For a great writer, Jonathan Franzen has certainly distinguished himself as a scold. A conservationist, Franzen’s recent essay in The New Yorker stirred controversy for seeming to reproach those who concentrate on climate change. Hostile to Twitter, Franzen is also no friend of genre writing:
Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity.
The “moral simplicity” of the best Young Adult fiction is hardly obvious, and if the public eschews deep writers, that hasn’t stopped Franzen from reaping phenomenal, often fawning press coverage. Franzen has hurled his most controversial claims, however, at certain women writers. He has savaged Jennifer Weiner as a mediocrity “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically.” That Franzen does not feel the need to read Weiner’s books (and he admits he has not), is unexceptional. Notice, however, how he couches his dismissal of the popular, social media-savvy author: “Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets.”
Unbeknownst to Franzen, perhaps, many writers tweet. Moreover, for many women writers — including “literary” rather than “genre” writers like Weiner — social media has proven a helpful tool in challenging the literary sexism he acknowledges is a “legitimate problem.” If the New York Times is too preoccupied with promoting Franzen’s forthcoming novel to review good writing by women (and unwilling, as Weiner points out, to review genre fiction by women with the same respect given to genre fiction by men), Twitter echoes with voices that should be heard.
By the Numbers
Women buy and read more books than men, but books by men still draw more attention. That’s the sobering finding issued this month by Vida, the organization that studies book reviews and annually tallies the numbers. Women bought “two-thirds of the books sold in Britain” and surveys have found far more “avid readers” among women than men. Yet, that consumer clout has not reversed entrenched male dominance in key literary publications like The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. In the LRB in 2014, 527 men were featured as authors or reviewers, but only 151 women. In most major newspapers and periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, men’s books get more high-profile reviews, and more men are asked to review books.
However, Vida found increases for women in some publications. More women than men reviewed in 2014 for the New York Times Book Review, for example. Vida promotes “not quotas” but “a shift in consciousness.” Its co-founder Erin Belieu urges readers and writers “to be aware of their habits and open their mind to other voices” and describes the impact of the Vida Count as “a form of erosion, making gradual but permanent change.”
That readers need such self-awareness and a change in habits has been suggested by surveys like the one released last November by Goodreads. The book lovers’ website found that among its users, men read almost exclusively books by male authors. Women, too, tended to gravitate toward books by women. Of course, the difference is that women are not the chief gatekeepers at institutions like the NYRB. On Feministing Chloe Angyal reports that, upon learning that she is “only reading books by women” in 2015, “men ask me why I’d ‘limit’ myself in such a way,” as though there are too few worthy books with female authors.
Men’s misconceptions or condescending attitudes reduce the size of potential audiences for women writers and reinforce the unequal respect given to those authors by the literary press. Goodreads conducted and publicized a survey that has gotten its readers talking about gender, thanks to inspiration by Joanna Walsh. The British writer and illustrator created a sensation with her social media campaign #readwomen2014.
The Year of Reading Women
Walsh, citing the problem documented by Vida, proposed a solution to “our sexist reading habits.” Rather than wait for changes in the publishing world, “As readers, perhaps we should take a little responsibility: after all, the buck stops with the book buyer.”
I started the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 after drawing some bookmark-shaped New Year’s cards showing some of my favourite female writers. I had been inspired by two literary journalists – both male, as it happens – who didn’t want to show up on the wrong side of this year’s Vida pie chart (coming out next month) and were willing to do something about it. Jonathan Gibbs in the UK and Matthew Jakubowski in the US both made a commitment to read only female authors for a set period. When I posted photos of my cards on Twitter, a few people asked me to tweet the 250-odd names of female writers I had typed on the back.
Thus began a flood of shout-outs for great women writers, and #readwomen2014 became a cause.
What did it mean to take up the challenge? Walsh suggested readers did not have to read only books by women for the whole year (and she did not), “but you might like to do a Vida count on your own bookshelf; if you find an imbalance, consider whether you might have been a victim of inequality, missing out on good writing because of a pink dust jacket. Just for a change, make sure the next book you read is by a woman . . . there is a book by a woman for every kind of reader.”
Soon, The Guardian and many other international publications began to cover and promote the “Year of Reading Women.” Walsh’s social media project rallied many male and female readers, while the Vida Count inspired others to reach the same conclusion independently. Daniel Pritchard, editor of a small literary journal Critical Flame, devoted a year to “women writers and writers of color” because they remained “underserved and undervalued by the contemporary literary community.” Indeed, if women tend to read women, that is partly because they react to the literary world’s history of snubbing “undervalued” women writers.
