I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.

So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).

I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).

My bookshelves.
My bookshelves.

When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.

The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing a little fantasy short story, just a fun, harmless little thing, the premise a take on an idea my friend Greg Bossert (whose fiction you really ought to read) had after talking to Jessica Hilt (whose fiction you also really ought to read) while we were at Clarion in 2010. It’s not even really the kind of fiction I write, but the idea got ahold of me and the next thing I knew I had a novel on my hands (now, a year and change later, the manuscript’s around 70k words). It’s a fantasy novel, set in a town near a famous dungeon (complete with dragon), whose protagonists are three tavern wenches, one of whom is the POV character. Since I was going to be writing about and from the perspective of women it seemed like a good idea that I should read some. After all, I had a pretty broad experience of how men wrote about women, and had even taken a crack at it myself once or twice, sometimes with shameful, disastrous results. I wanted to do right by any readers the book might ever have, of course. But more than that I wanted to do right by my characters, who seemed and continue to seem very like real people to me.

I started with Hild, by Nicola Griffith, both on the strength of in-the-know hype and because it was by a local author and about a woman who lived in what’s now England in the dark ages, the kind of setting traditional high fantasy takes for granted. I’ve read it twice now, and will read it again at least once because (a) Nicola Griffith is one of my new writing heroes, and (b) the depth of historical detail and the mastery with which it’s integrated into the story are, if not a template for some of what I’m trying to do with my own novel, then at least an example to aspire to as a writer and appreciate the absolute shit out of as a reader.

(I wrote a bit about Hild and four other novels back in June; you can read that post here.)

Whatever effect my year-long experiment has had on my writing (too soon to tell), as a reader I have to say it was a smashing success. Not only did I finally getting around to authors and books I’d meant to read forever, like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, I discovered new at least two new heroes, of whom the second is Octavia Butler, who wrote cracking-good page-turners dealing with massively complex topics in prose as lean and economical as the best of Raymond Chandler (I’ve since learned not to start a new book by her unless I can block out a day or two to finish it). I read Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire, which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since (it deserves a post of its own, frankly), and Caren Gussoff’s The Birthday Problem, which is not so much a traditional narrative as it is a constellation of lives and how they touch one another in tenuous and profound ways. I discovered Lauren Beukes (okay, I read The Shining Girls), who fooled me for about half the book until I realized just how smoothly she was pulling off this crazy, fucked-up thing she was doing. I liked Karen Lord’s picaresque sci fi romance The Best of All Possible Worlds so much I read Redemption in Indigo, too. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria has to be one of the most beautifully written, evocative works of prose ever, with an atmosphere and narrative logic straight out of a (not so) lucid dream. And Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves blew me away on so many levels that all I can say is dude, go read that book, like, right now.

That’s not to say there wasn’t the occasional dud. Not every book is going to resonate, and some books are best read at certain times and not others. And, you know, I cheated here and there when there was something I really wanted to read. Which was also no big deal. But for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.

So, did it change me? Of course, and for the better. Do I now hate or think less of fiction by cisgendered white male authors? Of course not. They continue to occupy copious space on my bookshelf and in my heart. Among my heroes are writers like Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann and Bryan Slattery and Jeff VanderMeer and Jonathan Lethem and David Guterson and Iain M. Banks and Denis Johnson and George RR Martin and Dale Bailey and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño and David Mitchell. Their work does not move or amaze me any less for having abjured from them to explore other perspectives and traditions and narrative and historical truths. If anything I appreciate their work more, because the context it occupies in my psyche is that much richer. And while it’s true there are some books and some authors that I probably like less as a result of my year-long sojourn through other literary lands, all I can say to that is that if the work doesn’t hold up, then the work doesn’t hold up. Life’s too short to read non-awesome books.

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And that’s a good thing. It’s like, when I was a kid, I was the pickiest, plainest eater in the world. When I grew up and left home, I was exposed to new things, and I tried them. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But even if I didn’t like something, it was still good to have tried it. I went on to a long career in food and beverage service, which further encouraged me to develop my palate, and over the years I’ve cultivated the ability to enjoy all kinds of things I didn’t like when I was younger. It makes my world richer, not only for the breadth of the experience itself but for the sheer number of things I know how to enjoy. Do I like a good cheeseburger less now I’ve had pad thai or bone marrow on toast points? Come on.

I do get that people like what they like and that challenges like the one KT Bradford made can seem very like being told as a kid to eat your vegetables. But made right, vegetables are fking delicious, and they’re good for you, too.

