Reading the Girls

Writer Maureen Johnson’s powerful polemic against an inherent bias in the way male writers are presented, by publishers and critics, compared to their female counterparts.

As a father of one daughter, I think a lot about male paradigms and how they influence the way life is presented to my daughter (and me) through books, language, the media. Looking back over my 2010 reading list, of the sixty-four books I have read this year, thirteen are by female writers: Virginia Woolf, Moyra Davey, Yiyun Li, Anne Michaels, Zadie Smith, Penelope Fitzgerald, Edith Grossman, Stevie Smith and Sarah Hall. 20%? Is it enough? Johnson makes a suggestion:

Here’s a simple test you can do at home. Go to your shelf now. Have a look. First, identify the books you had to read for school. (I know. A lot of men. Just do me a favor and do this anyway just so you can gauge your personal training. It can be an illuminating exercise.)

Now identify the books you consider your favorites. I don’t have a clue in the world what you will find, but when I did this for myself, I was stunned by the results. It was about 75% male, which is an astonishing amount, since I write YA, an area filled with women. I’m still cutting my teeth on male writers. I was surprised, and yet I don’t count this as a personal crisis, just something to think about.

Probably 80% in my case. It isn’t enough. This blog is not about to stray into gender politics, but I do believe that we need new paradigms of masculinity, particularly as portrayed in books, language and the media. I am not going to step up to the soapbox, suffice to say that as a father of a daughter (not that it should be different if I had a son) I think it important that I question an overwhelmingly male tradition.

Of the female writers that Johnson lists (below) I am sheepish to say I’ve read only Woolf, and a little Highsmith and Atwood

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

I need to explore some of these other writers. Currently I am attracted to books that embrace the Modernist project. Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?

14 thoughts on “Reading the Girls

  1. >Thanks for the suggestions, Kevin. I've got Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek somewhere. I'll check out Francine Prose's fiction, her non-fiction I've sampled before.

  2. >Hi there, A few suggestions from a stranger: A.S. ByattZora Neale HurstonNicole KraussValerie MartinHelen Oyeyemi Marilynne RobinsonZadie SmithEudora Welty(I found this blog entry via a Google Alert for Virginia Woolf.)

  3. >Thank you for those suggestions, wrappedupinbooks. It's always interesting to know how people stumble across a blog.I've tried Marilynne Robinson and don't get on very well with her books. Of the other suggestions, there is much to discover. I enjoyed Zadie Smith's collection of essays and have her fiction on the shelves.

  4. >Clarice Lispector is high on my list to try, I have The Apple in the Dark but it has yet to make its way to the top of my list. I haven't heard of Rey, any suggestions what to read of hers?

  5. >She's a French-Australian writer who may very well be only published here in English (by Giramondo Publishing) – there are many more of her works in French (ie published in France). I particularly liked her most recent novel Stepping Out.

  6. >There are many women on that list I'd like to read as well..it is an interesting exercise to see where our "blank spots" are in fiction. I would suggest Nadine Gordimer, with The Pickup or The House Gun at the top of the list.

  7. >As a fellow lover of Woolf, I cannot recommend Eudora Welty highly enough. Her Delta Wedding is a great novel to start with, and she's a master at that kind of roving, close-third-person narration that Woolf uses to great effect in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Her short stories are maybe even better than her novels, and the collection The Golden Apples is particularly appealing because the inter-linked stories all take place in the same small Southern US town over the course of 50 years or so. As you also know, I just fell in love with (the first volume of) Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, which I would describe as "modernist" in that they're playing with form (is this autobiography or philosophy?), and are otherwise just delightful and massively intelligent.

  8. >Dear Anthony,You saw the beginnings of my list on my site in response. There are many, many others depending on era, style, and interest–from Aphra Behn and Phillis Wheatley to Herta Muller (one who I must admit I do not much care for) and Sigrid Undset (whom I love). I class Eudora Welty as a must-read, Katherine Anne Porter, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Hazzard, and Shirley Ann Grau (just to round out the list of 20th century Shirleys). Baronness Blixen (Isak Dinesin, Rebecca West, Beryl Markham, Elspeth Huxley, and so on. One mustn't forget Jennifer Egan–at this point highly lauded. Elinor Lipmann (may have misspelled that name) and Georgette Heyer (don't flinch and don't boo–very, very fine writing in many of her works) on the somewhat lighter side (still literary, but very witty).I have a little list (as the Executioner would say). I have profited by not paying too much attention to the critical establishment.shalom,Steven

  9. >JAAC – Thanks, I've found Stepping Out and added it to my wish list.verbivore – I've got some Nadine Gordimer on the shelves, My Son's Story is particularly recommended to me. Thanks for your suggestions.Emily – After your wonderful review and enjoying her Adieux: Farewell to Sartre I am looking forward to de Beauvoir's memoirs. I'll also take on board your recommendation of Eudora Welty. Thank you.Steven – Thank you so much for the list provided on your blog and these further suggestions, some of which are completely unknown to me. I shall explore with pleasure.

  10. >to add to the others' suggestions: Gail Scott is, in my opinion, very good, sort of cross between Virginia Woolf and David Markson. I really love Lydia Davis, who I'm sure you've already heard of and who not everyone likes, ditto with Aimee Bender.

  11. >jaimie – That's an intriguing blend, Markson and Woolf; is there a particular starting point you would suggest for Gail Scott? I'm preparing to read Lydia Davis' translation of Madame Bovary, but have also been enjoying her short stories.

  12. Pingback: The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer « Time's Flow Stemmed

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