Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Read Women 2014

#ReadWomen2014 began when author and designer JOANNA WALSH created a series of five '' to give out as new year presents. The cards featured cartoons of Walsh's favourite female writers, including MARGUERITE DURAS and GERTRUDE STEIN, with a list of 250 more authors she admired on the reverse. Walsh was encouraged to tweet the names, and other tweeters joined in with their suggestions. From there, the idea snowballed, with readers, journalists and bloggers committing to reading more books by women, to try and challenge traditional imbalances in the way female authors are packaged and reviewed.

While there are more women reading books than men, and there are about as many women writing as there are men, this isn't reflected in the media, as the annual reports show. This is particularly true of high end publications, with the London Review of Books being a notable bastion of male privilege. Women have had a good record at literary awards recently, but even then authors have had to put up with sexist coverage ('natural blonde' ELEANOR CATTON at the Booker, for example) and dreadful covers, as any visit to Waterstone's will testify. The aim of Read Women 2014 is to make people think more about their reading habits, making small individual steps towards a level playing field.

I want to use #readwomen2014 to fill some gaps in my reading history - a mixture of modern classics and contemporary novels that I haven't got round to yet. I'm challenging myself to read one a month, in addition to the books (by male and female authors) that I normally read and review. So far, I've decided on the following: THE YEARS (Virginia Woolf), WOLF HALL (Hilary Mantel), LIFE AFTER LIFE (Kate Atkinson), WHITE TEETH (Zadie Smith), THE HANDMAID'S TALE (Margaret Atwood), I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS (Maya Angelou), AMERICANAH (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) and A CONCISE CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS (Xiaolu Guo). That leaves four spaces - I'd be grateful for any recommendations / suggestions.

In return, here are a few ideas for anyone else using 2014 to read more female writers - hopefully some of these will be new to you:

Rebecca West is best known for her novels, but her reportage is also stunning. Abrasive and intelligent, her writing is deeply opinionated, almost shockingly so, compared to the modern preference for 'balance'. A TRAIN OF POWDER is a fascinating insight into the Nuremberg trials, combined with reports on lynchings in the American South; THE MEANING OF TREASON explores the careers of British citizens who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Both are well worth revisiting.

Other non-fiction pics would be SHAME, by Jasvinder Sanghera, an account of forced marriages in Britain which mixes the personal and polemical to great effect, and Gitta Sereny's books CRIES UNHEARD and INTO THAT DARKNESS, which confront the perpetrators of evil acts, probing to find the psychological reality behind them. Finally, while Angela Carter's novels are widely read, it's also well worth picking up THE SADEAN WOMAN if you haven't already, for a fiercely argued essay on sexuality and porn.

If you're looking for bold, subversive modern novels, I'd suggest LIGHTNING RODS by Helen Dewitt, The by Sam Mills, or ALICE THE SAUSAGE by Sophie Jabes; I don't think there's much chance of any of them being reissued with a picture of someone looking wistfully out of a window on the cover. Joanna Walsh's own collection, , contains glimpses into the lives of disaffected and alienated women, with a very continental feel.

And a couple of older ones. IN THE SECOND YEAR by Storm Jameson is a powerful and urgent dystopian novel from 1936, imagining Britain as a Fascist dictatorship; Barbara Pym's EXCELLENT WOMEN is more subtle, but the Austen-like prose conceals a subversive message. MRS CALIBAN by Rachel Ingalls, the story of a housewife's affair with a sea monster named Larry, is also worth a look.

Happy reading, if you're taking part, and let me know what else I should be looking at.
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