At Flavorwire, Lilit Marcus explains why she only read books by women in 2013:
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.
The reference to Joanna Russ is in regard to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing; the nod to Tallulah Bankhead for the line “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
It’s a good read; Marcus name-checks some of the books that particularly moved her (several of which I also read and loved) and describes the subtle ways this literary diet impacted her worldview, leading her to vow to read books by other similarly under-sung authors next year.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (especially anyone I’ve dated) that reading books by women is my usual modus operandi. I don’t refuse to read books by men, but at some point in college I just got weary of the overcelebration of white male authors, and being of a contrary nature decided not to bother with the John Updikes and Philip Roths of the world. Eventually I had to read some books by them for my qualifying exams, and came to a similar conclusion as Marcus does in her piece: I wasn’t missing much. You can’t read all of the books, and I choose to primarily read books by women.
Anyone who wants to see what I’ve read and reviewed is welcome to my Booklikes shelf, but half the fun of these year-end lists is in revisiting the pleasures of reading all over again. Thus I present, in chronological order, some of the best books by women I read in 2013:
- The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, which I write about in more detail at my food blog.
- The glorious Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, hot on the heels of having read Bring up the Bodies. So many retellings of Henry VIII’s reign amount to no more than a tittering reanimation of starcrossed love and political intrigue. Mantel is interested less in scandal than in what it meant to be a subject in this period–literally a subject of the king, yet also a sovereign individual self who desires and dissembles. And the writing is so precise and so good!
- Bloodroot, by Amy Greene, was spell-binding. One tires of reading novels about domestic abuse, particular those that sanctify the victim and imagine violence an inherent quality of Southern Otherness, but this book does neither. It tells its particular story with intensity, beauty, and a little magic.
- The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Coming of age after environmental disasters have knocked Earth’s rotation off-kilter, causing the days to lengthen incredibly and the Earth to wither under an intense sun.
- I loved every single short story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, which is an astonishing record for me. She writes fantastical worlds and uncanny hungers that are quite realistic and compelling.
- I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shortly after getting an e-reader several years ago, but somehow I’d never read anything by Anne Bronte until now. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a great discovery!
- I enjoyed the final book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, though if you haven’t read Oryx & Crake, I strongly, strongly recommend getting that one first. Much of the fun of the last book is in the loose ends it ties up for recurring characters.
- Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker was a tough read for someone who has or is struggling with depression and/or academia. Stories of unfinished dissertations are the worst, except when they are the best. (See also Middlemarch, below.) But it’s also a story of family and love and self-definition and what we have the right to expect from others, and quite beautifully written.
- I read Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, as though it were a good novel: cover to cover, enjoying every minute.
- Likewise, I was excited to get my copy of Getting Lucky, poems by Nicole Steinberg, even though I had seen many of them before; they are great fun and quite smart. Blogged about it here and here!
- A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki had that same elegiac, pastiched feel that I enjoyed from My Year of Meats, but a little more magic.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is epic in scope and various in texture. It encompasses the arc of Ifemelu from growing up in Nigeria to attending school in America and eventually returning home a changed woman; excerpts of her blog about race in America, in a quite different tone from the lyrical narration of her story; and the arc of her high school sweetheart Obinze as he travels to England and back, also told in a quite different tone, almost sepia as if Ifemelu’s narrator is retelling Obinze’s story from memory. This book was riveting and I cannot recommend it enough. It would be an incredible literature course assignment too, I think.
- Finally, although I read it for the first time not long ago, I started re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot after enjoying the banter of The Toast’s Middlemarch book club. I meant to read section by section, not getting too far ahead of the book club conversations, but I literally cannot stop. I love this novel so much.
So that the male authors do not feel left out, I read and kind of liked Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski and The Dinner by Herman Koch–both translations of foreign novels, interestingly–as well as The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. One male-authored book I truly loved this year was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. But those guys don’t need my help in promoting them; the apparatus is already calibrated toward their advancement.
12 thoughts on “Books by women I’ve read in 2013”
I don’t know if I should be happy or dismayed, but about a third of the books I read this year were by women (thought it was over half. Weird.) Favorites: Susan Cain’s “Quiet” and Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a half.” REALLY looking forward to whenever I work my way to MaddAddam!
I’ve heard very good things about both! Well, I’ve heard good things about the former, and the ENTIRE INTERNET is blowing up about the latter. Deservedly so.
By the way, I linked to an earlier post above (You Should Message Me If) which was inspired by a blogger who said much the same thing about percentages: he thought he read male and female writers about equally, but the numbers didn’t bear this out. I feel like that’s probably pretty common–that’s why VIDA does The Count, to show the numbers that sometimes belie the perceptions.
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