In December 2012, I read Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing. In the book, Russ identifies the arguments that many people make to discredit female writers — “she only wrote one book,” “this isn’t a serious/important enough topic,” “she wrote it under a pseudonym because she wanted people to think she was a man,” and so on — and coolly dismantles them, one by one.
I’m already what I’d call a card-carrying feminist. Even before reading Russ’ book, I made an effort to seek out and support up-and-coming female writers, who generally get less publicity and support than their male counterparts. But after reading Russ’ book I realized that there was still much more I could do to advocate for female writers. I flashed to the famous Tallulah Bankhead quote about how best to support the theater: “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
I’m a writer. When my book, Save the Assistants, came out in 2011, all I wanted was for other people to read it. So it seemed only logical to repay the favor. Most of my favorite writers – Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf – are women, albeit dead ones. So, with nods to Joanna Russ and Tallulah Bankhead, I vowed to spend 2013 being an audience. An audience for female writers only.
My reading list was scattershot, a mix of unread books by writers I already knew and liked, new writers recommended by friends and colleagues, books left over in hostels, and the occasional bookstore this-sounds-cool find. Some of them were great. Some were terrible. Many were more than books; they were impressions and memories. I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on a Eurostar train from Paris to London and walked out into the darkening city convinced it was still the 16th century. I showed up at work disheveled and red-eyed because I had to read Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam in its entirety the night it came out. During a drawn-out, miserable breakup, I consoled myself with hilarious essays from Caitlin Moran’s Moranthology.
It didn’t feel like a burden or a chore. It felt natural. Occasionally, a friend would recommend a guy-authored a book to me and I’d say, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m not really reading any books by men right now.” Some people – usually women – immediately asked me to recommend a book by a woman they might not have heard of. Some people – usually men – asked me why I’d “limit” myself in such a way. It’s a question that I’ve never heard posed in the reverse.
Although plenty of critics and academics have done a wonderful job reinterpreting what it means to be “the canon,” there are still many readers in the US who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that men have contributed most of what we know to be literature. As an undergraduate English Lit major, I had several classes where every single author we read was male, and I still regret not speaking up enough about it.
One difference that my book list made is that it ever-so-delicately altered the way I looked at the world. It was slow at first, but opening myself up to a variety of female perspectives made me more aware of the female lives around me. While reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (which is about a group of Japanese women who immigrated to the United States for arranged marriages to Japanese workers) on the subway, I realized I was the only person to get up and offer a pregnant woman my seat. Feminism, as bell hooks pointed out, is for everyone. And when we become more aware of the small injustices and tiny everyday tragedies around us, we become better people. Reading women’s voices helped me to hear them more loudly in my daily life. Our culture is getting better and better at encouraging women to speak, but it’s not doing enough to listen to what they say when they do.
I’ve been called a misandrist. But when the story of University of Toronto professor David Gilmour refusing to assign his students any books written by women began to circulate online in September, I felt as if my simple reading list could serve a greater purpose. Simply being able to pass one book along to a friend or recommend something to a Tumblr follower felt like a sort of literary ministry. Sometimes I responded by sending links to the website VIDA, which keeps track of the percentages of male and female authors who get bylines or are reviewed in major publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. By almost any statistic, words written by a woman are given less weight.
However, there was a limit to my being-an-audience. I made two concessions to men, both friends of mine whose books were published this year. Both had supported me during my own publication experience, and it seemed fair. Although the decision to read only books written by women was an explicitly feminist choice, supporting one’s friends – especially when they’re feminist male friends – seemed like a fair reason to take a short break. Yet even while reading these books I felt as if I was doing something wrong. It was like being a new vegan but sneaking one or two bites of bacon. And I was mad at myself for being mad at myself. One single woman reading books is certainly not going to change the world, unless that woman happens to be Oprah. (Or Beyoncé.) And the project wasn’t for a class – it was just something I’d decided to do for myself, without any final grade depending on it.
Still, there are some things I’m planning to change going forward. Of the 40 books I read this year, only six were by women of color. Still fewer were by queer women. “Reading a book by a woman” is about as only-on-one-level feminist as just voting for a political candidate because she happens to be female, no matter how she votes on issues. While quite a few of the books that I read, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, were explicitly intended to be feminist, some fell more into the category of “airport reads.” If a woman writes a book with a male protagonist, I asked myself, did that count? When I bought a travel guide for a place I was going to be visiting, did it really matter who wrote the blurbs about the best hotels and restaurants? But sometimes I flashed back to myself as a bookwormy little girl, walking up to the Classics shelf at my local library, seeing male name upon male name, and then walking away again.
That memory particularly hit home for me as I read the book I loved the most this year, Eavan Boland’s A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet:
For so many women there must be one place where the dream of becoming a poet died. There, in one spot, she — whoever she was, whenever she lived — let go of that hope. One house, perhaps. One room. One set of walls, one aspect she can still see when she closes her eyes and thinks bitterly or sadly about what she lost.
I did not give it up. But if I had, I would have thought back to that place. A small room with steps down, on which I sat night after night in what seemed to be an informal posture. With a dark red carpet and a comfortable armchair and small windows. But which, of course, suggested more of the domestic, updated version of sitting at a great man’s feet than I would have ever realized or ever admitted. Where I, the youngest daughter of a clever, willful, and in some ways Victorian man, waited in vain for the big wings of wax.
2013 is nearly over. I could write this whole project off as a fun experiment – after all, reading for pleasure doesn’t seem as important as, say, backing feminist candidates for political office or donating money to Planned Parenthood. But there was one happy benefit of my all-female reading list: it felt completely, utterly ordinary. I don’t feel like I was missing anything. I didn’t feel deprived. My list of “books I keep meaning to read” has always been long, and it will probably stay that way unless I check into a convent on a remote island that doesn’t have the Internet. Going forward, I plan to keep female authors the overwhelming majority of what I read. I will be bringing the occasional male author into the lineup, but they’ll never be my top priority. That’s something I feel comfortable doing for the rest of my life. I could never turn Kazuo Ishiguro away forever, but I hope he’ll feel comfy on my shelf surrounded by women.
I’d like to add more explicitly feminist books to my list, as well as under-recognized and under-appreciated titles by authors of color and by queer writers. How I’ve made it this far in life without reading any Octavia Butler is a mystery, and it’s also a failure I’m correcting immediately. That said, I already know what my final book of 2013 will be: The Female Man, by Joanna Russ.
Follow Lilit Marcus on Twitter: @lilitmarcus
Top image: Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, cover detail