Reading Women Writers

What an awkward subject. I find myself feeling foolish for bringing it up – “reading women writers” – because, in 2014, shouldn’t this be a non-issue? I’m a woman, many of my friends are women, many of the writers I know personally are women. Given we make up roughly half the population, we should make up half of the books on the shelves, right?

I always forget how poor I am at math.

On average, women make up less than half of the published and promoted authors today – some arenas, even less than a quarter. Even looking through my own library recently, I was surprised (and ashamed) to discover that I own far more books by men than I do by women. 

I like to think I’m an enlightened person. My parents raised me to be a thinking, inquisitive member of the world. I like to read a variety of books, on a variety of subjects. I lean towards what’s generally known as lit fic, or upmarket fiction – stories about people being people and learning about other people. I’m a feminist and have been since before I understood there was such a thing – I was the kid who couldn’t believe anyone’s ability was defined by their sex. I support women’s rights, equality, and an elevated thought process for all.

How is it, then, that when I’m asked who my favorite writers are, they’re invariably men? When I think of my favorite books, they’re written by men. I realized, today, outside the teenage girl standby of loving Sylvia Plath (and those shameful Babysitters Club books of yore), I didn’t read another book by a woman until I was in high school and was given Pride and Prejudice.

In college, I was exposed to Margaret Atwood and Sandra Cisneros. I read books about the craft of writing, by Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and Natalie Goldberg. I had great inspiration in my favorite writing instructor, and the fantastic Catherine O’Neill Thorn, who mentored me for years. 

Yet, ask me books I’ve read, authors I’ve admired, and they’re all men.

I’m bothered by this on a fundamental level. I am not against men as writers, and I don’t think anyone would accuse me of that. Indeed, I love reading what others have crafted, and generally care very little about the person behind the work – I want something good, something interesting, something compelling. I may be rare in that I honestly think very little of the writer of books: outside reading more of a person’s writing, I never bother to find out their politics, their beliefs, their opinions. Hell, sometimes I barely remember names. 

What’s the issue then, you might ask. If all people are equally as interesting, then why does it matter who wrote the book?

The issue is this: if women aren’t read, then we’re only characters in someone else’s story. We’re not writing the words, we’re not telling the tales. Our lives, then, are lived out through the eyes of another person, a person who, as a male, cannot understand the actuality of living as a woman.

Does this mean men can’t write women (or the opposite)? Of course not. Some of my favorite books, about women, have been written by men, in a moving manner. However, only reading books by men is like only seeing half of a movie: you’re missing out on the other part of the story, the rest of it.

Publishing traditionally favors men. This is not the fault of modern male writers, obviously: this is inborn, and perpetuated in a scope that is rather hard to grasp. Equality still isn’t a full thing – women are still underpaid, and lacking in basic rights on a lot of levels. Our media still tends to heavily favor men. This means more books that are accepted for publishing are written by men, and more authors that are promoted are men. This, quite naturally, leads people to believe that men are the thought-makers, the story-tellers, the ones with something to say and greater talent with which to say it. It’s a vicious cycle, one that is self-perpetuating: publish a man, promote a man, think only men are capable, lather, rinse, repeat. Men sell more because there are more books by men to sell!

Women have a voice. Women have talents and thoughts, beliefs and interests, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice not to explore these, experience these, and make them a part of our own considerations as well.
Why, then, are women not published? See above: we’ve created a market that favors men. Do none of these men deserve this? Of course not: the great majority of published male authors earn their acclaim, through both talent of works, and sheer effort put into producing interesting reading.

It comes down to money. There is still a pervasive sexism that causes men’s works to sell more. I’ve met more than one man – often, thinking, thoughtful, intelligent men – who have said, point-blank, they don’t read books by women, and usually on purpose. Our media is slow moving: we’re still surprised when a woman can write a crime mystery – who wasn’t shocked to find out it was JK Rowling behind Robert Galbraith? Often, books penned by women are labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” pushing them out of the realm of “legitimate fiction” which is almost entirely populated by the likes of men.

There is nothing wrong with “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” or the traditionally female-dominated genre of romance. However, that men get the simple, straight-forward, main genre of “fiction” and women, when allowed, are relegated to a second tier, a set-apart realm that, often, is meant to indicate lesser writing, is upsetting.
How do we go about changing this? Read women. It’s really oddly simple: read more women. The numbers are what drive change, so buy more books by women. Seek out stories penned by female authors.

I almost feel like I should add an apology here, or a reassurance: you can still read your favorite authors! Men are okay! But this is not about men, or padding the feelings of such. The majority does not need our assistance. The balance is gained by assisting the minority.

Read more women. It will do us all good.

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