There’s been a lot of talk of reading women authors in 2014, and I love it. Of course I do. But when the trend started, more than one person I know said that he or she planned to use this opportunity to really catch up on all of the books they should have been reading this whole time: literary classics, canonical literature, books you’re allegedly supposed to have read in order to be what some consider an informed person.
When you say you want to read women authors in 2014, I want you to do that. But I don’t want you to read The Classics. If you want to, go for it. But I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to read books you can download for free online. You can do better. With this kind of commitment, you can really do better.
I want you to read a book from every genre, or at least a lot of them. I don’t want to hear you say that you aren’t really interested in chick lit or mysteries or romance. I know not every genre is for everyone, which is totally fine, but I also want you to know what you’ve been missing. Don’t be the picky eater of the book world. Maybe you don’t know that you like thrillers now because you didn’t like the ones you read when you were in high school. Maybe you’ve never tried “book club fiction” and you don’t know that these are actually stories filled with not just emotion but the tenacity and ferociousness of any lauded bestseller. You can’t know until you’ve tried it, so what’s really holding you back?
I want you to go to your bookstore and purchase books written in the last decade, in the last year, from the new arrivals table. Some booksellers will discount big books so that you’ll buy them. Do it. Even big books by women and minorities don’t always get the promotion that men get, and every dollar counts.
If you’re reading women in 2014, I want you to really read women. I want you to dig in and find authors you care about and that you’re willing to follow for their careers, rather than making a list of the big blockbusters that you think you’re supposed to read. I’m not asking you to go out and scour the shelves for titles that you’re not sure you’ll like. I’m asking you to go to your local indie bookstore and talk to the employee working. Tell him or her some books you’ve really, truly enjoyed, and say that you’re interested in books by women that are similar. I guarantee you that any bookseller worth his or her salt will be able to hand sell you five books you’ve never heard of that you’ll probably love. Love your indies—they know what they’re talking about.
If talking to strangers doesn’t appeal to you, try out websites like What Should I Read Next or Your Next Read. Plug in books or authors you like and see what comes out of the machine. It requires a little more work on your part, but it’s good and better than going to the store to literally judge a book by its cover.
My favorite method of finding books, though, is by asking my friends what they’re reading. One of my favorite small talk conversations is to ask people what they’re reading. It’s an easy question that isn’t about the weather (though that is a conversation New Yorkers love to have), and almost everyone has an answer of some sort. I’m regularly surprised by what my friends are reading, and more often than not it’s a book I’ve been considering adding to my list, but having the personal recommendation really nails it down.
To that end, there are preferences in books, but there is no book that is beneath you. A book that may mean nothing to you can mean the world to someone else because no two people have the same experience in life. Some books may, on some levels, perhaps not be as strong as others, but the thing to keep in mind is that some books are getting millions of people to read again. Bestsellers aren’t read only by people who already read a book a week. These books are being purchased en masse by people who don’t read with much regularity, too, and it’s crucial that we not drive them away from finding their niche in book culture.
Fluidity in genre is more prevalent than ever, with books claiming the genre “literary horror” when, really, it’s a zombie book. If you’re interested in genre literature but aren’t ready to make a big leap, these are a great way to start out (and going back to your local bookseller can help you find the line you’re willing to walk). When I started reading sci-fi and fantasy, I didn’t drop directly into Doctor Who novels, like some people seem to think you have to do. I started reading books with elements of sci-fi or fantasy, such as magical realism (such as the upcoming THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton). If you stop and think about it for more than a minute, the wealth of multi-genre books available is really astounding.
One of the categories of literature that succeeds in genre fluidity with aplomb is young adult, if perhaps because younger readers are less susceptible to alleged standards of literature that plague the adult reader and reviewer alike. Of course, that’s not to discount older readers of YA, like myself, who perhaps fall in love with these books so easily because they do so accurately grapple with emotions and hard issues within a variety of contexts, providing a secondary level of reflection that, indeed, some adult novels struggle to provide.
We’re at the beginning of a real overhaul of the structure of criticism, I think, and the model we’re moving toward is more inclusive and diverse. No longer is it acceptable to refuse to publish majority male writers, as the VIDA count seeks to prove every year. We aren’t giving as much credibility to narrow-minded review columns. We’re stretching our minds in new directions that we should have accessed long ago, and it feels great.
Reading women is easy. It’s one of the easiest things you can do, and it matters. I haven’t made the commitment to read only women for a couple of reasons, primarily being that for professional reasons I need to read some books by men this year. However, when I look back at my calculations of books read in 2013, I found that I read 79% books by women across fiction and non-fiction, with again the majority of protagonists being women (52%, as compared to 20% male, 18% split, and 10% other/no protagonist). I made almost no effort to read more women, but given my sensibilities, it wasn’t that surprising when I totaled it all up in January.
Even if you aren’t reading only women this year, you can read mostly women. You can promote women writers, as people say, with your wallet. Every dollar you spend supporting women’s writing goes toward supporting not only that author but the idea that in a woman-dominated yet still sexist industry, women’s writing is as worth purchasing as anyone else’s means something. It means something to the woman editor who acquired it, to the women working in design for that title, to the women who put forth the incredible marketing and publicity front for it, and to the assistants who do all of the behind-the-scenes work. It really means something to those of us who work in sales, who have to crunch the numbers to find out exactly how many copies of a book we can bet on selling so we can decide how many to print. And that’s just in major publishing. What it means to smaller presses and self-published authors is unimaginable.
I would be entirely remiss in writing this whole piece without noting that in addition to reading women, we should be reading people of color, too. Book culture is, unfortunately, overwhelmingly white, which erases a vast variety of cultures from literature and invalidates human experience on a daily basis. It’s essential that not only should we be inclusive of diverse literature, we should be, indeed, going out of our way to promote it. This is how the culture changes, and it only changes if we make it that way. I promise—the world will not be worse off for purposeful inclusion of diversity in the modern literary canon. There is no status quo that will be made worse by opening up to represent the whole world of people who exist.
These are the changes that are happening right now, and you can either be part of it or you can be against it. There is little in between here. It isn’t just political—there are authors across the spectrum that you can support. Just think about it. Be a part of the new culture. I promise you’ll be happy you did.