#ReadWomen2014 – is it really a good idea?

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.

  1. Who decides which topics are girly or what kind of style is girly or not?
  2. Why is “girly” a negative term?
  3. 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. 😉

Reviews inbalance

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.

Polish reviews

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.

Against #readwomen2014

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.

  1. Who decides whether you are a man or a woman?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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3 thoughts on “#ReadWomen2014 – is it really a good idea?”

  1. I disagree with a few points.
    There is a difference between having a half naked guy on a cover what essentially is erotica and having flowers on books written by women. The thing is that those same books would be give different covers if there were written by a man. That’s the problem! That female literature is being infantilized. I worry less about unoriginal and cliche covers of cliche books. They represent the content well.
    And as for your Polish VIDA count… You didn’t actually count any Polish literary magazines. You counted ksiazki.wp and natemat. Seriously, those just web pages created mostly by users. Those people are not paid to do it. Check Ksiazki. Magazyn do Czytania (according to my own rough count male/female ratio there is 10/1. They had a woman on the cover TWICE so far) or Nowe Ksiazki. Even Chimera. You will see that the situation is even worse than it is in the US or UK. Check also the review section for weeklies like Polityka, Wprost etc. and see how many books by women are reviewed. Also do the count on literary awards (shortlist and wins) and you will realise how imbalanced it is.

    Now why is ‘girl’ a negative term. Well, girly refers to a child. If you put a child cover on an adult book written by a grown up woman that talks about serious issues you’re being patronising.

    I think you’re missing the point of the whole campaign. It is not to make you read a book just because it was written by a woman. It is to bring to spotlight all those books written by women which get lost because of all that prejudice I’ve talked about above. there are men (and seriously check Goodreads for that who have not read a SINGLE book written by a woman (except for to Kill a Mocking Bird). If you speak to them they will tell you they don’t just choose books written by men, it just happens. They just choose books that interest them. I want to know: why does it happen? If they like J Franzen, they should love Zadie Smith. There is no reason why a book with a similar topic shouldn’t interest them. If a woman is into literary fiction you will see both men and women on her shelves. It a man is into literary fiction you often see he reads about 90% men. Why? I believe no other reason than marketing, stupid covers, lack of media coverage etc.

    Of course, there should be more coverage for all discriminated groups. But the thing is that LGBT people are about 2-10% of the population, so you shouldn’t expect more than that in the breakdown of books. Handicapped people are an even small minority. Women, however form over 50% of the population. And some circles of literary (and other) worlds they don’t exist.

    (I’m not going to discuss Polish school curriculum because there is absolutely no point. Everyone knows it’s useless).

    So yes, I will only read book that interest me but I will use this opportunity to learn about new female authors that might interest me. That is the point of this! No one is trying to make you read book you have no interest reading. Just consider that the reason you read less books written by women is because they are, as a group, overlooked, so you just don’t chance upon them as you do upon male writers (and not because you somehow prefer books written by men). And yes, I hope it will change something. Because this situation, frankly, sucks.

    1. Sorry, it took me such a long time to answear it. I wanted to do it properly, but lacked time.

      1. Covers.
      I don’t agree. Half-naked men doesn’t always mean it’s erotica. For me it’s the same type of covers as the flowery etc. covers. Lately I’ve been reading “Heartland” (Dolina Marzeń) by Jann Turner and the cover and its description aren’t really connected to the story (I’ve read 1/3 of it, and it’s too heavy on social issues and politics for the sex to really be that important in the book). You can see it here: http://lubimyczytac.pl/ksiazka/81180/dolina-marzen
      The cliche covers is a problem, because it makes assumprions about the readers (what they expect) and stereotype what they like. A cliche fantasy book’s cover is bad, regardless if it’s written by a lady or no.
      “Dolina marzeń” was not the flowery type, etc. but because of the cover and description, I’d ignore it, if a librarian wouldn’t recommend it.

      2. VIDA.
      As I’ve said, I did it as a quick research. I got to the first placed website in Google results that had the book reviews. In my summary, I wrote about the situation on that very site (not generally in Poland) – that there would be more reviews of female writers, if the ladies wanted it that way.
      NaTemat has “professional” team also, but I agree, I put bloggers. Those who I knew reviewed books.
      I’m ignoring Książki for years. Firstly, because they promote Joanna Bator (I’ve got a lot against her), secondly, because they can’t even comprehend what „world” means (I remember I bought one magazine with supposedly „what the world reads” few years ago) and thirdly, their team can’t even make sure, the people (like Bator) will stay on topic. Nothing surprising, since it’s Agora’s title and they aren’t exactly “professional”.
      As I wrote, it was a quick research – on the internet – and I had no Nowe Książki or Chimera or anything else, except the internet. I didn’t want to review without the access to the whole review. If you did a count in Nowe Ksiażki or somewhere else, I’m curious to see the results.
      I didn’t write the reviews were balanced. I wrote they weren’t. In wp.pl, it was more balanced (over 40% of books by women) where women outnumbered men as reviewers than when only men reviewed books. So it’s “men mainly review men” and “women mainly review men”.

