Similarly to Ann Morgan’s year long project reading women authors, which Anna Malzy discovered for GEEKED earlier this month, I myself took on a challenge:
It’s been nearly a year since I decided to embark on a nine month long, self-imposed ban on reading books written by men. At first the ‘Nine Months of Women’ plan went off to a smooth start, although it did bring about some questions and arguments with friends and colleagues. One of my favourite debates on my experiment didn’t involve me at all and resulted in two of my (male) colleagues shouting at each other across a pub table; I chose to sit back and let the heated debate turn into grumbling.
Looking back at this incident it doesn’t seem that weird to me that it brought out that mentality in, admittedly slightly inebriated people. Everyone I told about my task asked me ‘why’ and ‘what do you have against men?’ My particular favourite was a customer at my work who said to me: ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but are you a feminist?’ As if being a feminist was something that was to be hidden.
For the record, I have nothing against men, in fact a large number of my favourite authors are men: Jonathan Coe, David Lodge, David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, T S Eliot… No, the ban wasn’t because I hated men, or disliked their writing; it wasn’t because I was a feminist even, or because I wanted to ‘assert’ my womanhood. I just wanted to see how it would feel to be restricted to the female voice. I wanted to know how it would affect my psyche, my own writing and maybe even my way of looking at the world.
I began with Lucy Mangan’s Hop Scotch and Hand Bags. My mother had given me the book for my birthday the year previously and I had yet to get around to reading it, perfect, I thought. I enjoyed Mangan’s columns and she writes for two of the publications that I dream to write for one day. ‘Maybe if I read her book, it will tell me the secret to doing the same!’
Lucy Mangan’s Hop Scotch & Hand Bags is a more-than-slightly amusing account of a typical girl’s journey though growing up, puberty, friendships, family issues, sexual encounters and working life. The problem there is the word ‘typical.’ Although Mangan hits on all the “usual” fears and hic-ups of being a ‘girl’ she doesn’t hit on it for everyone. I’m not condoning her – writing a book on every girl would be near to impossible. How would one encompass every combination of parents, schools, friendships, siblings, romances, sexual experiences…etc? Mangan attempts to combat this by making her ‘how to…’ guide into part memoir; using her own experiences of being female she justifies the sometimes sweeping generalisations that she postulates about every aspect of girl-hood. These parts are one of the most enjoyable of the read, making the book less of a statement on being a girl and more a statement based on her own experiences, which is totally justified. I would perhaps recommend this to the generation of women above me, as it didn’t hit home for me as much as say, Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. Just try not to take it too seriously, or Mangan’s tendency to generalise could anger you.
And so as the challenge continued, I moved onto Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which I hadn’t read in maybe six or seven years. In these intervening years I completed school, university, moved from my parents house… essentially grown up. The difference between the two reads is astounding. Pride and Prejudice is a rare gem that can mean 100 different things to you over 100 separate reads, reading it in a time when you love or don’t, have or don’t are sad, or not…it still leaves you bereft, wanting more but oddly satisfied. By reading Austen’s legendary work you question your own prejudices and sense of pride. The protagonist, Lizzy Bennet doesn’t leave her happiness to chance, but even after refusing Mr Darcy once she only accepts marriage as an option when she is SURE, and that is a mantra that can be applied still, 200 years later.
During this task I tried to encompass classics, moderns and new titles. It would have been easy for me to simply read Austen and the Bronte sisters for nine months, but that wouldn’t have given me a very broad overview. Just as I ended Pride and Prejudice a new title that I had been intending on reading (after a sample in the Guardian Magazine) hit the shelves: Rachel Cusk’s memoir on her divorce.
I hate to say this about any book, especially a book that is autobiographical to the nth degree, but Aftermath wasn’t, in my opinion, an emotional exposé auto-biography but a chance for Cusk to shake the grey, cold feeling of emptiness that she describes throughout the book: a personal text that should have perhaps been left that way. There is little to no chronology to Cusk’s memoir, it doesn’t begin with the break up of her marriage or end with a description of her life now, it doesn’t describe why or how her and her husband (or X as he is in one chapter referred to as,) ended their marriage. Or even, in any clear sense, how she felt about the matter. Cusk uses metaphor upon metaphor and anecdote after anecdote in her attempt to convey the feeling after one goes though a divorce, but I was just left feeling confused. Cusk’s style of writing is perhaps suited better to fiction, where she can push the boundaries of style and chronology more than biography. Needless to say, Cusk’s memoir is the title that I am least inclined to read again of all the books I read during my challenge.
