Have you heard of #ReadWomen2014? It’s a trend at Twitter that got attention in the media, like The Guardian with it’s article Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits? .
It looks like everybody is praising this idea. But I’m not happy with this idea, I think it’s harmful. I’ll explain my opinion in this post. I’m interested in your opinion. What do you think about #ReadWomen2014?
#ReadWomen2014 and how it started
Joanna Walsh made some New Year’s card with female writers. She made them inspired by two male reviewers resolutions to read (and review) more female writers during the year. Because some organisation (VIDA) posted charts that too little books by female authors are reviewed. You can read her story at berfrois, but I think most of the news about #readwomen2014 will give you the same info.
A long post before you, but I hope it’ll offer you an interesting insight (also on the Polish situation) and will be a good source for thoughts and discussions. Between you and me, and the others.
Covers and marketing
Joanna Walsh writes about female writers nagging at girly covers of books that aren’t girly.
(…) I’ve listened to female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing is not.
That raises three questions.
- Who decides which topics are girly or what kind of style is girly or not?
- Why is “girly” a negative term?
- Why “girly” doesn’t mean something done by a “girl” but it relates to stereotype of what a girl is and how she behaves?
The problems with stereotypical covers is going on for decades, at least. It’s clear to those who were reading old fantasy books (I’m bit over 30 and I remember that) with half naked ladies on covers, etc. The stereotype was “by male for male” I think. Nowadays, the whole paranormal romance subgenre has “the same” boring stereotypical covers with half-naked men on covers. I think the stereotype is “by female for female”. The problems with covers isn’t related only to female authors. It’s a bigger problem. And it would need more research. 😉
According to the article, there is a balance of books written by men and women. There is a problem in marketing. Books by women are less reviewed and got worse publicity. VIDA looks at things locally, UK and USA only. It’s hard to make a global claim based on just two countries, right? I’m interested in the situation in your own country too. I’ll write about Poland, and how I see it. If you’re from Poland and have different opinion, feel free to share it. I’m open for discussion.
I made a quick research on a book section of one of Polish portals – ksiazki.wp.pl . I counted the reviewers (32 woman against 16 men) and books reviewed in January 2014 (10th to 24th) – 21. 12 books were written by males (5 non-fiction), 9 were written by women, including 4 non-fiction. Only twice (on 7 reviews) men reviewed books written by women. Given the numbers, if ladies wanted, more books written by women could be reviewed at ksiazki.wp.pl, but somehow female reviewers kept the 50/50 in reviews, when men couldn’t.
I’ve checked out also 2 male reviewers on the naTemat portal – Adam Kraszewski and Mikołaj Marszycki. In January 2014 Adam Kraszewski reviewed 10 books, 3 of them written by women. Also, he chose 14 the most important books published, read and reviewed in 2013, only 3 of them were by women. Mikołaj Marszycki reviews books written by women, but it’s important to note that when he chose 20 best books in 2013 from Poland and the world, none of them were written by women. Kinda depressing, isn’t it?
I know, these are random stats, but if somebody’s interested, I could try doing better research. I just need input from you, might be in a comment.
Me reading books by women
I’m a woman. I don’t care about author’s sex, etc. I read just things that interest me. In 2014 I’ve read 5 books already, none of them written by ladies. Yesterday I finished rereading manga. A 10 volume manga by a Japanese lady. And currently I’m reading Jann Turner’s “Heartland”. If you want to see what I’ve read this year a list is available as Books & Comics read in 2014. (1 book is hidden from public view).
I’m not biased, nor sexist. It just happens that I read more books by men. I do plan on reading some books written by women, but it’s not because they’re women. There were other factors. There was something that got me interested in those books. For example a topic. I plan on reading some books written by men, but it’s not because they’re men.
Men reading books by women
I’m lucky (?) to know some men reading more books by women than me. One of them is Alqua, who has a blog with reviews (in Polish) called Na skrzydłach książek. I trust his opinions. 😉 Sometimes I get the recommendations for female writers from my male friends.
Long time ago I had a (male) friend who loved reading Margit Sandemo’s “Legends of the Ice People” series. For those who don’t remember/know, it’s romance & fantasy saga of a family in Norway. Every volume (around 50) had separate romantic story (or stories).
Of course, there are men who dislike reading female authors. There think the women’s style or topics isn’t for them. They disregard women’s writing. Where do they get those ideas from? I’m not sure, but later on it gets “imprinted”.
Christopher Newgent in What’s a Man’s Literature post wrote about Esquire magazine (for men) about their list of Books Every Man Should Read. They featured only 1 female author (book) against 74 males. Tho now it’s 80 books a man should read, so maybe they changed something.
