Twelve years ago today I was in the hospital awaiting the birth of my first two children (twins) and in a very nice confluence of age, this song came on my preferred Pandora playlist and I started belting it out. Then I heard more voices and realized that my twins and their younger sister knew this song, too. It's a wonderful thing when the musical tastes are the same.
My decision to spend the entirety of 2012 reading only books by women took shape over the course of a few years. It likely first began with a film— Who Does She Think She Is? An obscure documentary, the film detailed the lives of women artists and their issues with the work-life balance. A lack of support from family, friends, the larger art world, and other women were all at the root of their problems. I bought a house party version the film— it wasn’t yet available on Netflix— and within the film’s packet were discussion cards. One concerned women writers: “Women writers won 63% of the awards but less than 30% of the money,” as reported by Poets & Writers in their Jan/Feb ’03 issue. When VIDA-Women in Literary Arts began gathering and publishing statistics about gender inequality in literary publishing, their reports not only echoed the sentiments of “Who Does She Think She Is?” they amplified them.
My awareness heightened, I began to see glaring disparities everywhere I looked— Amazon emails containing lists of best books in literature often contained only 1-3 books by women; when men friends posted on social media sites about the books they read, they were almost exclusively books by men; and online culture magazines’ Year of Reading lists by prominent writers or literary tastemakers were rarely, if ever, broadly representative of both sexes.
I wondered if, for too many men, women’s works weren’t even on their radars. Women writers and their publications existed, sure, but in some foreign way, far from their own worlds, and well beyond their comfort zones. I liken this to my childhood view of giraffes, for as a young girl, I didn’t quite believe in them. Despite pictures and even films of them galloping across grasslands, they seemed almost too bizarre, too strange to be real. Only a trip to the zoo reversed my thinking. Seeing is believing, or in the case of literature, reading is believing. Problem is you can’t force a man to read a book by a woman any more than you can force a person to go to a zoo and see a giraffe.
My purpose became simple— if men don’t read women writers out of habit, perhaps women reading only women on purpose would further raise awareness of the gender reading gap. A provocative approach, yes, perhaps a bit controversial, but I proceeded with my plan and hoped to get others on board.
I asked a group of women writers to join me. Out of the 75 members, I got one response of support, but in the end, no one was actually willing to sign on. In fact, I got more grief than support. The worst was the following statement from a friend, “Not reading a book or story or poem simply because a man wrote it means you not only are missing out on a huge body of worthwhile literature, but that you are being just as sexist and simple minded as someone who won't read a book or story just because a woman wrote it.” She missed the point.
A bit gobsmacked by the response, I felt the need to clarify. A Leap Year— 366 days of reading books by women. 2012 would be my year of purposeful reading, opting in to writers who are women and consciously choosing to prioritize these authors for a year of my reading life. As an English major in college my literary teeth were cut on dead white men— Chaucer, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, W. Maugham Somerset, and the other usual suspects. Some not so white and not so dead men were also part of my reading life— Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and N. Scott Momaday. I didn’t promise never to read books by men again. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done that; I had too much respect for the literature I grew up with as well as the work of my male writer friends. But for a single calendar year, I’d make a subtle stand about a very personal aesthetic choice— what books filled my brain. I didn’t understand the flak I got from fellow women, especially from women writers I had believed were like-minded. If they detracted so severely, what hope could my plan have to change anything?
In the end, only one comrade joined my Year of Reading Women cause— my husband. Once a voracious reader of Fantasy and Science Fiction, my husband had never read much Literature. His schooling grazed the Western canon and, as far as women were concerned, that only meant Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. He freely claims ignorance and earlier on in our marriage, when I pushed him to read literature, he gravitated toward male writers for one simple reason— name recognition. Nabokov and Vonnegut were his first choice forays into literature with “Catch-22” also on his radar because the title is an oft-used euphemism. Since we share many similar tastes, I encouraged him to start his 2012 reading year with my absolute favorite novel, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.
