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Earlier this year I discovered the brilliant #readwomen2014 campaign and was inspired to add a new page to my blog to keep a record of the books by women that I’m reading this year. I tend to think of myself as someone who reads widely, but as the list began to grow it didn’t take long to realise that it was starting to look like #readwhitewomen2014.
A recent Guardian article discussed the lack of diversity in the UK publishing industry and suggested that only one or two black or Asian authors are championed by British publishers at any one time. Irenosen Okojie also suggested that these tend towards Oxbridge educated, mixed race women like Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, (both great writers, but the implication being that a white parent and an elite education are helpful to succeed as a black writer in the UK).
My experience suggests that Okojie has it right. I buy most of my books from charity or second hand book shops and after realising that my to read pile was almost entirely written by white women I decided to make an effort to seek out a few more books by black and Asian women writers. This made me realise that very often; at least in the shops I visit, there are barely any black or Asian women writers on the shelves. Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali do crop up with reasonable regularity, but I needed to actively search elsewhere to find other authors.
I checked out some book awards shortlists and found a list of Black and Asian British Fiction Writers, then searched out some likely candidates on a book swap site and bought a couple more on Ebay. My reading list for this year is now starting to look a little more varied and I’m enjoying discovering some great new, (to me), authors. Of course this on its own isn’t going to make a great deal of difference to the publishing industry which does seem to suffer from a general overall lack of diversity and inclusivity, but it is something I can do.
I like to keep books in circulation, so instead of reading and then getting dusty on a shelf, most of my books go back onto charity shop shelves or book swap sites. I often talk about books on and offline, and I write reviews online, so while I may not be putting money directly in an authors pocket with a swap or second hand purchase, hopefully it all contributes to a bit of extra buzz about a book that does lead to more sales somewhere along the line.
If, rather than unthinkingly buying the latest recommendation, lots of people made an effort to reach outside their reading ‘comfort zone’ it could help make a wider range of authors more popular and so encourage more diversity in publishing. There’s no good reason not to try and widen your reading experience and plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea to do so, so if you find your bookshelf is looking a tad homogenous, instead of sticking to the same old same old why not try and mix things up a bit?
Diversity in reading is a hot Twitter topic at the minute with popular campaigns like #LetBooksBeBooks #BoysReadGirls and #WeNeedDiverseBooks calling out all the sexist, racist, and other assumptions of the publishing industry and showing that there is a demand from readers for books that reflect a range of views and experiences. Great authors can transport us to another world. Wouldn’t it be great if publishing was more accessible to, and inclusive of, people of all backgrounds in every part of ours?
“Reading is supposed to expand one’s horizons. It’s supposed to enable people to experience lives and cultures and people they would otherwise never get to – and maybe even discover that the people who live those lives aren’t so very different.” (Elizabeth Vail, Huffington Post HT http://www.inclusiveminds.com/)
On International Women’s Day my daughter gave me this picture in which, armed with a sword and magical ‘purple mist’, and aided by a fire-breathing cat with an Ice Tail she fights the patriarchy, (well actually she said they’re fighting a baddie, but that’s how I like to interpret it).
I was pleased to hear about the #Readwomen2014 campaign. I don’t really need to read more women authors though, as I already tend to read mainly women. A quick scan of my bookcase suggests that around 10% of the books I read are by male writers. I was surprised to find it was that many.
Why do I read more women than men? It’s not specifically a choice, more the way my reading habits have evolved over time. Women writers tend to speak to me in a way men don’t. I suppose as a feminist reader I am going to be more attracted to people who see the world in a way I can identify with. If I’m reading for relaxation I don’t want to be angered or upset by sexist attitudes from an author. Of course plenty of writers, of both sexes, can write both male and female characters well, and it’s not only males who may be misogynistic. I can make allowances, but generally speaking if I’m reading for relaxation I just don’t want to be bothered with sweepingly sexist generalisations, or deep seated misogyny that I find to be more prevalent in books written by men than by women.
I read primarily to relax and escape. Sometimes I read to learn. Sometimes I read books I feel I should read, or because I fall for the hype around a popular book. Most of my books come from the shelves of charity shops and I regularly recycle them, sometimes I’ll borrow books from the library or from a friend, I get some from giveaways on websites and occasionally I’ll treat myself to a brand new purchase or some kind friend or relative will gift me new books or a voucher/card to buy something new. An electronic reader doesn’t appeal to me at all, one reason being that I wouldn’t be able to relax in the bath with it.
My favourite authors vary with time and mood and I’ll read any genre as long as it entertains me. I have several books by Atwood, Lessing and Murdoch on my shelf, plenty of ‘classics’, a fair few sci-fi and fantasy and books, a healthy selection of crime fiction and a few aimed at young adults. Most of the books I read are written by middle class white women, (my most read black authors are probably Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Andrea Levy), and I’d welcome any suggestions to help me build up a more diverse selection.
