Before I answer this question, let me ask one in return – can you remember all of the books you read in high school? If so, was the majority of them written by men?
I think most of us can answer this question with ‘yes’. At least I can – in my final two years of high school, while doing the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, I read, to name but a few: Sophocles, Goethe, Shakespeare, Schlink, Frisch, Camus, Fontane and Twain as well as Garcia Marquez, Brecht and Larkin.
Do you see my point yet? There were no female writers in my German literature class at all and only two in my English literature class: Jane Austen and Toni Morrison.
Don’t get me wrong – I love all the male writers I named above, they’re among my favourites and certainly among the best (in fact, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude might be one of the greatest books ever written!)
However, I think it’s high time for female writers to get more recognition and attention – high time we change our school curricula, in fact. If we only read books written by men in school, where is the female point of view on society that is so important and that we desperately need? Where are the role models for girls aspiring to be writers?
I stopped reading fiction during university – I couldn’t read pages and pages of academic literature during the day and read fiction at night (except, maybe, Harry Potter). After my Bachelor’s Degree I went travelling, which I considered a good opportunity to get back into reading fiction. So I bought a Kindle and decided to read through all the ‘classics’: more Garcia Marquez, Camus, Shakespeare and Goethe, plus Schiller, Mann, Grass, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wilde as well as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
An all male (and mostly Western!) list again – the exceptions were George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, the Bronte sisters, Harper Lee, Mary Shelley and more Jane Austen.
But then I read Alice Fishburn’s Financial Times article about only reading books written by women for a year. In the article, Fishburn describes what she learned from this and makes this essential point –
‘No one is trying to explain women to me. Female characters and viewpoints suddenly simply exist: whether flawed or flaming, badly drawn or richly nuanced. There they are without spin. Unexplained. Unfiltered. Understood. … There’s a strange sense of relief that comes when you find a writer who understands a fundamental aspect of you. Parts of my own inner life were suddenly echoed or imagined by someone who really, truly got it. ’
I’ve often had to laugh when men try to explain or describe women in their books, especially when it comes to female looks and physique as well as sex. Hence Fishburn’s point greatly resonated with me and I immediately set myself the same “challenge” and only read books written by women. It’s been eye-opening and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – I’m over a year in now and have no plans to stop. I’ve also tried to read more non-Western writers – something I still need to work, but improved on massively already. I’d recommend everyone do the same – read more female and non-Western writers, or at least add them to their future reading lists.