Then my workshop began and my original sense of purpose was renewed by my workshop leader, Margaret Atwood. Her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin, reignited the writing bug within me after a many-year hiatus. Simply meeting her was at the very tippy-top of my bucket list. To sit across the table from her for hours at a time, days in a row, while she line-edited work, told us folk tales, and gave our group advice, was more than I ever could have hoped for. Later, when I was gushing about this workshop experience to a male writer friend— one I already suspected of a severe gender bias in his reading life— he had little to no notion of who she was.
Though I rattled off some of Atwood’s many accomplishments— she is the author of 50 books including novels, short story collections, non-fiction works, poetry, and children’s books, winner of the Booker Prize, and an oft-mentioned Nobel contender— he still remained flummoxed. His ignorance was shocking, but his education made it downright insulting— he’d received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Started in 1936, Iowa is the oldest and most prestigious creative writing program in the nation. My friend wasn’t entirely unversed on global literature, however. He often put Nobel Prize-winners’ quotes on his Facebook page. But they were all men. Of the two dozen books he’s liked on his profile none are by women.
At the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, I confessed my 2012 reading plan after a panel and received enthusiastic support from Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians of Melville House. At their publishing house’s booth, I picked up Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan.
Though I now had four encouraging supporters, one who had joined me, my plan wasn’t perfect. From January 1st to the AWP conference at the end of February, I’d started 9 books by women. I only finished 5. My 2012 reading life was similar to all previous years— feast or famine. I can often find three to four books I feel grateful to have read, but then enter a literary drought and struggle through two or three duds. If I struggle too much, I stop reading and don't finish. But I am an equal opportunity book abandoner. I’ve put aside such lauded books as Everything is Illuminated by literary prodigy Jonathan Safran Foer and I nearly threw A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers across the room. It was a library book, so I refrained.
On the flip side of these literary rejections, whenever I discover a writer, male or female, whose works excite me with their language, storytelling, or some other je ne sais quoi literary quality, I become a loyal fan. Finding their previous works becomes a quest for me— find and read. Waiting for their next book tries my patience. In 2012, this was true for Alison Lurie, Joanna Hershon, and Leigh Stein who got on my special list of “Must Read More Books By.”
At my local library’s biannual book sales, I searched out and contemplated my literature choices more mindfully. This is how I discovered Alison Lurie. Outside my own experience, I also witnessed visible signs of progress— gradually the email lists I received from Amazon began to display gender parity and male writers not only seemed to be reading more books by women, they were posting about and lauding them as well.
Once fall started, however, I realized these were baby steps in the broader reading race. A Creative Writing professor got on Facebook and put out a call for novels and short story collections for her students who were Hunger Games fans. Though over a dozen and a half people chimed in, the men who responded only suggested books by men.
This gender loyalty becomes most evident every fall when the Nobel Prize buzzings begin. As reliable as Haley’s comet, the male writers start crowing about their guy. The cock of the walk of American letters is Philip Roth and for the past twenty years I’ve heard his name mentioned each and every year. But only by men. Roth repulses many women readers— at best Roth’s female characters are poorly written and at worst they are mere afterthoughts. In my opinion, you don’t deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature when you don’t “get” half of the world’s population.
I’ve seen women argue this point with Roth fanatics, but their points fall on deaf ears. They treat Roth as if he were one of his anti-hero characters: “So what if Portnoy had sex with a piece of liver? At least Roth had the cojones to write it.” Meanwhile, the women readers of the world whisper to each other like debutantes at a cotillion subjected to the same earnest, but unappealing suitor year in and year out. Roth’s the guy pushed forward by his devotees. Every year women readers dread the party and wonder why the belles of the ball are ignored.
