Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A vindication of the writes of woman

I do love LibraryThing. For those of you unacquainted with its charms, it's essentially an online database, into which users enter details of the books they own. I suppose there's a practical purpose, in that it helps people keep track of their collections, spotting gaps and duplicates. But even better is the chance to peek at the bookshelves of strangers. Try as you might, it's impossible not to make assumptions about others based on what they read, and to compare their habits with your own. Moreover, there's all manner of fun and games, such as the Unsuggester, which allows you to enter the title of a book from your library, and in turn offers a title that you'll probably really dislike. (The headline pairing is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason versus Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic.)

It also gives you a chance to cast a critical eye at your own collection. Foolish impulse buys, often the detritus of three-for-two, give off a whiff of imprudence and gullibility. Big fat tomes, that you know you'll never read, glare their disapproval. Unwanted presents squat dumbly.

And then there are the gaps. I can't help but notice how few female writers there are in my collection, and feel a pang of lefty guilt (which goes back to my student days, when I used to carry around a copy of The Second Sex in the vain hope that I might get to shag a cute feminist). But should I feel guilty about this? Does it expose me as an unreconstructed bloke, one of the dreaded Dead White European Males who haunted my undergraduate years? Or is it just one of those things that happens in the unplanned acquisition of books? I mean, I've got far more Japanese books than the average LibraryThing member; does that mean the others are racists? I've tried to come up with a list of my 10 favourite books by female authors and, to be honest, two or three of them are fairly desperate reaches out to the more distant backwaters of my reading memory:

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter
Passing On, by Penelope Lively
Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
Collected Poems, by Stevie Smith
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

So, if I'm prepared to risk accusations of tokenism, which books by women should I have read? To give you further guidelines, I don't like George Eliot, and Jane Austen I can take or leave. I loathe chick lit, but I think it's probably designed to be loathed by the likes of me. I'm not that enthused by the fantasy genre either, although the appearance of Carter and Winterston above suggests that I'm OK when it's dressed up as magic realism (in the same way that a ceilidh is line-dancing for the Guardian-reading middle classes).

Over to you. Any suggestions?

30 comments:

patroclus said...

Cold Comfort Farm is far and away my favourite book by a female writer.

Rich said...

Evelyn Waugh had a girl's name. Does that count?

My bookshelf has very few women writers on it, especially since Ive never read anything by the Brontes or Jane Austen. George Eliot and Ivy Compton Burnett are probably the only women writers on there.

Shane Richmond said...

At the end of my 26 books project last year, I noticed with some disappointment that I hadn't read any books by female authors.

This year five other people have joined me at 26books.com and, despite the fact that three of them are female, just 10 of the 80 or so books we've read are written by women.

I've read one - Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin* and I wouldn't recommend it but you might find something interesting on this list: http://www.26books.com/?cat=6

btw, according to Library Thing you have a lot of books that you share with only one other user. With me you share Joe Jackson's A Cure for Gravity and, err, Radiohead - Welcome to the Machine. You need to get more of your readers signed up to LT.

* I originally wrote The Bling Assassin, which sounds like a much better book.

Tim Footman said...

OK, P, that's number one. Had always intended to read it, but was put off by the fact that it parodies Mary Webb, a writer I've never read (and I don't see the point in reading a bad book just to get the jokes that are made in a good book). But I'll have a go.

Not only did Evelyn Waugh have a girl's name, Rich, but so did his first wife. Unfortunately, it was Evelyn as well.

Some would argue that it's subconscious sexism, Shane. I quite liked The Handmaid's Tale, although it wasn't exactly a bucket of giggles. Maybe I'll try another Atwood. Incidentally, why is it so hard to post comments on your blog? Keep getting error messages.

Marsha Klein said...

I enjoyed "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" by Kate Atkinson even although it's fantasy (of a sort), a genre I usually can't stand. "Human Croquet" and "Emotionally Weird" were quite good too, but I wouldn't recommend her more recent (non-fantasy) novels "One Good Turn" (can't remember the name of the other!)

patroclus said...

