Could I Read Books Only By Women For A Year?

This is the question that I have been asking myself on and off all week as the book world is all a chatter about the lack of equality, which also equates to the lack of diversity in both the reading industry and it seems the habits of the reading public. Questions around women have been high on the agenda with a report that novels with female protagonists or narrators being less likely to win an award, then Kamila Shamsie wrote a provocation asking publishers to only publish women for a year and then today one publisher, And Other Stories, saying that they were indeed going to do just that in 2018. Let’s all catch our breath for a second and calm down…

My initial reaction to all of this was ‘well do you know what; I will read only female authors for the next year’. But that is just reactionary and equality is about more than just reacting on the spot. For equality to work we need all those parties/genders/minorities involved to make things equal. I know that sounds obvious and makes it all sound so easy, yet at the heart of it that is the truth. We all have to take responsibility in enabling equality with our own habits first, yet sometimes we don’t even realise what our habits are.

Let me be really honest. When I read a book, be it for work or pleasure, I just want to be lost in a bloody brilliant book. Call me naive but I don’t tend to think about the gender, age, colour or sexuality of the author. I honestly don’t think many general readers do either. I think I read more women than I do men by a mile, at the end of the year it tends to almost be 50/50 which always surprises me. Another prime example was with judging Fiction Uncovered, we had X amount of submissions and as judges we all went off read like loons and then came back with the books we thought were the best (for all sorts of reasons, a whole different discussion for another time) and we discussed them and whittled them down to a longlist of fifteen. Until we looked at that final selection we hadn’t even been aware that it was a selection of four men and eleven women, it was about the books and the way those books and their words and language had affected us, isn’t that what reading should be all about? Not once did we then think ‘oops better add some more men into that mix’, and this was a panel of two men and two women completely equal but the outcome was what it was. Those were just the best of some utterly corking books. End of.

However something was highlighted to me the other day that showed I don’t always read as diversely as I think, and at the end of the day it is only you yourself who can make you read more diversely, no one else is going to read for you. Nikesh Shukla, who will be sharing his shelves with you all this weekend, was asking on Twitter for recommendations of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) authors books for a summer reading list. Off I skipped to my shelves thinking this would be a doddle… I only had about ten such books on my shelves, which are plentiful, I was horrified. I genuinely thought I read much more diversely than that. It bothered me.

So how do we combat these reading habits we get into, what can we actually do to change things? We can do things like starting prizes/ initiatives/readalongs etc that highlight voices or people that might be going under the radar. That is why  I co-founded the Green Carnation Prize, I wanted to highlight LGBT authors (not the gayest books as some journalists lazily think) and so I put my money where my moaning mouth was, and created something positive with all that energy. However first I think we have to start much closer to home and with our very own choices of books.

So could I read only books by women for a year? Yes, easily and I bet it would be a real treat at times and less of a success of times, just like and (and every) reading year. Will I do it? No. You see only reading books by women by its very nature wouldn’t be me reading for equality, it would be halving the experiences I could have in missing out great male authors of all walks of life and backgrounds. Narrowing your reading options really doesn’t do anyone any good. For example, if I chose to only read BAME authors or LGBT authors I would be missing out on white or straight novelists of both genders. In any of these scenario’s I am going to be cutting out some wonderful reads and with books that is what I want wonderful reads, so only I would be missing out really.

So rather than ‘not’ read or ‘only’ read any particular group of authors, I will try to do my best to make sure I read as equal amount of books by men and women, of all different races, backgrounds and sexualities (more translated fiction would do that which is something we need to be looking at with a very fine toothcomb frankly) as I can. After all, surely that is going to give me the best future reading life possible, the best of all worlds, walking in all sorts of different types of people’s shoes – or stories.

20 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

20 responses to “Could I Read Books Only By Women For A Year?

  1. I get the gripe. Minority and female writers do have a legitimate gripe…but let’s not find ourselves overreacting to all of this either as readers or as publishers. I’m sorry, publishers, but if you decide to do something as silly as publishing nothing but women for a year, I will not be there to support your misguided effort. I read what I like to read, something like 125 books a year, with one-third of those being written by women.