Meanwhile, the illustrious women writers of the world are all dressed up and mingling with the crowd. Not that the gang of American male writers egging on Roth even know they are there. For them, Joyce Carol Oates might be familiar; she’s highly prolific. With 203 MFA in Creative Writing Programs and some 800 other versions of creative writing programs, Alice Munro might be in their peripheral vision despite being both female and Canadian. After all, she is the reigning queen of the short story and creative writing programs love the short form.
I’m not sure how much we can blame the institutions— elementary and secondary schools, universities and MFA programs— for our literary literacy (or lack thereof) and how much comes down to our own willful ignorance. My husband has an excuse— he has a Ph.D. in Chemistry and is more likely to read a paper in Organometallics than a short story in The Atlantic. But what of our writers? Is the onus on them or the institutions that produce them?
The problem seems systemic. A friend at a top-ranked low-residency MFA recently posted a list of required books for his latest program session. Less than one-third of his fiction collection included books by women. More telling, only two of the 25 authors were outside American letters— two white British men. Four years ago, the permanent jury secretary of the Nobel Prize, Horace Engdahl, said this about American letters, “The US is too isolated, too insular.” Not only are we literary loners in the world, we belong to our own little factions within the United States. With so many books published every year, the choice to cling to the familiar, like-minded, or like-gendered is far too easy. Whenever I see MFA students’ reading lists so skewed toward men and overfull with American writers or know an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate who comes up blank at the mention of Margaret Atwood, I have to agree with Engdahl.
Engdahl might as well have also said we are too ignorant. We are. I am. At most, there are only two dozen non-American women writers of which I am aware. Some of those I read in 2012, including A.S. Byatt, P.D. James, J.K. Rowling (this three British women might be onto something with their gender-neutral use of initials), Ali Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Australian-American Geraldine Brooks. I know of, but have not yet read, New Zealand’s Janet Frame. Among English-speaking countries, I cannot name one woman writer from Ireland or South Africa. When it comes to countries where English doesn’t dominate, I have to rely almost exclusively on the Nobel Prize winners. None of this seems right to me, but I want to fix it.
Is there a simple solution to the gender reading disparity or the greater issue of cultural myopia which Americans are constantly faulted? Awareness is key and VIDA’s statistics become regular talking points whenever they are published. Many eyes are open and to be a reader or writer who is socially active online and who is unaware or nonchalant about the issue smacks of willful ignorance. But simple awareness is not enough.
Action is needed. A lot of it. And on different fronts.
Women should be more generous to one another whenever we make
personal and professional choices about our lives. Just like the women
in the film Who Does She Think She Is?
I have found resistance to my artistic endeavors. For example, in my own small
university town a surprising number of women of my
acquaintance share similar backgrounds with me. Several years ago, one such
woman was trying to get in touch with me. When I
explained to her that I don't answer the phone (I had a cell phone for
emergency calls) during the day because I'm working (writing), she
seemed put out. This woman later brought up this habit of mine to
another woman right in front of me. Her mention was derisively-toned and seemingly without
point. "Don't bother trying to reach Sabra during the day, she doesn't
answer the phone when she's working."All three of us have English degrees, professor husbands, three or more children, and were Stay-At-Home-Mothers.
If I chose to spend an entire year only reading books by
women and ask if anyone wants to join me, I know no one has to jump on
my soap box with me. But I don't expect anyone to try to pull me off of
it, either. And women should be more vocal when we see evidence of
gender inequality in literature. We shouldn't feel like we're whining.
There's just too much evidence that our gender gets the literary
We need to hold our schools, colleges, and universities accountable. Though I was fortunate to attend a public liberal arts and sciences university with an English Department that constantly challenged the Western
canon, I realize most universities are different. They don't need to
relegate the majority of women's works to the Gender
Studies Department. Women's works should be prominently endorsed in all kinds of
classrooms from pre-schools to Ph.D. programs. Our best women writers should receive as much name recognition as our best men writers. Our conventional literature wisdom needs to be turned on its head.