The months past. I re-read the Harry Potter saga, embarked on the romance between Anna and Christian in 50 Shades of Grey. After being sourly disappointed with Lionel Shriver’s latest title: The New Republic, my spirits were lifted hugely by a novel that I didn’t know would change my entire way of looking at life.
Simone de Beauvoir has been an idol and inspiration to me since my teens and her novel All Men Are Mortal was to become my favourite read of the nine months. There is so much I want to say about this book. The Protagonist, Fosca has a gift and a disease. He is plagued with immortality. Regina, a young and beautiful, vain and self-loving actress is fascinated with the idea of her acting living on after her death, so when she meets Fosca she is determined to make him remember her. Fosca knows, from centuries of experience, that he is no good for her sanity and through the story of his life attempts to explain to Regina why. It is not only Regina who gets engrossed in Fosca’s story, but also the reader. For the hundreds of years that he lived Fosca goes from war to war, from love to love, through the years and decades he sees the world, he sees war and famine, he sees the loves of his life die and whole cities turn to dust. Every person Fosca encounters eventually dies. I’m finding it difficult to explain how this book made me feel, so try to imagine this: you, alone, sitting on a burned out Earth. There are no buildings, no trees, no grass, no animals, a dying Sun, nothing to eat and nothing to do but sit, with your thoughts. You cannot die, you may sleep but you’ll always wake up. There is no food and no one to interact with. There is nothing left to learn because the end of civilisation has passed you by and you saw it happen. You will live forever. All Men Are Mortal is not only a fiction novel but a philosophical text on the idea of immortality and how it can seem so desirable but in reality so unforgiving.
The range of books I read actually surprises me still. From Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews to the modern young adult title Delirium by Lauren Oliver. From the classic feminist bible, The Female Eunuch to Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are you my Mother, in which she depicts her relationship with her parents and therapists. I was captivated by Liz Jennson’s latest title The Univited, a Sci-Fi esque dystopian nightmare in which the protagonist finds himself trying to solve the mystery of why all the children in the world are becoming brutally to all adults. Unsurprisingly, I was enthralled by Scarlett Thomas’s first non-fiction title Monkeys with Typewriters: a book about writing books. There were of course some disappointments but largely the books I read were well written, interesting and enjoyable. Pat Barker, Caitlin Moran, Carol Ann Duffy, Margret Attwood, A.S.Byatt, Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath…the books piled up.
I ended my challenge with my ‘favourite’ book of all time, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The hardest part of this challenge wasn’t finding books I wanted to read, but when I was sad or angry: finding life a little harder than usual, I couldn’t just pick up a read that I knew would turn that around for me. I had to restrain that urge. I saved the Secret History for last because I knew I would need to end on a book that, if January arrived and I hadn’t finished it, I wouldn’t just put down half way through. A story of growth, classical literature, Greek mythology, university life, love, friendship and murder, The Secret History depicts Richard spiralling into a world of alcohol, drugs, lies, betrayal, and all at the hands of his friends.
The world of books doesn’t need all women to boycott reading men. It didn’t even need me to do it, but it does need to treat women authors as men. The Orange Prize for Fiction, for example, if given only to women, but this wont put us on a level playing field: only ostracize further: did Hilary Mantel not just become the only British person to win the Booker Prize twice? These nine months didn’t hold a feminist agenda but did have a strong point to make: there are enough fantastic, talented, enjoyable female authors for anyone to spend an extended period of time listening to the literary voice of woman. Help level the playing field: try it for a while.
Katy Neate Maydon’s dream is to be a published novelist, the other side of the book world. Along with writing her novel and a film script she keeps a blog (rad1sh.com), which documents her day to day musings on books, movies and life in general.