Reading Books by Women

Most of the fiction I read these days is by women. This is not a political decision, at least not in the sense that I have made a vow to only read books by women, but more a matter of taste: most of the books that interest me these days are about women characters and written by women.

It is somewhat ironic that the books I most want to read are the ones that get the fewest reviews and award nominations, but it is an unfortunate fact that sexism and misogyny remain with us. Also, I’m always out of step somehow.

Not that all of the books I like by women are about women. Martha Wells’s Murderbot novella series is about a self-aware security bot and Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I’m reading right now, has quite a mix of characters — human, alien, AI — with a variety of genders.

Most of the key characters in Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series are women, though there are some important male characters as well. I got obsessed with that series earlier this year – don’t know why it took me so long to get around to it, but it was a pleasure to get hooked on a series of books again.

I don’t like all of the books I read by women. Sometimes I really want to argue with the authors, especially when it comes to books like The Handmaid’s Tale, which bugs me a lot because the main character is so damn passive. I think the anger we’re seeing from women right now belies the idea that we will let that kind of world happen without a big fight.

What makes this most interesting to me is that when I was young – especially when I was a teenager and in my twenties – I read way more books by men than women. Most of those books were about men, too, and I spent a lot of time identifying with the men because the women in the stories just weren’t that interesting.

I wrote a major paper in college on Catch-22, which is certainly a great book. (I re-read it after September 11, because the ironic look at war it tells seemed particularly appropriate to the times.) But it’s not exactly a story in which women feature prominently, except perhaps for Nately’s whore, who has no other name.

It disturbs me to think how long I put up with reading books in which most of the women characters were a lot like Nately’s whore.

I recall that in the 1970s I really tried to find and read feminist fiction, but most of what I found at the time irritated me no end. It was later that I discovered that all the best feminist fiction of the 70s was being published as science fiction. I date my shift to reading more books by women from 1979, when I got serious about SF/F and discovered writers like C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, and Vonda N. McIntyre.

I suspect my reading habits as a young woman reflect what was going on at the time. I was determined to make a place for myself in realms denoted as male and so, like many of the women who went to law school when I did, I did my best to be not just accepted, but approved of, by men.

I don’t think I ever quite succeeded.

In my years of martial arts, I recall reassuring men that we women just wanted to train; we weren’t trying to upend their system. It’s only in recent years that I’ve realized that was a lie. Because women in those systems – in dojo or in court – do upend the systems and well they should.

I was thinking about this in part because I saw a tweet from the nonfiction feminist writer Jill Filopovic in which she commented that “in our quest for equality, we often push for women to be/act more like men.” My first response was, “No. We’re not doing that anymore.”

Or at least, I’m not doing that anymore. Been there, done that, shredded the t-shirt. Not that I’m exactly behaving in the ladylike manner that I was raised to see as “womanly”; my core self has never been comfortable with stereotypical women’s roles and even many things women are reclaiming, such as knitting, are not my cup of tea.

But these days I’m not looking for male approval. The people I most want to impress are women. I also have things to say that are particularly directed at women, ideas about how we can assert our power. The young women in Congress who are not playing by the rules make me very happy.

These issues are more complex these days, especially since a lot of people identify as nonbinary, something that gives me a great deal of satisfaction since it upends everyone’s preconceptions of gender. But men still have much more power than their numbers warrant, particularly white men, and women must continue to struggle with that.

We need to do a lot of upending in a lot of different ways, and one way to do it as women is to claim our power, ignore male disapproval where we can, and fight it when we have to.

To that end, I recommend a nonfiction book: Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Because misogyny continues to be with us and understanding what we’re dealing with is important.

And now I must get back to the journey to that angry planet, because I have to know what happens next.

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Reading Books by Women — 7 Comments

  1. Back when brick and mortar bookstores still ruled the market, I was sitting at one in a Mall ready to sign my latest fantasy. A middle-aged man and woman were strolling, hand in hand across the wide mall about 5 stores down. He caught my eye. I smile politely. Then he dropped hands with his (presumed) wife and made a beeline for me. He assumed a wide stance, hands on hips, and glared at me for a long moment.

    “You need to know that I will never, ever, under any circumstances purchase or read a book written by a woman.”

    Before I could gather my thoughts to reply, he marched back to his woman, who was standing head down and shame-faced, grabbed her hand and dragged her past me to the mall exit. She flashed me a shoulder shrug of an apology.

    It’s been decades since that incidence and it still burns. I keep wondering why that woman married him, or stayed with him.

    • You leave me as speechless as you were. His attitude was horrible, but that he thought he had the right to say something like that and actually said it — words do fail me.

      I hope she left him at a particularly vulnerable point in his life.

    • Good lord. It isn’t the attitude so much as his burning need to tell you that You Would Never Have Him, EVER. I imagine he expected he’d broken you with the news.

      And yet, here you are, unbroken after all these years.

  2. At the same time that I read Handmaid’s Tale (which I disliked for several reasons) I was also reading Suzy Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. I’m always a little surprised that Piercy doesn’t get folded into the SF canon more–she writes in a number of genres, but her SF is interesting and (unlike Atwood) seems to me not to rely on familiar tropes with a sense of “look what I’ve invented!”.

    • I came later to Piercy, but I think her SF is wonderful, and Woman on the Edge of Time is a masterpiece that I wish I’d found the year it was written. We can all bitch a lot about our digital age, but one real advantage is that I can find so much that I’m looking for.

      And Suzy is, of course, a goddess and her work matters so much.

  3. “and I would prefer to have not to have my books read by people like you who will clearly not understand them”… but like all good comebacks this one comes way too late, and it also doesn’t help to soothe the burn of the oirignal oafery.

    But yeah. I know.

    I know.