Tim: Christ, you must read it immediately! I assumed you'd just left it off your list as an oversight. It's the Decline and Fall of female fiction, you know. Also, I love it and I don't even know who Mary Webb is.

Susan Cooper is my next favourite, but as that is a) for kids and b) fantasy (not *very* fantasy, though; there aren't any orcs or anything), you probably won't be going for that.

Shane Richmond said...

Tim: we've got some sort of Wordpress problem that seems to make commenting almost impossible for many people. We keep meaning to fix it (or move to another CMS) but we never seem to have time.

Subconscious sexism, eh? I hope not but there have been studies done which show that men tend not to read books by women.

Nor do teenage boys, which is why JK Rowling (who is, sadly, likely to be the next woman writer that I read) is known by her initials.

Robert Swipe said...

I thought Elizabeth Smart's 70s Blaxpoloitation follow up was much better, Tim:

• By Graham Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

"SHOOO-GAH!"

But seriously - Lucy Ellman is criminally under-rated - especially since she was kind enough to conduct a brief, but passionate correspondence with your humble scribe.

Sadly, I never got to shag her though...

L.U.V. on ya,


Bob

dh said...

I'm surprised Jane Eyre isn't on the list. Surely one of the greatest novels by either sex.

tom said...

My goodness, where to even begin? Clarice Lispector (The Hour of the Star), Flannery O'Connor (Wise Blood), Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon), Luisa Valenzuela (Lizard's Tail), Doris Lessing (Grass is Singing), Alice Walker (Beloved) and definitely Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - hysterical!

Andrew said...

Lets face it, Tim. You know it's all a sham. The best I can suggest is say to yourself, "Tonight I'll give Mrs Murakami's new book a read. Or "Dostoevsky was really a pen name. The real author was Mary Winterbottom from Leeds. Though I have heard very good things of Marilynne Robinson.

Billy said...

The temptation is strong to make a reference to Shakespeare's sister.

amylola said...

someone mentioned Marilynne Robinson. I just - JUST this morning - finished Housekeeping. it is beautifully, poetically written and you should read it. (all my 11th and 12th graders are reading it this summer). The other must-read is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It's the story of the madwoman in the attic, before she goes mad (from Jane Eyre, which actually, I don't like). my two cents.

violetforthemoment said...

After reading your post I tried to think of a book by a female author aside from Brontes and Austens. I failed. I have hardly any books written by women. I have hardly any music by women either - aside from the magnificent X-Ray Spex I tend to find music by female bands or artists deeply uninteresting. But hey, I'm female so it's OK for me to be a misogynist! Judging by the women's glossies it's practically compulsory.

I have no clue why I don't have many books by women though. I offer Steve Mc Manaman's book about his years at Real Madrid. It was co-authored by a Sarah Edworthy. That counts, right?

Murph said...

Oh Tim, you must so read "Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady" by Edith Holden.
(Bought by 7 million people and read by 12 )

bye bye bellulah said...

I like Nicola Barker, simple clean modern slightly off-centre, not a real 'should' read but enjoyable.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes and Isabelle Allende's House of Spirits are should read books. Nightwood, even if only to know whether you hate it or not.

I think Lucy Ellman is under-rated too, but she's a touch on the girly side.

Annie said...

Right then.

E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is great - as the hero is a writer I think you'd like it too - shamefully I didn't read it for a long time because of the title & it had a boat on the cover, I thought it was a boy's book... ahem...

Rose Tremain is a brilliant & underrated writer, Music & Silence is pure genius, as a music fan I think you'd really like it.

I've been banging on about Mary Karr for ever, I tell everyone that Cherry is the best book ever written, but do they listen? It's her autobiography, about growing up in Texas in the 60s with her mad family, but don't let that put you off, she has the best prose style I've ever read.

