I was at work the other day piling up books to be displayed under the heading ‘Jamie Recommends’. I walked around the shop and hunted for books that have really stuck with me. Recent highlights and old favourites. I trawled from A to Z enjoying having a browse that wouldn’t result in me having to spend a single penny.
Of course it wasn’t a real browse it was more like cataloguing my reading history.
Naturally my take on that history is utterly revisionist.
If Winston is right and history is written by the victors then my own READING history is presided over by writers who will give me intellectual kudos (Graham Greene, Richard Yates, Paul Auster) and excising books that I think would make people question my intelligence (The Da Vinci Code), social ineptitude (The Game) or sexual persuasion (The WHOLE of the Twilight Saga).
When I had made my initial selection, whilst considering what my choices say about me/what I WANT my choices to say about me, I was shocked to discover that my first pick of 8 books didn’t include a SINGLE female author. After a second sweep of the shop I managed to partially redress the balance by adding four titles penned by ladies (The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Living Dolls by Natasha Walters, Cuckoo by Julia Crouch and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld). The fact is though, I had to really think about it.
I was stunned. I never knew that I was so subconsciously book-sexist. It made me look at my book shelves at home and although there ARE women amongst the spines they are drastically outnumbered. I’ve read Jane Austen & Mary Shelley but none of the Brontes, I didn’t get on with On Beauty but I devoured The Whole Woman, I’ve not read George Eliot but I HAVE read Evelyn Waugh (kidding). I haven’t read a book as thought-provoking as Living Dolls in a long time and I think Laura Lippman is one of the best crime novelists in America. I’ve only read two books more than once in my life: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx & To Kill A Mockingbird By Harper Lee….but they didn’t spring readily to my mind!
Is this just me? Is it just male readers? Why didn’t I think instantly of Annie & Harper? I’ve definitely read more books by men but I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed them more. In fact if you look at it percentage-wise the hit-to-miss ratio DEFINITELY goes in favour of the female authors I’ve read. But Is that simply because I have read more books by men? Why have I read more books by men? Is it because there are simply more books written by men published every year? Is that because it’s easier for a man to get published?
Is it the case that for a woman to be a credible, visible, multi-million selling author you have to be pitch perfect and never drop a beat and for a man it’s fine if you are, it’s even nice if you are, but half the time you can just phone it in? IS that the case or does it just seem that way?
To redress the balance I’m now reading The Night Watch. After that is Kat Banyard. After that Margaret Attwood (who I’ve never read!). Then I really must get stuck into Kate Atkinson’s Jackon Brodie. After that who else?
Please help me before I start reading Nuts magazine and enjoying sport.
Lionel Shriver (another author I love but have snubbed) wrote a fascinating article about something very similar. She also talks about the marketing of books by/for women which is something I will talk about next time…