So I read another one of those newspaper articles again this morning, you know the ones: ’25 Books To Read Before You Die’ nonsense. I never like them anyway – who’s to say what other people should read/do/think?
But this one struck a chord, because it related to a conversation I had with my daughter last night, and many comments I’ve read lately, online and elsewhere, about the issue of the lack of women writers in collections, anthologies, book prizes and so on.
This particular ‘essential’ recommended reading list this morning contained one woman writer.
And that book was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There wasn’t one book on the list which would have conveyed anything to a young woman negotiating her way in the world.
This resonated particularly strongly this morning following a conversation last night with my almost 17 year old daughter who is studying A Level English Literature. She has to choose a book for an extended study towards this, to be started over the summer break. Her teacher (male) ‘suggested’ several for them to choose from, though they can have free choice.
The teacher had helpfully written the suggested titles on the board, which he encouraged the students to have a look at.
You know where this is going – right? All male writers. All male themes.
When my daughter was called on to discuss her choice, she advised him she’d be doing her study on The Bell Jar. When she received a puzzled look, she added, ‘It’s by Sylvia Plath, Sir’. He nodded, mumbled he’d never read it, wasn’t sure whether it would be appropriate, needed to ensure it had important ‘themes’ and ‘symbols’. (Perhaps his summer homework could be to read it…)
Anyway, all of this irritated me to a degree that I wanted to write a post about it. Because it seems to me that these lists and advice on what is considered great literature are just so outdated and unhelpful.
We keep hearing reports of concerns over young boys accessing porn at ever younger ages. About them then having unrealistic expectations from girls, acting inappropriately in secondary school towards them.
What alternatives are we showing them? Because this isn’t all about girls reading about the female experience; surely it’s also about educating boys about women. Showing them they dream about the same things they do; have ambitions the same as they do; desire the same way that they do.
When I read books like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I learnt to understand elements of myself, of other women, of the compromises and negotiations that would need to be overcome to reach what I wanted out of life. Even the Brontës’ novels scream from the pages of repression and restrained desire.
And it shouldn’t stop there. There are many relatively new and emerging women writers who are setting out to tackle stereotypes. Vendela Vida, Caitlin Moran and Elisa Albert are three I’ve read recently where I’ve thought these women have something to say.
Without encouraging both genders to discover what makes one another tick, we have no hope of bridging the gap between the sexes. And young people are the first place to start. Because they are so open, so willing to accept, less inclined to stereotypes. I see this all the time with both of my daughters.
It’s not that I think the male writers should be taken from lists, awards, school syllabus. Not at all. I love men. I’ve read plenty of books by men that have inspired me, deepened my understanding of the world, helped me to see what makes them tick (I don’t need to list them here, there are plenty of lists with them on already). I live with a man. Some of my best friends….well, you get the picture.
The whole point here is that if we are to improve the elements we are unhappy with within our society, we need to understand one another. We need to be open and frank and accept our differences as well as our similarities.
Happy reading – read whatever brings you joy!