Wednesday, 1 June 2016

my year of reading books by women

Two of my favourite books (now quite worn from being carried around so often)

With the risk of sounding like an incessantly nerdy English Lit student, I have decided to write about the year I only read books written by women, in order to rectify the gender imbalance in the authors of my favourite books. At the end of 2014 I started my research for my Extended Project on women of the Beat Generation. It was this research that revealed the historic sexism in literature overall, that led me to decide to only read books written by women in 2015. Other than books for school and uni, I stuck to this. Though it's not the same as reading a number of hefty classics, such as War and Peace or Finnegan's Wake, I think it did improve my range of reading and my view of the world overall.

Books I brought to uni

Before last year nearly every one of my favourite books was written by a man (Dorian Gray, On The Road, Norwegian Wood etc.) I never thought twice about this until researching the Beat Generation, where I found that a lot of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs etc. made me feel somewhat alienated. I started reading extracts and poems from works written by Beat women writers. Though the social and economic position of women has improved since the '40s and '50s, literature is supposed to transport us back to its context, and if I had hung around with the Beat Generation (one can only dream...) then I would have had the experiences that these women recount.

Sylvia Plath's journals

My reading ranged from Pride and Prejudice to Gone Girl. Many of the books focused on the unique experience of being a woman at the time when they were written, such as Valley of the Dolls and A Room of One's Own, but others defy stereotypical "female" literature like Frankenstein (the original scifi novel) and The Talented Mr Ripley (one of the best contemporary crime novels.)

Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems on my desk when I was researching my essay on women and poetry

So, what did I gain from only reading books by women in 2015? I felt like I was doing something right, by acknowledging these great works of literature that are often overlooked in the traditional canon. Though many of them are already considered classics, it was an entry point for reading more works by women and it evened out the books I read. By narrowing down the books I could read, it was easier to decide what to read next and I got through some books that had been on my reading list for a long time. I guess, also, it made me feel more confident about being a writer. It's such a subtle thing, but having female role models is so important. I'm not saying we should burn all classics written by men then dance round the fire screaming, "Down with the patriarchy!!" But, of course I'm not. If you're reading this you're probably aware of how nuanced feminism is. The literary canon just needs to be updated to include the women writers that have historically been overlooked.

Grace Coddington's memoirs

Another reason I decided to only read books by women was because my pastoral literature A-Level course featured no women writers and I thought that my first year of uni would be similar. I've been pleasantly surprised as we've studied The Bluest Eye, Sense and Sensibility, The Awakening and Emily Dickinson among others. We have also studied a number of works by black writers. In general, university study has been much more progressive than A-Levels.

Emily Dickinson (bae)

Finally, here are the books I read, with the best ones in bold:
The Bell Jar
Frankenstein
Mrs Dalloway
Off the Road
New Poems of Emily Dickinson
Pride and Prejudice
Caucasia
Valley of the Dolls
Girl Interrupted
A Taste of Honey
The Lovely Bones
Rebecca
Emma
White Teeth
A Room of One's Own
Catherine and Other Writings
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
The Color Purple
The Talented Mr Ripley
How To Be A Woman
Gone Girl
Orlando
The Bloody Chamber
The Handmaid's Tale
M Train
The Diary of Frida Kahlo. 

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you liked Gone Girl, The Handmaid's Tale and The Bloody Chamber, they're some of my faves too! This seems like such a good idea and has made me realise how most of my best loved books are by men, and how I should probably try to even it up a bit.

    If you haven't already you should check out Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, I recently read it and reviewed it on my blog. I'd love to know your thoughts!

    www.miriamwoodburnblog.co.uk

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    Replies
    1. It was definitely worth doing. Thanks for the recommendation. Read your review- I'll check it out as I love short stories. I'm reading Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald at the moment x

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