You cannot be ‘well read’ without reading women | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Lauren Groff did something brilliantly subversive last week. In her New York Times By the Book Q&A – an interview in which authors are asked such questions as “What’s the last great book you read?” and “What book by somebody else do you wish you had written?” – she named only women authors. You may not notice it at first, but about halfway through it clicks – perhaps because naming only women in a discussion about great books is so unusual, a point that she hammers home when asked about her ideal literary dinner party:
“I would invite every woman writer I have mentioned here, plus hundreds of others I did not have space to name. I would serve unlimited quantities of excellent wine and we would get blitzed and the conversation may eventually meander to touch on that most baffling of questions: When male writers list books they love or have been influenced by — as in this very column, week after week — why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?”
This week, a bookseller working at Waterstones in Uxbridge said on social media that, while they had never had a female customer say “I don’t read books written by men”, male customers tell them they don’t read women at least once or twice a month. This, predictably, led to a cacophony of “not all men”s, and the original point was somewhat lost. It’s certainly true that there are male readers out there who read women: my father, for one, loves Ursula K Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Bradley Sheldon), has read The Golden Notebook and greatly admires the work of Gitta Sereny. (He also introduced me to the poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird.) Several of my male friends read women, too. I remember a few years back being pathetically impressed when my friend, a neuroscientist, said his favourite author was Virginia Woolf.
So, I’m aware such readers exist. But the fact remains that many men continue to be put off by a female name on a book cover, especially if that cover looks cutesy or at all feminine – just look at the books of Elena Ferrante, one of the greatest novelists writing today. As Groff said, male novelists and critics too rarely cite women writers as influences. What we consider “great literature” continues to be shaped by men, because too many men only consider other men to be worthy competitors (and indeed, maybe such novelists aren’t so much interested in learning about humanity as they are in learning about other male novelists, so that they can then strive to better them).