, an entire world I hadn’t yet been exposed to. For I while I read exclusively non-Western books, simply to counteract the massive bias I’d experienced up to then. However, I still found one thing to be true – most of these writers were still men.

You could argue that, seeing as I read fiction almost exclusively, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. These are just made up stories, works of imagination, so why does it matter where the person comes from, or what their gender identity or sexuality is?

But, of course, all of these things shift your perspective on the world. Americanah is the fictional tale of a Nigerian immigrant in the US, something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has experienced, and therefore wanted to explore. Many of Margaret Atwood’s books are rooted in her Canadian childhood. Ali Smith’s gorgeous book How to be Both, explores the limits of gender, particularly the constraints of being female, something she can all too easily understand.

Even in the world of speculative fiction or fantasy, a female perspective will have different priorities, other ways of imagining the created world that cannot be experienced fully if we only hear from one section of society.

All too often, ‘women’s fiction’ is a byword for romance novels, or ‘beach reads.’ Books that deal with that strange term ‘women’s issues,’ as if relationships, parenthood or domestic life is purely the realm of feminine experience. Or, for that matter, as if these are the only things that books by women deal with.

Frankly, reading 50% of the population of the world is hardly limiting, especially seeing as, within that, I am making sure my scope covers women of all ethnicities and gender identities.

If literature is a window into the world, then I’ve spent far too long looking at the same view. It’s not unreasonable to want a different outlook, for a while.

Are there any female authors missing from my booklist? Give me a few suggestions in the comments.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

7 thoughts on “Why I’m Only Reading Books by Women

      1. It is. Because before I did it, I thought I was just reading the classics and whatever the people around me were reading. Then I had the realization they were stuck in a pattern. It seems limiting, but I just want to read more broadly, which means cutting out things I’ve already read too much of.

  1. I also had the same feeling that I have been limiting myself for too long. As a result I decided to read a book by at least one author from each and every country in the world starting with African authors. You can checrk out the “Read One Book By An Author From Each Country In The World” challenge here http://buff.ly/2u4Y0gT

  2. Hi Sarah I just read your story on the lack of women authors and dominant female characters in film. I don’t disagree that there not enough, but there are hundreds of women writers that have been praised for their work. Although I’m not a big reader I can name a few; J.K.Rowling, Danielle Steel, Elisabeth Buchan, legend Jane Austin.. and film .. female heroes my favorite Kill Bill with Uma Thurman, Black widow from the Avengers even though not the leading role, Selena from the Underworld series, Zena Warrior Princess… yes I agree we do need more! Great film great books which should be up for the Noble prize! Enjoyed your read and inspiration!

    1. Hello! Great to hear from you, glad you enjoyed it and great to hear your comments. It’s great that such a list trips off the tongue so easily. I definitely think we’re having an upsurge of female talent and I do hope that in years to come it will cease to be a case of ‘balancing’ when it comes to parity for gender and ethnicity, because they are just happening anyway. Buffy was certainly one of my teenage favourites, and I think young women have much more to inspire them in terms of positive female role models. Had a look at your site, going to make some iced tea from your recipe this afternoon, having a rare warm day in London!

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