“There are a lot of readers who pride themselves on not paying attention to the identities of their favorite writers. […] How many books by writers of color do you think you’ll find on their bookshelves? I’d lay odds that if there are any at all, they will be far outnumbered by the books by white authors. Not necessarily because those readers are deliberately choosing mostly white/male authors. They don’t have to. The status quo does it for them.”
#ReadWomen2014 is about challenging that status quo. At some point, last year I realised that despite the fact that I am a self-professed feminist nerd, my bookshelf is so high on testosterone that it keeps picking fights with my desk and so blindingly white that it would probably disappear if I took picture of it with flash on. I am not going to belch statistics about diversity in literature at you, because you can get them all here and that is not what this post is about. This post is about putting my money where my literary feminist mouth is. Spurred on by the launch of the Read Women campaign, I decided to do exactly that for 2014. Read women and only women for one full year.
Anyone who reads this blog or who has talked to me for more than five seconds knows how I feel about stories. I don’t think stories are simply a way of labeling and processing the world around us; I believe they are an incredibly powerful force for shaping and defining the world around us. Narratives gain a foothold in our collective consciousness and gradually become a reality. Stories are how we explain ourselves to ourselves. And when it’s white men doing all the explaining, you end up with a story of a world where white men are the most important, the most influential, the most powerful, the most heroic, and anyone who is not white or male has trouble getting a word in edgeways.
I think studying English Literature (as I did) exacerbates the tendency to privilege the white male literary canon, especially if you are not (as I was not) a feminist. When you have five fat novels to read every week and you know there is a vanishingly small chance of getting through even half of them, you start prioritizing. And for some totally mysterious reason (*coughpatriarchy*), when it comes down to the wire, the indispensable texts, the keys to understanding the whole era/genre – and the ones that you absolutely must finish if you’re going to survive your next seminar or your end-of-term exams – those books always tend to be written by men. After four years, this hierarchy of importance and this vision of the canon became deeply ingrained in my ideas about what I should be reading.
I remember clearly the moment where I stopped thinking about what I should be reading, and started reading for pleasure again. It was August 2010, the summer after I graduated. I had been hawking around a cheap paperback copy of On The Road by Jack Keroauc all summer, because what better book for a long lazy summer of freedom than a seminal travel novel from one of the greats of the Beat Generation? I’d had it in my rucksack for nearly three months, and it was dog-eared and stained, but I was still only around three-quarters of the way through because every time I had an opportunity to sit down and read it, I would find something else to occupy my time. However, this day was a sunny day and I wandered out into the garden of my parents’ house with a blanket and a glass of cranberry juice and On The Road tucked under my arm, grimly determined to finish the damn thing.