    This whole PC-world we live in is getting on my nerves now. It’s like the fable in which the little boy cries “Wolf!” one too many times for his own good. I’m really starting to tune-out now and not listen to much of this. All the whining is starting to become very irritating.

  2. How about a harder challenge a year of just nooks translated into English Simon !!!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    “Let me be really honest. When I read a book, be it for work or pleasure, I just want to be lost in a bloody brilliant book.”

    Thank you for saying this, Simon – I so agree. I refuse to be restricted – mind you, I often the old and the weird and the obscure, so I’m probably well away from the mainstream. But what you say above is still exactly why I read!

  4. Great timing! I’ve just written a post about the same issue really – but from a totally different angle! I just want to read good books – I don’t consciously pick male or female authors, but I do skew towards reading many more by men than women, and I tried to look for some reasons why I might unconsciously be doing this.

  5. I strongly agree with your point about good books being good books no matter what the author’s gender, race, or sexual orientation, though it is an unfortunate truth that there are a lot of readers who prefer to stick to what they know, and are reluctant to branch out. For people who don’t read a great variety of literature, tending to stick to the same thing, or who for whatever reason avoid writing by women or authors of colour or LGBTQ authors perhaps just feeling it wouldn’t be for them, restricting reading to a particular group forces an exploration of things outside their comfort zones, and perhaps allows them to gain some more inclusive reading habits. For this reason, I’m all for shining a light on the issue of diverse reading.

    Saying that, I don’t really analyse my own reading too deeply (perhaps I should), and the idea of strict quotas and “diverse reading statistics” just doesn’t appeal. I don’t think I could force myself to read only writing by women any more than I could only writing by men and therefore I am probably a bit of a hypocrite when I support things like this.

    Another issue with these kinds of initiatives is that it does draw attention away from the book and onto the author in a way that isn’t always entirely comfortable: rather than reading a great book about such and such a plot, you’re reading a lesbian writer or a work of lesbian fiction (not always the same thing). The minority label takes over. It’s a tricky balance between championing minority voices and allowing the books to speak for themselves, though I suppose the one has to come before the other.

    Really thought-provoking post. I might have to scan my goodreads and actually see how diversely I’ve been reading this year…

  6. I don’t really think about gender/race/age or anything else when I pick up a book, I generally read what I like, at a time when I feel like it. However I think I must read rather more women than men, not consciously I just do. I think there is a danger with initiaves to read more women etc to focus attention more on “issues” than on brilliant books whoever they happen to be written by. There is an inequality -I’m sure of that, but I would rather people focus on books that are amazing that just happen to be written by brilliant women, than spend too much time “trying to read more books by women.” Reading books by women shouldn’t be something people think they should do – it should be something they just do without thinking about it.

  7. Surely the point here is not our CONSCIOUS choices but more our UNCONSCIOUS ones . Obvs we are all sophisticated readers ….who engage with other readers determined to seek out more interesting or challenging things to read . What is available though is determined by others …..also what gets rewarded.

    Any avid reader is always after ‘a good read’ ( why do I hear Howard Jacobsen) but we are constrained by what is published .

  8. snoakes

    I’d never thought about this until this year. I analysed my 2014 reading in January – and was shocked. I read 94 books, of which about a third were by women and only 2 by authors who aren’t white. Two. I thought I read much more diversely than that. I’ve no idea about LGBT – without doing some research, I wouldn’t know (and probably rightly so!).
    Having said that, I’m not making a conscious effort to change things this year. I wonder if unconsciously things have changed – but I doubt it.

  9. I completely agree with your post – it seems much better to expand our reading than deliberately deciding to limit it. I’m probably the stereotypical Persephone reader, but have been making A Conscious Effort recently to read more contemporary books and more books by men; even when I don’t particularly like the book overall, there is always something I enjoy or learn – even when reading Literary Fiction….