I’ve started to list the books I’ve read in 2014 and leave a few comments about them on a new page; Books 2014. Comments & suggestions very welcome.
On Sunday after a morning lie-in I wandered downstairs, grabbed a cuppa and idly flicked through the channels on my TV. On every screen I flicked through, out of around 20 ‘favourites, there were only male faces, not one single woman or girl’s face showed up. It was all men talking to men, men talking about men, male actors acting out male dominated drama; there was Eddie, Nick, James, Jeremy, Simon, Frasier, Tony and on and on, on every channel. I went through them all again just to make sure; even the children’s channels were boy dominated. Some women showed up as I watched a little longer, but they weren’t onscreen when I’d first flicked through and in general women were either minor characters or absent. It wasn’t until around 10.30 that a woman fronted show turned up; something about food, with Lynda Bellingham.
People can come up with as many reasons as they like for explaining this, but I’d bet my life that no-one has ever yet flicked through all the channels on offer and seen only women’s faces. The words cultural femicide came into my head. Cultural Femicide is a term which was originally coined, (as far as I know), by Bidisha, to mean ‘the erasure of women in public life’. This absence of women in mainstream culture, on our TV screens and radio, in theatres, movies, libraries and art galleries is hard to credit. It amazes me how little some people even seem to notice it, never mind care. The Women’s Room is one website set up to challenge this gendered cultural hegemony and provide a voice for women in media, yet even those few female voices we do hear tend to be the type that seeks male approval.
Back to Sunday; my five year old daughter was in the room with me and I considered the effect it might be having on her to repeatedly see men showing up as experts and authorities. I don’t let her have a lot of screen time, but as she grows older and wiser it’s increasingly difficult to monitor her intake and I’m not sure that it’s desirable to keep her in a protected bubble anyway. She asked me if she could have some screen time, but was bored by the boy dominated shows on offer. She seen the words Angelina Ballerina on the screen; a show we’d just missed, she’d recently seen an Angelina Ballerina book at a friend’s house and was curious about it so asked me to make sure that she could watch it when it was next on. We watched an episode together, on my laptop. As the theme tune began, my daughter commented, ‘It’s so pink. Why is everything always so pink?” The episode we watched concerned four mice, two ‘girl’ mice, (wearing pretty dresses), and two boy mice. It’s the only episode I’ve ever watched, (and ever hope to), and it actually centred on a ‘boy’ mouse called AJ. It was AJ’s birthday and the other mice were planning a surprise party for him. So, in what I imagined would be a show that was, if not ideal, at least girl centred, I watched as the two girls planned how to make a boy happy. As it ended I asked my daughter if she’d liked it. She answered that she would have liked it better if it had been about Angelina.
Later on I let my daughter watch a film; part of the Studio Ghibli series currently showing on Film Four. Studio Ghibli is a Japanese company, generally seen as being much more girl friendly than US studios such as Disney, and it’s played an important part in my daughter’s movie intake to date. There are some great Ghibli films, but as a canon it’s far from perfect, and yesterday, yet again, we watched as the girl in the story became a princess, a prospective bride and had to be rescued by male characters. The film was ‘The Cat Returns,’ in which a girl, Haru, rescues a cat from a near death collision with a lorry. Unfortunately the cat is a prince and Haru is now expected to become his cat princess. She is rescued by a team of male helpers; the heroic Baron, another male cat and a male raven. There is one female cat who tries to help her; Haru’s first comment upon meeting her is about how beautiful she is; a white cat with long eyelashes and a pink bow, not stereotyped at all then. The few other females in the movie are unsympathetic characters, such as the two cat maidservants who help Haru to dress and tell her how lucky she is because all the girl cats have crushes on the prince. Early on in the film, a delegation from the Land of Cats marches past Haru’s window and stops to talk with her. At this point my daughter piped up; “Are all of those cats boys?” Well spotted little one, best get used to it.
Along with several other people, I’ve been doing a lot of work for the Let Toys be Toys campaign lately, which is why this blog has become a little neglected. I did recently blog for the f-Word about the way science toys are overwhelmingly marketed to boys, a post which was also published by New Statesman. The Let Toys Be Toys website is under development – what is currently a holding page will soon be a much more informative and interactive site, including a blog open to guests. As the campaign is made up of busy parents with a variety of jobs, sometimes things take a bit longer than we expect them to. In the meantime can anyone who supports LTBT make sure you have signed and shared the petition and keep on sending photos and ideas to @lettoysbetoys on twitter or facebook.