Tom mentioned Beloved, (it's by Toni Morrison, who's also a genius, not Alice Walker,) very good for anyone interested in the States & the history of slavery. The title page reads '60 million & more' which is so provocative it took my breath away when I first read it, but you take her point by the end of the book.

Would second DH for Jane Eyre - if you like Angela Carter, it's like reading one of her sources - and Tom for Flannery O'Connor, who's the antidote to chick-lit - very macho & dark.

I'm kind of jealous you haven't read Cold Comfort Farm, I'd love to read it again for the first time, it's pure pleasure.

Annie said...

'when I used to carry around a copy of The Second Sex in the vain hope that I might get to shag a cute feminist'

This does work for the ladies - there's nothing like a cute man carrying a good book...

Voice from the Village said...

Off the top of my head - not a list of faves - but, I've enjoyed Doris Lessing (though not the Golden Notebooks yet) & Nadine Gordimer down the years - and "Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight" by Alexandra Fuller - all three southern African based. Pat barker's war trilogy. Patricia Highsmith's Ripleys. Looking around me the women are mainly non-fiction. But I see you've sneaked in some poetry - may have to return to that.
In the meantime - if the author's name was Patricia Leigh Fermor - I could urge you to read A Time of Gifts (and then the sequel Between the Woods and the Water) about the 18 year old author's walk in 1933 from Rotterdam to Constantinople. It's just the most wonderful thing. But as the name is really Patrick, I'd better not.

Tim Footman said...

Crikey. I should point out that I have read Jane Eyre, but thought it might make the list a bit Haworth-heavy. And have been meaning to add Wide Sargasso Sea to that. I did read a Lucy Ellman many years ago, but can't remember anything about it.

OK. Hit the first 50 pp of Cold Comfort last night, and it's completely different from what I expected. Very Waugh-like, very funny, and almost postmodern. Also discovered untouched copies of Fingersmith and the Time-Traveller's Wife tucked away - anyone have any opinions on those?

Thereafter I really ought to go for a big hitter - Atwood, Morrison, Gordimer, say. But Mary Karr also sounds intriguing. I'll keep you posted. And any other suggestions are welcome.

amylola said...

can't not comment (does that make sense?).

yes, time traveler's wife is a good read, clever and mournful and touching. i hate to say this (but if another woman above can be misogynist then so can i), i almost thought time traveler's wife was written by a man.

yikes, i can't believe i typed that.....

St. Anthony said...

Jane Bowles - much better writer than her hubby, Shirley Jackson, everything by Amelie Nothomb ... and that Jean Genet, she wrote some good stuff.

rivergirlie said...

what about that irish author - joyce?
anything by anne tyler or barbara kingsolver.

Anonymous said...

Harper Lee? Iris Murdoch? A.L.Kennedy? Jackie Kay? Anne Enright?

bye bye bellulah said...

Fingersmith definitely, definitely! Gordon by Edith Templeton if you're feeling darkly racy and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann for the best of classic trash.

llewtrah said...

You could try some Joanne Harris, Anchee Min, Angela Carter or Leonora Carrington.

Alex said...

If you fancy some non fiction, Liza Picard's books on London are a stonking read. Particularly Victorian London (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Victorian-London-Liza-Picard/dp/0753820900/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/026-1113019-8194807?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1182496646&sr=8-1).

But as for fiction written by women, my wife tends to go for the 19th century oppressed Chinese woman genre, which sounds pretty dull if you ask me :)

Jun Okumura said...

Octavia Butler's science fiction?

rafael said...

slightly off topic, but on the subject of lists of books, I thought you might like to know that I have crow-barred a plug for OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album into the Observer's recommended summer reads - published in a few weeks' time.

Tim Footman said...

That's great news Rafael, thanks very much.

And thanks everyone for your recommendations. I shall ensure that my shelves get a bit more oestrogen in the coming weeks.