It took me more than a couple of years between the realization of how gender-stacked my bookshelf was and my decision to read books by women for a year. When the observation first occurred my immediate response was angry resistance. I didn’t need to defend my taste in reading material, least of all to myself. But because I am by nature obsessive and given to constant self-examination, I couldn’t help but keep picking at it. In the end none of the reasons I came up with seemed compelling. They were just faces my internal resistance put on to keep me from doing something about the imbalance. Why did I resist? I was comfortable with the status quo, in which I read all these awesome books by people like me. In the end the resistance itself became the reason to do the thing. My world’s been growing my whole adult life, and I like things that way.

If KT Bradford’s challenge to consciously expand your literary horizons isn’t for you, cool. But if it makes you angry, even if it’s not angry enough to take to the internets and rage, then maybe just take a moment and ask yourself why. If you come up with a good reason, then by all means carry on, I guess, though as someone with long-standing anger management issues I can say from my personal experience that acting in anger has never worked out particularly well for me. I can also say that consciously challenging my defaults and worldview has always, in my experience, been profitable, and making alterations in the parts that don’t hold up to honest scrutiny has driven my evolution not only as a reader but as a human being for my whole adult life. Personally, I’d wager that the angrier the challenge to read outside your comfort zone makes you, the more likely you are to profit by it. But that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

But if you look at your reasons and they maybe don’t hold up as well as you thought they did, then maybe it’s worth trying whatever version of the challenge is most amenable for you. Try it for a month. Or three, or six. Hell, try it for one book. As my father was wont to say when I was growing up, you can stand on your head in shit for [finite period of time]. If it doesn’t work out, okay, you gave it a shot. Maybe try again sometime, whatever. What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best?

I’m going to close out with a (not even close to exhaustive) list of books written by authors who would qualify for KT Bradford’s challenge, and which I can personally recommend as being worth any serious reader’s time, purely on their own merits. I’m going to do my best to come up with a year’s worth for even the avidest of readers. But I’m only one person, with finite time to read. So there’s going to be plenty of good stuff that I’ve missed. If you want to make further recommendations in the comment thread below, that would be awesome (I should note that comments that are in any way abusive will never see the light of day here, on this thread or any other).

  • Octavia Butler: Fledgling, Parable of the Sower, Seed to Harvest (a four-book cycle)
  • Nicola Griffith: Hild, Ammonite, Slow River
  • Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword
  • Genevieve Valentine: Mechanique
  • Kelley Eskridge: Solitaire
  • Lauren Beukes: The Shining Girls
  • Karen Lord: Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Kelly Link: Magic for Beginners
  • Karin Tidbeck: Jagannath
  • Caren Gusoff: The Birthday Problem
  • Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka On the Shore, 1Q84
  • Ted Chiang: Stories of Your Life and Others
  • Sofia Samatar: A Stranger In Olondria
  • Ursula K LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness
  • G Willow Wilson: Alif the Unseen
  • Delia Sherman: Changeling, The Freedom Maze
  • Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death
  • NK Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
  • Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  • Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Sarah Canary
  • Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
  • Orhan Pamuk: Snow
  • Charles Yu: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

As for short fiction, there’s far too much for me to list, but I would be remiss if I did not include plugs for my Clarion classmates Kai Ashante Wilson, Karin Tidbeck, Kali Wallace, John Chu, Leah Thomas, JC Hsyu, Jessica Hilt, Laura Praytor, and Tamsyn Muir, all of whom are complete badasses whose work I respect the absolute shit out of.

Like I said, please feel free to add suggestions in comments. If you’re a writer, please feel free to point me and anyone else towards your own work. If nothing else, I’m always on the lookout for new good stuff to read. Those who disagree with any or all of what I’ve said are invited to make their case respectfully, but as I mentioned previously, anything even remotely abusive will be deleted without compunction.

* Okay, I cheated a couple of times. I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy as it came out (he is another of my heroes), and of course I had to read The Bone Clocks.

16 thoughts on “I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

  1. if you want to read a woman writer who has been COMPARED to haruki Murakami (who is on your list) why don’t you try fellow Pacific Northwest writer Alma Alexander? Her “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” are fat historical fantasy; she’s written something that’s been best described as “contemporary fantasy,” the Mutrakami-compared book, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”; she’s written YA fantasy which is a great read for ALL ages – a now-concluded four-book series under the series umbrella title of Worldweavers (“Gift of the Unmage”, Spellspam”, “Cybermage” and “Dawn of magic” – alternately compared to Harry Potter and called veyr much their own thing by serried ranks of reviewers), and a just-begun new series whose first book, “Random” has been called refreshing and unique by pretty much almost everyone who’s read it. This is a writer who is flying very much underneath the radar, and really deserves the attention. Take a look, if some of those titles pique your interest…

  2. You will enjoy reading the first woman to be part of the Académie Française who was brilliant on her writings: Margueritte Yourcenar. Also Yukio Mishima who was not straight white.
    This article reminds me how much people are driven by their own self-projections, and somehow I always felt attracted by minded brains instead of race, gender, etc But being autistic makes it harder for me to label people as they are labelled. I’m glad you took this challenge.
    I’ll not self promote as I’m white cisgender male though, but by the content/theme of some of your readings (and article) you might enjoy reading mine as well.