Why I’m against #readwomen2014 if I too showed you that there’s a disproportion in reading the other sex’s books?
Because I don’t like how it divides literature by sex! It’s a black & white type of division. Men & women. Again, three things to consider.
- Who decides whether you are a man or a woman?
- If a person thinking of herself as a “woman” would write a book while (still) having a male body or vice versa how do we classify it?
- How do we classify books by authors like Miss Shangay Lily or people who don’t identify with female/male division or who identify as “both sexes” etc.?
Why does it matter at all? Why not choose literature based on interests? Who wants to read (write) a romance book, can do so, regardless of sex. I’m not interested in romantic books, which I stereotypically should be reading as a woman. 😉
But it’s not everything… I’d like you to make a list of 10 bestselling authors known around the world fulfilling those requirements:
- Physically handicapped writers (excluding Hawking).
- Muslim ladies happy with their lives and writing books that reflect it. (Somehow I think the most visible books in Europe/USA are “I had so bad experiences”).
- Pious followers of their religions and writing fiction books.
- Atheist writers.
- African writers from African countries and not descendants of Europeans. (So long, Coetzee).
- Asian writers from various countries in Asia (not those of Asian descendent living in Europe, USA from birth/childhood).
- Modern writers from non-English speaking European countries.
- People who write in “rare” languages.
- LGBT writers from around the world, especially the countries that claims that “homosexuality” is not a part of their “culture”.
Hard? Impossible? I could go on. I think #readwomen2014 is a part of a bigger problem – a lack of diversity in the promoted books. Especially in Poland, what children read at school is hardly diverse at all. Let’s look closer at this case.
Polish (high) school lectures
I’m writing from the Polish point of view, because I know this the best. If you can tell me about lectures read in your countries, I’d be more than happy to learn about it.
Polish system of education is totally biased. It doesn’t inspire looking differently at things. By making my claims I’m using a regulation by Minister of Education, which mentions “books” everybody has to read and recommended (on basic and extended level). As far as I know, this should be the current law. The non-Polish readers must believe my word, as I’ll use the examples.
Ancient times: Bible (fragments) and Greek/Roman myths and plays. Ugh… No Gilgamesh, no Mahabharata, etc. Middle Ages: Still no books related to religious beliefs of people other than Catholics. Btw, don’t count for even fragments of Genji monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu, or later on about “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en but you can count on William Sheakspear and Fyodor Dostoyewski.
There is really no point in continuing listing like that. It’s Europe-centred literature, mostly written by men. Even if it’s Europe-centred, it’s some selected countries writers. Mostly Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Russia. Romanian writers? Croatian, Latvian, etc.? No way.
Of course the teacher can choose some books, but it’s quite limited. It’s something along the way: “chosen Polish novel from 20th or 21stcentury (for example: and given examples here)”. Examples for the “chosen 20th/21st century novel from around the world” oddly gives just European titles except for Gabriel Garcia Marguez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Extended level isn’t much better. And when it comes to religion-related lectures on extended level, there is even more Catholic reading there. Sure, let’s read Pope John Paull II, instead of “Things Fall Apart” by Chinhua Achebe, which has a strong religion theme, in crosscultural and colonial context. Poland wasn’t a colonial country, but we still learn about European colonialism on history lessons. A book showing colonialism from the African point of view would be valuable, I think.
I haven’t seen even one African or Asian writer mentioned in this regulation. I haven’t seen even one Muslim, Hinduist, Buddist, etc. writer. Who cares about that? We don’t live in a “global world” anyway, and we don’t have crosscultural contacts (possibly) daily. Right? Based on the regulation, there might not be much books written by women in the school program (tho I’m not sure how the reality nowadays looks like), but just reading more women is not going to change much.
What will change if instead of 5 men writing “XYZ is good, ABC is bad” kind of book, it’ll be 5 women? And a man writing “ABC is good, XYZ is good too, depending on a situation” won’t be published/promoted because he doesn’t fit the key (sex)? The diversity in opinion is scarce in such a situation. It doesn’t help anybody in the global world, I believe. The world is a a mixture of various – often contradictory – opinions. It’s important to know the different points of views to get the whole picture. Remember, that even men aren’t equally promoted when it comes to published books. There is a bias also in the “men’s literature”.
That’s why, instead of #readwomen2014 I call for #diversereading2014.
What do you think?
Do you look at the sex of the author? Or like me, do you just look at what’s interesting for you?Are you going to #readwomen2014 ? Or will the call to action change nothing in your reading (not necessarily sexist) habits?
Is there a diversity in your books and authors? Do you read just inside your comfort zone or do you try to discover something new?
Share your thoughts in the comments below and let’s have a discussion.