“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 both on high on testosterone and blindingly white. 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 shape the world around us, that they are the world both around us and within 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, 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. 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.
I opened it and I thought, I hate this fucking book. The men in this book are selfish assholes, the women in this book are passive idiots, this book is a fucking case study in the male gaze, there is nothing in this book for me, this book is not for me. And I put it down and never picked it up again. This is the only time in my life I have gotten over halfway through a book and not finished it. And that was when I started to enjoy reading again. But at this point in my life, I still had not come around to feminism, and thus it did not occur to me that the books I felt were important – the books I felt both obligation and resentment towards – were culturally mandated by something other than high art vs low art. It didn’t occur to me that this low-level resentment I felt could be rooted in a lack of female perspectives.
Fast forward to 2014. While I am now keenly aware of gender bias in the literary landscape and letting authors’ identities consciously guide my book choices, this year of reading just women (but not just white women) has felt like anything but a chore. It has felt miles away from that summer of trying to slough through On The Road, feeling frustrated that I just didn’t get “it”. (Where “it” is men at the centre of the universe and women as sexy lamps.) I have struggled to get through exactly one book so far this year, and that was embedded in the middle of an otherwise excellent series. This year, I have been devouring books in a way I honestly thought I’d outgrown: that urgent just-one-more-chapter-oh-god-I-have-to-be-up-in-four-hours-but-I-can’t-put-it-down type of reading that defined my childhood and teen years. I’m not going to say it’s because all these books are written by women. It’s because all these books are by damn good writers who happen to be women. But that said, as a women reading only women, gorging myself on women’s experiences, on full and complex female characters, on women’s concerns and women’s innermost thoughts, I do not feel like I am missing out. When January 1st 2015 rolls around, I’m not sure I’m going to be rushing back to reading men.
So, without further ado, my drunk reviews of the books I read in the first half of 2014. To be clear, I wrote drunk, minimal editing while sober, then proofreading by friend Aoife (also drunk, but ever sharp), so this is an honest stream of impressions as generated by my wine-soaked brain and a rather long week.
All the books ever by Ursula le Guin Oh man. This writer. So I read The Left Hand of Darkness on my dad’s recommendation a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, it did not inspire me to seek out all the Le Guin ever. Then when I moved to Switzerland last September, I decided I needed a series to keep me occupied, so I picked up The Earthsea Quartet (or Quintet, whatever) and ripped through the whole thing in a week or so. Then I moved on to devouring the Annals of the Western Shore, which was also great, and since then I have worked my way through every full-length novel she has ever written. The Dispossessed was up there with my favourites as well, after finishing it I spent a good week wandering around being like DUDE WHY DO WE EVEN LIKE NEED PROPERTY AND SHIT and no doubt being very obnoxious.
So because I can’t review fifteen books at once (the wine will not last that long), I’ve spent a lot of time casting around for the word that sums up her writing, and I eventually settled on “austere”. Especially her fantasy. Le Guin writes austere fantasy – by which I mean, it is stark, majestic, restrained, almost mythical in quality. Where George R.R. Martin will happily spend several pages describing the enameling on a horse’s armour, Le Guin strips her description back to its bare bones. But not because she can’t describe things, because occasionally she’ll throw in a unassuming sentence about a sunset or the sway of ship or a feeling in the gut and it’s just so perfect and complete and unencumbered by extraneous nonsense that you are like YES URSULA THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THAT THING WOULD FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE OFFICIALLY TAKEN MY BREATH AWAY WITH INK MARKS ON A PAGE HOW DID YOU DO THAT. Le Guin’s fantasy is also fairly linear and does not spend a lot of time fucking the reader around with plot twists and cliffhangers. Instead, she tends to start things off with a pretty dire situation that needs to be solved and then it’s all about the pressure building and the characters pushing and pushing until they break through it. Ursula Le Guin is also a massive badass because she deliberately writes epic fantasy that is not dominated by white people for no apparent reason. I could go on about this at length, but I won’t, but I love the fact that her worlds are so consciously resistant to the Ye Olde Timey Medieval Europe vibe that permeates most fantasy ever.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley This book holds the rare distinction of being the only book that has ever made me miss my stop on public transport. Which surprised me, because initially I was not that into it. This is one of those books that takes a while to get going and you’re thinking maybe you’ll put it down and suddenly you realize you’re over halfway through and you’re going to be late for work because you have to trudge back two stops to change trams. Also, sometimes it is weirdly sexy.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt It was highly unlikely that I was not going to enjoy this book. I read The Secret History about a billion years ago (which is roughly how long it takes Tartt to finish a novel) and I loved it because it was very tense and disturbing and glamourous and it’s about rich intellectual people with hella problems, which is also what The Goldfinch is about. But yes. The Goldfinch is like an expensive sirloin steak of a novel – it’s really thick, it’s going to take you ages to chew your way through it, and you’re definitely going to have to stop for breaks, but you will plough through because it is so rich and delicious and juicy. There is art and antiques and New York and a dashing Russian scoundrel called Boris and ridiculously wealthy people being wealthy at each other. The only thing I didn’t like about The Goldfinch is that I spent the second half of it wanting to smack the protagonist upside his drug-addled head, because he is very useless and there’s a lot of that thing where everything goes to shit and he could have just sorted out it by USING HIS WORDS but he can’t because he is on all the drugs.
Beloved by Toni Morrison Man, Beloved. So this book was bang in the middle of my American Gothic course in final year of university, and I just didn’t avert to it because I was too busy trying to get through Poe and Irving and Faulkner. Having had my intersectional feminist awareness cranked up approximately three hundred percent since then, I can now look back and recognize that it was no accident that I skimmed over the single black woman on the reading list and went “Meh” because I’d never heard of her and obviously I had to finish The Turn of the Screw because it is so much more seminal.
