The first time a man told me that he does not read books written by women because he finds the writing to be too “feminine” and unrelatable I was appalled. I took a step back and gave myself time to think about it. All my life I have been conditioned to accept that books written by dead white men are the gold standard. I never questioned that even though I forced myself several times to finish Moby Dick (sorry still can’t finish it). I just accepted that these stories of angry and miserable men going to wars or having an existential crisis are the important stories. Not until a guy told me that he only read books by male authors did I start to question my very own reading choices.
That encounter was five year ago. I felt invincible when it comes to talking about literature because I devoured 70-100 books a year during my undergrad studies. I read almost everything that I came upon, the popular ones, the ones considered crucial, and I finished most of them no matter how bored and unengaged I was. I ate books without chewing. But that sentiment changed my reading habits. I was enraged. What makes a book too feminine? Why are feminine things considered inherently inferior? These were some of the thoughts in my head as our conversation went on.
After that chat I examined myself and dug deeper. I then started to realise that unfortunately I was a bad reader and a bad feminist. Is this why I don’t talk much about all the Chick Lit I have read because I unconsciously don’t want to be known as the heart-eyed woman who only reads romance novels? Is this also the same reason why when we talk about Jane Austen we often dismiss her as the old maid who wrote the best novels about courting and marriage that we tend to forget that she also made arguably the best commentary on the English middle class and elite? I almost fell into the trap of an inherently patriarchal and misogynistic literary thinking where domestic stories of women are regarded as less essential reading. I did not even question then how most male writers struggle to create complex and nuanced female characters. I had no idea about what the “male gaze” is all about. The male gaze as Margaret Atwood beautifully explains it in her book The Robber Bride: “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
I was determined to push off that man inside me.
Getting rid of that internal misogyny that was installed in each of us from birth is a complicated task especially when the literary world is full of it. But it was a challenge I was very much willing to take. I have decided to teach my younger self who loved YA novels how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a tired and lousy trope. This was not that easy as I have spent a lot of my teenage years trying to mould myself into that archetype. I was an “I am not like other girls” girl. It even affected how approached dating when I first got into it. I unintentionally turned myself into the kind of woman who thinks she could change and save a man who in actuality needs a therapy. I had a lot of unlearning to do. I needed to admit that I had internal misogyny (probably the toughest part) in order to work on myself and be free from it. From then on I turned myself into a more critical vigorous reader. That night I have decided to actively seek out books written by women. I will no longer read anything just because it is popular. I promised to seek out stories from women of diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the world because these stories matter. And that is the one of the best decisions I made in my entire life.
I promised to seek out stories from women of diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the world because these stories matter.
I was taken aback by how invigorating it is to read about female characters who are not put into boxes. She is not just the dream girl, the patient wife, or the symbol of a man’s desire. She is a girl, a woman, and she can be anything. She can be messy, ugly, and she is not defined by how big and smooth her breasts are or how her lips feel when she is kissed, because in this world she is more than just a body. Her thoughts, journey and growth filled out the pages.
My new reading choices has not only opened my eyes to many realities but it also made me more empathic. It has also made me felt seen and validated. I have felt less lonely and more understood. Virginia Woolf in her long essay, A Room of One’s Own, made me see the struggles women writers have gone through the centuries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah, helped me make sense of my own battles as I was adjusting to a new country. The book made the hardship and confusion of the diaspora experience easier for me to navigate. Margaret Atwood brought me to the incredible world of speculative fiction. Roxane Gay taught me about intersectional feminism and has inspired me to pursue this blogging journey. Arundhati Roy, Jumpa Lahiri, Bernardine Evaristo, Chingbee Cruz and many more women writers continue to produce writings that inspire and educate me.
Just recently I read an article written by MA Sieghart in The Guardian entitled: Why do so few men read books by women? The article provided some very alarming and disheartening statistics. I don’t want to bore you with numbers so let me quote a part of the article that somehow encapsulates it (I highly suggest that you read the whole thing: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/09/why-do-so-few-men-read-books-by-women): “Women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?”
Now you might be thinking why am I so bothered by this? Why can’t I just let men read more about men. I honestly wished I do not care at all. But I do care about it because I believe in the importance of literature and how it can help anyone understand different experiences. When men refuse to read books by women they deny the opportunity to learn and understand women’s perspectives and experiences. MA Sieghart puts it well in her article previously mentioned:“If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.”
When men refuse to read books by women they deny the opportunity to learn and understand women’s perspectives and experiences.
I still read books written by male authors of course, I am not doing this for some misplaced feminist anger. I choose to read good books and whether we accept it or not a lot of good literature today are penned by women. For centuries, women are made to feel the inferior sex and it is time for us to dismantle this patriarchal bullshit. In that note, I shall not stop writing to honour the women before me. I owe it to them to tell my story and I hope you tell yours too. Our stories matter.