      3. The reading.
      #Readwomen2014 is about reading more books by women. It’s not “bringing attention to those lacking the spotlight” because if you’ll see the list of female writers, you’ll see quite a lot of the world known names. They aren’t left to rot somewhere far away. They are either classic or bestseller authors. You can see the lists here: http://badaude.typepad.com/my_weblog/2014/01/readwomen2014-the-list.html

      Dunno who is Franzen, but I heard about Z. Smith. Not that I read her book. Why don’t you ask that guy(s) why he (they) didn’t read Z. Smith? Maybe nobody recommended it to read? I’ve got a lot of books to read, so it’s more probable I’ll read sooner something that a friend (a person’s whose taste I know and trust) recommends.

      I’m one of those who don’t pay attention to the sex of a person. Sometimes I get a book because I was interested in title, sometimes in cover and sometimes description/review will get me hooked. Sometimes topic or a country of the author is important. NEVER because of a sex of the writer. Instead of a romantic theme, I prefer action. I prefer bathing in blood, than in roses. I prefer political intrigue to love intrigues. If I’ll get by a book written by a lady that suit my tastes (I’ve just finished “Zaremba or Love and the Rule of Law” by Michelle Granas) then I’ll read it. Simple as that.
      If you look at my shelves, you’ll see probably 90% men and 10% women. My friends’ shelves (we read sf/fantasy, went to conventions, etc.) will have more women books than mine. Not because of the marketing. We’re in the same circles, and definitely it’s not marketing difference. I know those names, in case of Białołęcka for around 15 years probably (conventions), but for whatever reason, I didn’t read them, yet they did. And it’s not like I don’t know those ladies aren’t good writers. They are. Still, I didn’t read them, because I was interested in reading something else. It’s not only about marketing!

      Some people might be looking down on me because I hardly read Polish fantasy. But it’s just because I didn’t find some topics in Polish books. When it’s there, I’ll read it.

      5. Discrimination
      Since when reviews should be based on %? Why it’s more important to promote women than the diversity? Are you sure John Green is better known than Indi just because he’s a guy? Nope, I think Indi is unknown because she’s from Indonesia, writing in Indonesian, and “nobody” cares what is written somewhere far away. You think people in USA care at all what’s written in Poland? Yet, we’re all over a shit, just cause it’s from USA.
      Or should we promote books based on country’s population? USA nor UK shouldn’t get that much coverage, they aren’t the most populated countries in the world, after all. But they are heavily promoted in Poland and around the world.
      Over 12% of people in Poland are handicapped. How often they’re the heroes of books? Men/women aside? Don’t you think they should be more often heroes of books that get reviewed?

      6. Reading women
      If someone decided that “The Reason I Jump” won’t get covered because it would go over the quota for “books written by males” and instead something like “Bridget Jones Diary” (or any unimportant book, just written by a woman) would be promoted, because it was written by a woman, I’d go smack the reviewer.
      The problem is that I’m not overlooking them as a group, because they’re less promoted than men. On the contrary – *I overlook things that are promoted*, especially highly promoted. I don’t like following the masses. I overlook things that don’t interest me, be it new Terminator/Bond or new romantic comedy. I overlooked Lem for years, like I’m overlooking Białołęcka. Some months ago, I read Lem for the first time. I’m in love. There had to be time for me to enjoy his books I had no interest in for 15 years or so. I overlooked romantic films until I went to Indonesia and watched mostly them, because it was easy to understand. And I was interested in different culture. And I enjoyed them. But I still say I don’t like romantic films. I don’t watch romantic films in Poland. Nor read books, which main topic is romance and love.

      I overlook those who are promoted, but still I end reading more books by men (at least I can be quite sure for the 2013, when I started to write it down).

      The main problem with #ReadWomen2014 is that’s it making the segregation based on the sex of writer. Who decides who can be called “woman” or “man”? Is Anna Grodzka’s book a women literature? Instead of a “woman” I’d prefer to be viewed as a “person” and if I publish a book, I wouldn’t like to get a label “a bold woman writing on men topics” or something similar. Etc. Instead I’d prefer a review along the lines “a great book on war, money and power”.

      Why it’s not #ReadNonHetero2014? Why not #ReadHandicapped2014? Why not #ReadMuslim2014? Etc.? Actually more than that, I’d like #ReadWhatYouWant2014 or #ReadSomethingDifferent2014. And then, make a list #GoodBooksIReadin2014, #BadBooksIReadin2014.

      I believe that much more books and writers are ignored because they don’t fit some scheme than it has to do with the author’s sex. That’s why I oppose #ReadWomen2014.

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