The No Man’s Land Reading Project

A few months ago I read an article by a female author who described the experience of signing her books for men who, as she signed, told her the book was for their mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, daughter, niece, and so on. They did also say they’d enjoyed the reading she’d given beforehand, but the fact that none of them was (admitting to) buying her book for themselves or for a man, despite it not being a book written with women in mind or marketed to women, was the one she took away.

The author went on to question not only men’s but everyone’s reading habits: if you went through your average reader’s bookshelf, how well-represented would women be? And for what reason, really? There were none that could entirely be blamed, unless you just wanted to say ‘sexism’ and get it over with.

Her article, her fatigued disappointment, got me questioning my library. I didn’t even have to look to know the ratio of books by male authors to those by female authors was about three-to-one. And if I hadn’t very recently resolved to read Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Margaret Atwood, and relocated all the books by those authors into my room, it would have been much worse.

That latter descriptor has probably applied for my entire reading life.

So, in early December 2014, I decided to read nothing but books by non-male authors in 2015. I’m not out to examine any differences between the way non-male and male authors write, or what they write about. That’s bullshit. All I mean to do is achieve something closer to equality in the bedroom (that’s where I read).

I will, however, review all the books. Not with a view to proving anything: just straight book reviews. If anything interesting comes up, so be it. If not, just as well.

I’m also going to buy all the books. First I’ll attempt to find secondhand copies, then I’ll move to local bookstores, and finally, if I must, I’ll order them online—from their publishers if possible, from wherever else if not. The buying could be a statement about equality, I guess, but it’s more to do with the fact that buying books is one place in my life where my distaste for consumerism is not allowed to venture. Judge me if you want.

As a long footnote, it may be worth saying something about how I, in particular, came to read more men than women. I’ll do it just to see what comes up.

First of all: parents.

Mum and Dad started me out on children’s stories (Captain W.E. Johns, Rudyard Kipling and Roald Dahl were favourites) but gave up on pictureless books when I became obsessed with Goscinny, Uderzo and Georges Remi, aka Hergé.

Asterix, Obelix and Tintin were a mainstay for years, and though I failed to understand Tolkien at age eight or so (when the urge to be involved in conversations between my father and older brother was pushing me out of my weight class), I would suck them up later, and quite as soon as possible.

The only female author knocking around at that time was another of Dad’s favourites, Ursula K. Le Guin, and to her credit, she’s the one that lasted. Take her over Tolkien any day.

Second: school.

Perhaps straying a little, can I just say, from the bottom of my heart, I love you, Shakespeare, but fuck off?

Shakespeare is neither the best nor the most relevant way to engage young teenagers’ literary minds, yet he remains a fixture, and an early one. It’s like walking a kid right past the engaging, modern games in the video arcade, straight to the original Donkey Kong, and saying, “You won’t understand anything else until you’ve wrapped your head around this.”

And they make it worse than it has to be!

“Look how language has changed, children, isn’t that interesting? How do you say ‘Isn’t it?’ Thomas? You say, ‘Innit?’ don’t you? Shakespeare would have loved that. And look how the themes remain universal! You were envious of Sarah’s lunch yesterday, weren’t you, Matthew? Just like Iago envies Othello his success!”

Fucking teachers. But he’s sort of beside the point, Shakespeare, almost an exception, unless he’s the crowning injustice, which is also possible.

No, the proof is in the rest of the names that were placed in front of me, age eleven through eighteen: George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Adams, Tim Winton, Wilfred Owen, W.B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad. Even the ones that weren’t classics—you know the books that they throw into English courses each year to try and make them contemporary?—were unanimously by men.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re all to varying degrees brilliant, those writers, but only a few female authors came up: Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee … Okay, maybe only two. Jesus fuck. No, wait, Annie Proulx was in there somewhere, but only because Ang Lee decided to make a film of Brokeback Mountain. Yeah, still Jesus fuck.

Third: peers and pop culture.

