Tuesday, 29 July 2014

100 books by women in 2014

In 2013 I read 169 books. I can tell you this because it's the chief reason I use Goodreads. Of these books approximately 100 of them were by men and 70 of them were by women.

I found this interesting. I'm a woman. I occasionally write fiction. I know that the book buying public mostly consists of women. I like to think that there is a market for books by women. I try to read in roughly equal quantities books by men and books by women. But even I was clearly subject to the same phenomenon which leads to fewer books by women being reviewed, and fewer reviewers being women, as so amply demonstrated by the VIDA Count.

The feminist in me was roused, and I decided that if I was going to read roughly the same number of books in 2014 as I did in 2013, then I was going to make certain that at least 100 of those books would be by women, to balance out 2013. And to do that I was going to read those 100 books first.

Before anyone gets on their high horse, or starts making positive discrimination comments, 1) it's my life, and I can if I want and 2) there are many more good books out there than I will ever have time to read, so it's not a matter of men writing better books. You have to make your own selection somehow and this is a way I chose to do it.

I read my 100th book of the year on July 24th. In restricting myself to books by women, I found I made some interesting choices. I'm going to put my hands up and admit about four of the last ten were by Georgette Heyer. I'm fond of Heyer, her crime novels as well as her Regency romances, and frankly I was having problems with go-to re-read comfort books. Heyer is on my normal list, as is Diana Wynne Jones, and I revisited both of them, but I am also prone to marathon re-readings of Dick Francis (don't judge me!) and P.G. Wodehouse. Agatha Christie got more of a look in in my reading life this year than she does normally, too.

I also put off reading some books which I'd been looking forward to. Doug Durst and J J Abram's S was a birthday present I'd asked for last year, but I didn't get a chance to do it justice before the New Year. It's been tempting me ever since and I was so excited to finally get my teeth into. Similarly finding Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow in Waterstones was a find I had to wait for. New Brandon Sandersons have had to wait, and I gritted my teeth against the Rogues anthology and the Neil Gaiman story featuring (my favourite!) the Marquis de Carabas.

But I certainly read some books I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Read them and enjoyed them. I bought a stack of books off The Book People in their bundles of fiction, and read novels by women I wouldn't usually have looked at. I'm not saying I'll be chasing after Pamela Hartshorne in future, but I did enjoy Time's Echo, a historical and present day novel set in York, where I currently live. That route also led me to Jackie Kay's memoir Red Dust Road, which I heartily recommend.

At one point, starved of the kind of SF and fantasy which usually sustains me, I went into Waterstones and bought every minimally acceptable SF/ F book by a woman they had on their shelves. I hated one and didn't finish it, but Connie Willis's duology Black Out /  All Clear were great fun and something I would never normally have read, because of their WWII setting. I read Rachel Bach's Paradox trilogy and by read I mean devoured.  I discovered Sarah J Maas and will be a devoted follower from now on. Later I bought Ann Leckie's prizewinning Ancillary Justice, which I thought was terrific (and played havoc with gender pronouns), although it was eerily reminiscent of Iain M. Banks for me.

I got round to reading things I'd meant to for ages too: The Casual Vacancy is actually one of the most powerful books I've read this year. I bought it in hardback and it would probably have been sitting on my shelves still unread because I'd found it a little challenging to get into. I tracked down more books by one of my favourite authors, Carol Goodman, which was also interesting: they're better off consumed with gaps between because they can be a bit samey if you don't. I was pleased to remember Marisha Pessl's new book Night Film was out in paperback as I'd been denying myself the hardback. I loved it so much I wish I hadn't. Scary, suitably meta. Just what I like. I read a novel by one of York's Bright Young Things, Sophie Colombeau, which won Route Publishing's 'Next Big Thing' a couple of years ago, Rites, and it was excellent.

I didn't read some of the things I meant to, though. I was going to use this as a way to force myself to read Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho which I have taught about in relation to Gothic for many years. I have read a couple of chapters. Knowing the way I read, I probably will manage to read the rest of it some time now I've started. I've read half of Silas Marner as a preparation for going back to teacher training in September - it's one of the 19th century novels newly on the English Literature GCSE circuit. I'm finding it hard going.

What I have found is that I have read quite a lot less serious literary fiction this year than I normally would, and a correspondingly higher amount of genre fiction. I don't think this is because women don't write the kind of literary fiction I like - in fact I suspect they do, but it is often packaged in a way which doesn't appeal to me, as 'women's lit'. I think it's more to do with the constraint I have felt in my reading. I've felt the target, and the need to keep to authors who are the 'right' gender, and it's been a little irritating when I've picked up books. It's made me slightly less discriminating in what I've bought - with the result that I have a larger 'to read' pile than ever, especially now that I am picking up all the books by men I've known about but avoided to date. It was a successful experiment, for me, and I'm glad I did it. I'm more aware of gender of author right now, and I wonder how long that will continue.

I've read a lot this year about representation in SF/F fiction, of both women and people of colour. I'm thinking my next move might be to target a certain number of international authors, authors of different ethnicities to mine, or LGBT books (all of which have featured more on my women-only reading list than on my normal one). But in the meantime, the Guardian has announced its Not the Booker longlist and there are a hundred books on it. Doesn't that sound like a nice round target?

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