  10. 1fuzzymonster

    I just read the back of the book. Flip to the middle and read a page. That’s my standard way of picking books. Never thought about doing it any other way. lol. Good back cover blurb? Yes. I will read.

  11. I think, the publication of Siri Hustvedt’s Blazing World has also contributed to the discussion whether female artists are not taken as seriously as male artists by the critics and audience alike. Probably you read far more female authors than you think as there are many women who publish their books using a male pseudonym.

  12. I think the book blogging world is generally very good on balancing male/female authors, but I do think it is still important to think and talk about diversity — or normalizing, as Shonda Rhimes likes to say — because the larger reading world is still governed by a lot of stereotyped thinking (e.g., the man who was disappointed to learn Robert Galbraith was J.K. Rowling because he would never have chosen to read a book by a woman). While on the surface it might seem extreme for a publisher to publish nothing but women for a year, would you be surprised to find a publisher that had published only men over the course the year (in say the last 20 years)? Probably not. And yet we don’t question that as an anomaly. So the idea that the white male viewpoint/experience is somehow gender/color-neutral, universal, and more valuable remains.

  13. I think that as readers, we have different motivations to the publishers. Am I as a reader going to limit my books to only women authors? Probably not (although I have made a comittment to read at least two BAME authors a month this year, which has expanded my reading world dramatically). But And Other Stories isn’t a reader and as they have said they are doing this in order to look at their selection process. When we focus in like that on female authors we have the opportunity to discover whether women are producing as much literature as men and, if not, why not. For me it gives a necessary opportunity to understand what the causes are of inequality, rather than standing around talking about the problem without understanding it.

  14. I considered heeding Shamsie’s call and reading only women for a year, but i don’t think i can do it. I already read mostly female writers, but there are male writers out there who I really enjoy and i don’t want to slight them. I’m going to continue to read as i always have, mostly women, lots of minorities and a few white men.

  15. This whole bullshit with VIDA and now Shamsie irks me so much that I want to boycott women writers. It is so patronising and condescending to intelligent readers. It is a bad trend and reeks of paranoia. Simon you are clearly more eloquent than me but man, I head to get that off my chest. Straight, gay, black, white, jew, gentile, muslim, woman, man. Just write, just read. Authors: allow me to choose!

  16. I think reading (or publishing) only women for a year would be a bad move only in so much as it won’t solve anything. I’m not sure where we should be looking to challenge the patriarchy, and that more men are published than women, but changing just one thing isn’t going to fix the problem.

    I don’t think I would feel hampered by only reading women for a year, but I’d rather have the choice to read what I like. However, I do think reading diversely is very important, so I try (like you) to read outside the ‘straight white male’ whenever I can.

  17. Fenella

    I think publishing only women for a year is a legitimate step to redress some of the imbalance. It’s not like it’s all publishers doing it. It’s one publisher deciding how they will redress issues of diversity and bias.

    I do consciously favour women over men since it is consumer choices that partly influence the publishers. So I feel like I’m trying to add my weight to a scale that’s tipped in favour of men. I think women’s stories and experiences are undervalued. I’ve discovered O. Douglas through Greyladies publisher and think she’s a hidden gem. Her brother John Buchan (Anna Buchan is her real name) is given all the attention – both in their day and now – and her more domestic, feminine literature was devalued by both her family and the publishing world.

    I also consciously pick up books by BAME as my selection is too white. I’ve got 2 Zadie Smiths to read as well as A Fine Balance by Mistry.

    I donate books to schools and libraries in Zimbabwe, and it’s struck me how white-dominated the literature on offer in the UK is. I trawl charity shops for books that would be a bit closer to Zimbabweans’ experience. It has made me think a lot more about this.

  18. I agree whole heartedly and find the same issue in that I feel I read more women than men but it’s almost always 50/50. The BAME is different as I just grab books not thinking about author’s race/nationality, and it shows the inequality in the publishing industry.

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