My mother sort of fits into this category. I’ve had some of the longest conversations about books in my life with her. As far as I can tell, all she wants is a very well written, engaging read. She’s a career editor, so when I say very well written, I mean it, and that goes for engaging too. You won’t win her cheaply. But throughout my life, her bookshelves have influenced mine, so it’s fair to say that the three-to-one ratio is a byproduct of her reading.

Which leads me to peers. Only very recently have I made friends who recommend more female authors than male. Like me, the rest of the people whose book recommendations I’ve taken are probably unaware of perpetuating bias. They and I have been led by default into the male-dominated world of people with movie adaptations and pop culture references, people who made money and said clever things and died young. Shallow, yes, but also deeply enticing and utterly in your face as a reader. Every bookshop in the world is screaming for you to read them:

Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Chuck Palahniuk, D.B.C. Pierre, Anthony Burgess, Irvine Welsh, writers who, because they’ve written a cracker or controversial work here or there, which we’ve already read because it’s the first that was recommended, we then recommend ourselves.

The best-represented female authors in my life have been Ursula K. Le Guin and J.K. Rowling (and I could include Carolyn Keene thanks to a short but torrid Nancy Drew obsession, but I don’t think pseudonyms count). Even though I read Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston and others in university, and have since added award winners like Arundhati Roy, Eleanor Catton and Hillary Mantel to the list, I think I’m just a bit on the shit side, really. (Or I could be on the good side, which is worse.)

Essentially, my problem is trusting the status quo to give me a fair and balanced reading list. What a dummy.

The book I was in the middle of as 2014 became 2015 was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, so I’ll post a review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves soon. The following book, which I’ve already begun, will be Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

So far, my ‘To Read’ list also includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Romy Ash, Margaret Atwood, Nien Cheng, Edwidge Danticat, George Eliot, Delia Falconer, M.J. Hyland, Barbara Kingsolver, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Dorothy Parker, Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Cory Taylor, Eudora Welty and Charlotte Wood.

And my final word is a request: if you know of a brilliant book by a non-male author, post its title here. Non-male can be intersex, transgender or female. The only thing I don’t want is plain old men.

The reason I’ve decided not to simply say ‘female’ authors is that, while I imagine women will dominate what I read in the coming year, it is doubtful to my mind that transgender and intersex authors have in the history of publishing been any less maligned than women, and there is every possibility they have been more so. I have read many works by women, and not a single work by a transgender or intersex author (excepting op eds).

So, if you see any glaring omissions, let me know. I want a good book that isn’t by a man. If it’s anything more, gravy. If it ain’t, just as well.

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51 thoughts on “The No Man’s Land Reading Project

  1. Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Kate Atkinson, Angela Carter, Lydia Davis, Willa Cather, Isak Dinesen, Ruth Rendell, Muriel Spark

  2. Cristina Garcia, Cristina Perri Rossi, Joanna Scott, Nicola Barker, Patricia Highsmith, Ali Smith, Kate Chopin,

  3. Ruth Reichl (Delicious), Patricia C. Wrede, Patricia Briggs, Deborah Harkness, Dianna Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Kate Atkinson, Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce… there’s a big mix of genres there, but for the most part they’re less literary then many on your list. Also Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver is a personal favorite.

  4. All of the above, but also: Amy Bloom (Lucky us, Away), Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, You’ll enjoy it when you get there), Joan London, (The Golden Age), Helen McDonald (H is for Hawke),Allison Jean Lester (Lillian on Life), Rebecca Solnitt (Men explain things to me and other essays); Flannery O’Connor (Collected stories), Barbara Ehrenreich (Living with a wild god), Maxine Clark (Foreign soil), Alice Thomas Ellis (The summerhouse trilogy),Ceridwen Dovey (Only the animals), Helen Garner (This house of grief, The first stone, The spare room), Fiona McFarlane (The night guest), Evie Wyld (All the birds singing), Danielle Wood (Mothers Grimm) Madeleine St John (The women in black), Janet Frame (Owls do cry), Eimear McBride (A girl is a half-formed thing), Amy Hempel (The dog of the marriage)

    1. Thanks, Melinda – sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I’m compiling a comprehensive list of every title that’s been recommended to me and I’ll definitely include all of these.

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