  3. Forgive me if this is covered, but I didn’t see it – how many of those books would you say are by women, but predominantly featuring male characters?

    Because I knew someone last year who attempted the same challenge, but with the caveat that even if they were by women they had to feature female characters or at the very least pass the Bechdel test. And I ran through the shamefully scant list of books by female authors I’d read and really enjoyed recently:

    Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch: about boys and men on a 19th century sea voyage
    The Secret River, by Kate Grenville: about a man in Georgian England convicted and sent to Australia with his family, mostly sons
    The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker: mostly following soldiers and doctors in WWI.

    It’s disappointing when you realise how few female authors you typically read, but even more depressing when you realise that of the few that you do, most of them write about male characters. Or do you think that’s inevitable in a male-dominated world? I guess the flipside is that a lot of male authors write about female characters.

  4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is one of my favorites. Handmaid’s Tale is, of course, a female classic, but I’ll usually give anything by Margaret Atwood a try. For fantasy, Mercedes Lackey is prolific, with good female perspectives in the Bloodoath books and the Arrows trilogy. Jane Eyre, another classic, has changed surprisingly little from a female “fitting in to society” sort of way.
    …I’ll stop now.

  5. I think most people were reacting not to the idea of reading more female authors, but to ONLY reading them. I’ve always read female authors, but to be told to only read them seemed unnecessarily restrictive. Pointing someone to authors they might like, as you have done, seems a better way to go about this sort of challenge.

  6. Interesting piece Dallas. I’m a male reader and agree, women can write some dynamite stuff. I’m a fan of non-fiction, outdoor adventure but force myself to take time every few months to get out of my reading genre and sample other things, usually something fiction. I prefer “plausible” fiction, but in order to expand my horizons, I’ve read just about everything.

    Check out the works by J.F. Penn, starting with Pentecost…good stuff. Joanna’s stuff is thrilling and extensively researched. She is one of the heavy-hitting up and comers. http://www.jfpenn.com/

    Recently I finished reading three books in rapid succession by Susan Klaus, starting with Flight of the Harpies, then Secretariat Reborn and finally Shark Fin Soup. The Flight of the Harpies is a fantasy/sci-fi.

    What I really liked about the last two was that they were totally plausible. Shark Fin Soup was a book I just couldn’t put down, it was a thriller with an interesting take on sharks and their dwindling numbers. Susan does a masterful job of leaving you with the decision about whether her protagonist is a good guy, or a bad guy. She went on-site for much of her research and managed to bring in events such as eco-terrorism and trade in illegal goods, such as ivory and shark fins. http://susanklaus.com/susans-books/shark-fin-soup-suspense-thriller-environmentalism/

    I will definitely have to go through your list for future reading.

    Thanks again.


  7. Hi Dallas, thanks for sharing your list! I wish more people did this. Here’s mine from the year (and a little) when I did the same thing, all highly recommended:

    Light Matters – Vicki Goldberg
    Man walks into a room – Nicole Krauss
    Antarctica – Claire Keegan
    Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell
    Bossypants – Tina Fey
    Visit from the Good Squad – Jennifer Egan
    Swamplandia! – Karen Russel
    Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name – Vendela Vida
    And the Heart Says Whatever – Emily Gould
    Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
    The Help – Kathryn Stockett
    Blood Bones & Butter – Gabrielle Hamilton
    Stiff – Mary Roach
    The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht
    The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
    Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
    Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
    Cost – Roxana Robinson
    Julia Child – Laura Shapiro
    The Cookbook Collector – Allegra Goodman
    The Dissident – Nell Freudenberger
    Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka
    Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
    Room – Emma Donaghue
    The Space Between Us – Thrity Umrigar
    The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
    Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick
    The Artist of Disappearance – Anita Desai
    The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger
    In the Woods – Tana French
    Lit – Mary Karr
    The People of Forever are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu
    Dear Life – Alice Munro
    The Round House – Louise Erdich
    Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
    In My Father’s Country – Saima Wahab
    Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
    The Red Tent – Anita Desai
    Wild: From Lost to Found – Cheryl Strayed
    A Guide to Being Born – Ramona Ausubel
    The Last Chinese Chef – Nicole Mones
    The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey
    No One Is Here Except All Of Us – Ramona Asbel
    State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
    The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
    Runaway – Alice Munro

  8. I’m so jealous. I used to have bookshelves like yours. But alas, a retirement move (to a city not far from you) meant severe downsizing. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful article. I’m always looking for new authors and new books to read.

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