I routinely hear both rumors about and confessions from male writers concerning how much editorial advice and influence they receive from various magazine editors. In some cases, the editorial input is significant and career-making. When I asked a group of "little magazine" published women writers how much editorial help they got for their various journal publications, not a one had the same experience. In fact, it was the opposite, the amount of editing these women received from editors was non-existent. Their publications appeared as close to the original submission as possible. In my experience, I got a few grammar edits and one article title from two editors, both male. From another editor, this one female, she asked that I take a line off my submission. I agreed. More significant advice, the sort that chisels out and remolds great chunks of writing, hasn't been forthcoming. In fact, when I submitted this very essay to a female editor, she pointed out a missing word, a misplaced reference, and wondered if I couldn't have pushed my thinking further. Sounds like I was close, yes? But no offer of reconsideration with edits was made. It feels whiny to point out this editorial inequality, after all it's only anecdotal. Perhaps VIDA should tackle this count.
Male readers, and most especially male writers, need to be called to the carpet on their choices. A male writer friend of mine (and different from the one I mention above) has a telling Goodreads list. Hundreds of works of literary fiction are on his list, but less than a quarter of them are by women. More problematic is that this particular writer's list seems to sample women's writings in the same way literature courses do. The Western canon is well represented on his list and I as pointed out above about female writers' name recognition, his 21% of books by women are heavily weighted toward Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro. But all other women's works are just a smattering. One Jane Austen novel here. Two Toni Morrison novels there. A book each from the Bronte sisters. When we come across a male writer who only reads (or says he reads) contemporary works by women he actually knows in real life, doesn't know who Margaret Atwood is, or has never read Iris Murdoch or Doris Lessing or any other woman writer outside the "Creative Writing canon," we should rub our index fingers across each other and tell him, "Shame, shame." And for those men, I also have two words- Margaret Atwood. She often "reads" male on programs that calculate a writer's possible gender based on their words such as The Gender Genie and Gender Guesser. Her main character in Oryx and Crake is male and she throws in some kiddie porn to mix things up. And if you can't appreciate this line from The Blind Assassin, “Soon you’ll regret all that sun-tanning. Your face will look like a testicle,” I'm at a loss.
Will it work? Will things change? I don't know, but we have to try. Women need to support other women. Period. Most especially if those women are choosing to make a difference in their work lives. Institutions should examine their over-reliance on the Western canon and the usual suspects of the Creative Writing classroom. Editorial generosity should be as forthcoming for women writers as it has (seemingly) been for men. Men should be encouraged, challenged, or shamed into reading more books by women. When male readers, and again, most especially male writers, take women's works as seriously as men's, a world change will occur.
My choice to spend 2012 reading books by women was simple— if men don’t read women writers out of habit, perhaps women reading only women on purpose would further raise awareness of the gender reading gap. 366 days of reading women and writing this essay is a small endeavor, but it has been personally profound nonetheless. In forcing myself to chose my reading material consciously and with the purpose of supporting and promoting one sort of writer, I was exposed to works I would have never attempted without such parameters. If each American reader— and most especially writer— made similarly deliberate literature choices, we would all benefit. Not just across gender lines, but also socio-economic, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, national, language, and genre lines. Sometimes getting out of our comfort zone can only be accomplished by boxing ourselves in. Imagine how broadened our horizons would become, how rich our reading life, how supportive our choices would be if we spent a week studying short stories, an August pouring over African writers, a season reciting poetry, a year of reading women.
Music is cool again. Seriously. I have to write a bit more on that later, but for now, my "Black Keys" radio channel on Pandora has exposed me to a lot of great stuff and for about half a year, Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" came up on it. It's now associated with Johnny Manziel and after last night's slaughter of Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl, I'll post the video. Video's cheesy, though. You're warned.
Not surprisingly, I've neglected this blog in recent weeks (months). Always happens when I'm drafting or it's the end of the semester or from the week of Thanksgiving until mid-December. When it's all three at once, well crickets and tumbleweeds. Again.