In conclusion, I was an ignorant little shit and it’s very appropriate that I read this book as part of an active effort to re-educate myself. So now, redundantly, Beloved is incredible and so important and you need to read it if you have even the slightest pretensions about knowing anything about American literature at all. It is one of my favourite types of ghost stories, because the characters don’t spend ages fucking around being like “Omg, is it a ghost or something?” They’re just like, “Yes, hello, it is a ghost, it’s quite inconvenient, we’re trying to get on with our lives.” It’s a fucking harrowing read, but Morrison has this masterful way of describing properly horrific scenes with this indulgently vivid imagery and the contrast is really jarring and probably a lot of the uncanny in this text is rooted in that gap between lush beauty and terrifying violence, but I cannot go on a rant about the uncanny now or I will die. There are pictures in this book I will not be able to get out my head for a long time.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith This book was fun! It didn’t blow my mind out of the water or anything, but it’s sharp and tight and oh-crap-I-just-snort-laughed-on-the-bus funny in places. Smith’s genius is in her incredibly vivid characters, like you can imagine what it would feel like to hug pretty much every single one of them, what they would smell like, what they would feel like, and she manages to do that without being like “This guy is bony and kind of smells like fish.” She also is one of those writers that has an amazing talent for weaving this complex net of details and hints and coincidences and seemingly unimportant moments and at the last second she pulls the whole thing tight and it all comes together and leaves you, the reader, feeling extremely satisfied.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah was grand, I enjoyed it while I was reading it and trucked through it at a fair clip, but I wasn’t trying to get out of having lunch with co-workers so I could spend extra time with it or anything. (This is a legitimate thing I do sometimes. Sorry co-workers, it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s that I REALLY like books). Americanah was already probably at a bit of a disadvantage with me, as was White Teeth, because I’m a hard sell on books about normal people living relatively normal lives, because no matter how well-written something is, there’s always a part of brain that is like I WANT WIZARDS and it’s difficult to turn it off. Anyway, my point is that I can’t really fault Americanah in any way and I think my overall indifference to it was probably because of there were no dragons. I did enjoy the fact that it overtly deals with race and gender and does not apologize for this in the slightest – it’s about a Nigerian blogger blogging about race in America and it’s also explicitly concerned with gender, and I was like YES PLEASE MORE OF THIS POLITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS IN BESTSELLING NOVELS PLZ.
Native Tongue This book! So Amazon sent me a manipulative email being like “Hello, we notice you have been compulsively buying science fiction books on your lunchbreak, would you like to sign up for our science fiction newsletter to make it even easier for you to compulsively buy things? To sweeten the deal, we’ll give you a free book!” And lo, only one of my free book choices was by a woman and it was Native Tongue.
So I started reading knowing nothing about it except that it is science fiction and it is written by a lady. It was one of the most successful blind purchases of my life! Because this book is about LINGUISTICS and FEMINISM and it is also set in DYSTOPIAN FUTURE and frankly, the only way this book could have been about more things I like is if all the characters were also cats. Native Tongue is also my favourite type of science fiction because it’s based on a future where only one or two major things are different, and everything else in that world is a direct result of those differences. You know, as opposed to just being like OOO WE HAVE SPACESHIPS NOW SO RANDOM.
On the Earth of Native Tongue, alien contact has been made and Elgin decides to tackle one of the main problems that would come with this contact: namely, how the fuck would we communicate? Most science fiction skims over this with translator gadgets or telepathy or whatever, but Elgin acknowledges how centrally important language is to literally everything by making it the key concern of her world. The other big difference in this Earth is that in the 1990s, there was a huge push to suddenly roll back women’s rights and now women are basically back to square one: they can’t do anything without a man’s permission, the only job they’re allowed to do is nursing, common sexist stereotypes about women being intellectually inferior and overly emotional are accepted as scientific truths. It’s kind of funny in a “oooo, so dystopian” kind of way but also kind of terrifying if you spend any time at all on the internet and thus are keenly aware of how many men would actually quite like that.
The Patternist series by Octavia Butler So Butler has won two Hugos and two Nebulas and was also the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur fellowship, so I was like “shit, I need to check this lady out or I am a bad science fiction fan.” But honestly, after blasting through Seed to Harvest (also known as The Patternist Series), I have fairly mixed feelings.
Seed to Harvest is five books, and without any major spoilers, the whole thing is ostensibly about this God-like lad called Doro who comes from Ancient Nubia and is immortal and has special powers, and is trying to breed a nation of people who also have special powers, but not as good as him, because he likes being in charge. Then there’s also a plague from OUTER SPACE at some point and the entire planet devolves into a war between aliens and Doro’s people. Which, as concepts go, is pretty awesome. The books were not written in chronological order, but I read them in chronological order and the quality of the writing varies pretty dramatically between them. I enjoyed the first two a lot, but then I got to Mind of my Mind and I almost gave up on it because it was just so bland. Like, all the ideas were still solid, but the pacing was awful, the dialogue was stilted and I just could not bring myself to give a single shit about the main character. Most of this book is people just wandering around a house having repetitive conversations and moping about their shitty relationships that no one cares about. So yeah, Mind of my Mind nearly killed the series for me, but I pushed through it and then the final books got good again. Unfortunately, you can’t skip Mind of my stupid Mind because it sits at the heart of the whole series and contains a major turning point in the fate of humanity. And it’s such a pity, because it’s so strong and original and intelligent otherwise. If anyone can recommend another Octavia Butler series without any weird quality dips in the middle, I would be all over it!