As Walsh pointed out, an American writer and critic, Matthew Jakubowski took a New Year’s resolution to read and review only women for a year. Finding few hefty books by women on his own shelf prompted the resolution. “The uneven gender ratio is my loss. It’s also part of a larger problem.” Readers and critics, he now saw, often are less widely read than they think. “The industry sticks to its proven formula of favoring men when it comes to literature, and as a reader each year I am swayed by journals that reward this blind formula with ‘big news’ stories about male authors.”
Walsh also cited Jonathan Gibbs, a writer and reporter for the Independent, who made the same resolution. Both men blogged about it and discussed it in interviews, becoming part of the larger conversation introduced by Walsh, whose bookmarks and energetic tweeting kept up the momentum.
Keeping the resolutions
By year’s end, Walsh reported
the#readwomen2014 tag has been reinvented all over the world, from #LeamosAutoras (Brazil) to #SheReadsSouthAsia. There have been events, from Ireland, to Canada , and book clubs from Scotland to Australia, not to mention across the nebulous territory of the internet.
The drive to change sexist reading habits caught on in part because of all of the other momentum of #Readwomen2014:
#Readwomen2014 has been part of a mostly internet-focused feminist groundswell. It’s been a year in which women online, as well as in print, have refused to keep quiet. This is the year that women have insisted that#yesallwomen experience @everydaysexism; the year that Roxane Gay made good out of being a Bad Feminist; the year Rebecca Solnit explained “mansplaining” to us, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called herself a feminist without need for qualifications. Much of this speaking out has been written, in books, in articles and online. At the end of 2014, the world we live in may not have changed radically, but does look a little different. The writing’s on the (Facebook) wall.
#Readwomen2014 fit right in with the larger feminist advance and measured its success in the number of events supported by bookstores, libraries, festivals, and publishers. “Above all,” writes Walsh, “this has been a campaign about reading, and its shape has been determined by the nearly 7,000 readers who follow the @readwomen2014 Twitter account (now @Read_Women).” Many of those followers/readers presumably shared Walsh’s experience of having “discovered wonderful writing from all over the world,” though few as intensely as she, for Walsh focused on reading translations of women from around the world.
Walsh might have promoted #readwomen with style but there is plenty of substance to her reading. When asked to suggest five books by women writers, she went with five that are out of print. In 2015 she has continued the #readwomen campaign and her concentration on women in translation (this month she spoke on a panel on the topic at the London Book Fair).
Going to the bookstore
Last year I was among the many inspired by the #readwomen movement to primarily read women writers. Like most other readers, I found some great books — all by writers I had not read before — including my latest obsession, the work of Hilary Mantel.
Moreover, there was no need for the Amazon leviathan. Local independent bookstores in Atlanta and Asheville provided all the competitively priced books I needed, and more than I have so far absorbed. Though there’s nothing wrong with buying books online or buying ebooks, the relative decline of indie bookstores in the digital era is disturbing. As the novelist David Nicholls points out, “No one has yet found a way to unwrap digital data, to turn it into something you cherish, or to give online browsing the same pleasure, satisfaction and sense of discovery as walking around a bookshop.”
Here are the best recent works of fiction I have so far read by women writers in 2014-15:
Alice Munro, Dear Life (2012)
Canada’s beloved master of the short story, Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize. I purchased my copy at Malaprops (figuring it appropriate to buy more than just local history and fiction from their Regional Collection). Most of the stories in this collection bear one-word titles, and one such (“Carrie”), about a deeply misled woman, truly stands out. Who knew medium-sized Canadian cities and countryside could provide an ideal setting for the kind of understated drama Munro’s tales unspool? My favorite story — one that best captures her quiet power to keep you in suspense — “In Sight of the Lake,” will have you awake to a real nightmare.
Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005)
Time for a shout out to the now-defunct Books Again, a reliable used bookstore in downtown Decatur where I had found this bright novel. While I read it Putin’s Russia invaded the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Apparently based in part on her own story as the daughter of Ukrainian parents who endured a refugee camp in postwar Germany before resettling in England, Lewycka’s story is a delight. Her recently widowed, increasingly erratic, impulsive and pitiful father marries Valentina, a scheming, striving younger woman, and all hell breaks lose. Pathetic yet sympathetic, the father writes a personal history of tractors and also passes along the elements of Ukrainian history. Survival is his triumph, and Ukraine’s. The taut yet functioning relationship between the sisters Nadezhda and Vera propels the story and provides a hard-headed (but not hard-hearted) counterpoint to the mordant humor as things fall apart.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
The humor of this novel calmed me on a long flight and back during a difficult moment in my life last summer. Egan has been praised in the New York Times Book Review as having “a romantic novelist’s heart,” but this book has nothing to do with romance, really, except for the romance of rock. Egan teases us but doesn’t give in to our base desires or the predictable. Bennie, for instance, does not succeed in seducing Sasha (despite the daily sprinkling of gold flakes in his coffee to regain his sex drive). My favorite thread featured Dolly, the once triumphant socialite who, after a catastrophic party, “emerged from jail thirty pounds heavier and fifty years older, with wild gray hair,” her daughter Lulu, and their entanglement with the General, a sadistic dictator.
Lauren Groff, Arcadia (2012)
I picked up my copy of the latest novel by Groff (who has family in Atlanta) at Little Shop of Stories. People forget, while the kids browse and read, the grownups have a nice selection to peruse at LSOS. Groff’s tale centers on the perceptions of a child, Bit, raised on a 1970s-80s New York state commune. Arcadia’s unique if naive nomenclature is addictive (the hippies there call themselves The Free People, and when they need money they use their muscles, what they call Monkeypower). Hannah, Bit’s mother, aspires to write a history of an earlier cult movement, and the heart of the book is her nurturing of the young boy. We see Arcadia through his drowsy mental murmurs, later his self-conscious yet perceptive adolescent mind. Groff’s portrait of a long-term commune yields both nostalgia and satire.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
Unless you’ve been particularly cloistered of late, you’ve noticed the massive publicity given Mantel’s work — Wolf Hall is the hefty first installment of a trilogy of historical novels — which has been adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and is currently on Broadway, and by the BBC, whose six-part TV series is currently airing on PBS, both wildly successful. Both adaptations have received rapturous reviews from theatre and TV critics and drawn discerning audiences. Both incorporate Wolf Hall and its followup, Bring Up the Bodies.
What Mantel has wrought is a unique kind of historical fiction. You do not need to be a sucker for Tudor-bait or a fan of Downton Abbey or other kinds of costume serials to become enchanted. These novels (the third of which is in the works) are a Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Exploring power through the cunning, ruthless pragmatism of a self-made man who becomes the most trusted advisor to King Henry VIII in the 16th Century, Mantel creates unforgettable mise en scene and plumbs the mind of a man who did much (good and bad) to lay the basis for modern England and the modern state. Here is Cromwell’s canny cultivation of mystery as a means to power:
But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Though historical novels have a somewhat uneven literary reputation, Mantel transcends the limits of the genre. Her revisionist portrait of Cromwell is one of the greatest achievements in recent literature.
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012)
Like its predecessor, this second installment of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy netted a Man Booker Prize. In my case, I read Bring Up the Bodies before Wolf Hall, with no serious difficulty. Whether you read this one first or second, you will be fascinated by the power plays by and against Anne Boleyn (and if you possess rudimentary English history, you know how this story ends for her). The focus, however, is on Cromwell, who reaches the pinnacle of power despite his King’s staggering neuroses. Leaner than Wolf Hall, this novel’s intricate dialogues are easier to follow (Mantel more readily identifies our man with expressions such as, “He, Cromwell”). This book ends with foreshadowing of what is to come in the third volume, when Cromwell will be felled by his longtime rival, Stephen Gardiner.
Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014)
As soon as this new collection of stories came out, I grabbed a copy at Charis Books. Mantel’s inimitable style makes each story an adventure. The range of subjects in this slim book demonstrates her versatility beyond Cromwell. The final tale, also available from the New York Times, raised some hackles in England. The Iron Lady, at the height of her powers in the early 1980s, is targeted for death from a window.
Now that we are here at last, there is all the time in the world. The gunman kneels, easing into position. He sees what I see, the glittering helmet of hair. He sees it shine like a gold coin in a gutter, he sees it big as the full moon. On the sill the wasp hovers, suspends itself in still air. One easy wink of the world’s blind eye: “Rejoice,” he says. “Fucking rejoice.”
So, dear readers, feel free to share your stories of reading women writers, and celebrate the cornucopia of books uncovered by #Readwomen.
Special thanks to Michelle Lacoss for inspiration and many excellent suggestions