It’s sadly true to say that I read a lot more books by men than books by women. This is probably the case for a lot of men, and it’s an interesting and to my mind relatively unexplored phenomenon. I don’t know what my personal ratio is, but it’s probably something like eight books by men to two books by women.
Which is sort of interesting, because according to the oft-asserted wisdom, 80 per cent of fiction readers are female (see this related post for more thoughts on this possibly fictional statistic).
I’ve read three very fine novels by female authors in the last few months. Two I’ve already written about on this site: Girl Reading by Katie Ward (whose title I plundered for this post), and The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. The third, which I finished last night, was Jubilee by Shelley Harris.
Full disclosure: I met Shelley at a literary dinner in Windsor earlier this year and liked her very much, and she bought my book and asked me to sign it, so I felt I should buy her book and ask her to sign it, which is probably a bit naff, but there you are. Then my wife read Jubilee before me, liked it, and then I got my hands on it.
And I liked it. A lot.
Brief synopsis: Jubilee tells the story of a group of people whose photograph was taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. The novel describes the events which precede the taking of the photo and the ripples they create through to the present day. The central character, Satish, is a Ugandan Asian whose family escaped Idi Amin and moved to England, and who in the present day is a successful doctor. Back in 1977, he’s a a gawky pre-teen living in a family trying to carve out an identity for itself in a country, England, which has yet to come to think of itself as “multicultural”.
The book’s full of delightful nostalgia for the period, which directly appealed to me because I reckon Satish and I are exactly the same age. But it’s also got horrors in it, and here’s where we come to “reading girls”, because the horrors Shelley puts in her book are of a kind which I think a man would struggle to write. One character in particular is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch. But Shelley draws her bitchiness in a way which doesn’t judge it, and I think a man would struggle not to judge a character who behaves so badly.
Shelley is deft and skilful in suggesting a world of fierce emotions bubbling beneath the surface of a dinner table. A bowl of coronation chicken can become astonishingly significant. She describes the world of cooking, of kitchen conversation, of families coming together with a warmth and a depth of realism which I’d struggle with myself and which, I think, would be unusual in a book by a male author.
Not all male authors, of course. I think Ian McEwan is particularly good at this kind of stuff, which is perhaps why he’s so successful in a market now allegedly dominated by female readers (and why Martin Amis, perhaps, has gone off the boil a bit). The book I’ve read most recently by a male author which comes closest to what Shelley has pulled off here is Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, which is equally brilliant and also successfully conveys deep horrors dancing beneath the surfaces of domestic life (although, in Will’s case, it’s a particularly male, obsessive-compulsive sort of domesticity).
But even those books by male authors have less of the warmth of Shelley’s book, and maybe that’s where the difference lies. I detected a similar warmth and appealing sensibility in Girl Reading by Katie Ward, whose title I garbled for this blog post. Like Shelley’s book, Katie has enormous sympathy for her characters, such that one’s judgement is always suspended and one is forced to listen to them and try to understand them. Be more like a woman and less like a man. Katie’s book spans historical, literary and science fiction and is fiercely ambitious, but the female characters at the heart of the book are all drawn from enormous wells of compassion and sympathy. To repeat: I’m not sure many male authors have access to those wells.
The third book I wanted to add in here is The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. Again, bad things happen and there are bad people doing them, and Essie’s story has extremities that are pretty Gothic in their intensity (in a good way, mind). When I wrote about it, I said this:
More than that, this was the most intensely feminine story I’ve read in a long time. Essie describes the physical sense of being a woman really, really well. She describes clothing, washing, eating, sleeping and other more intimate stuff in ways which I think a man could never manage, and it left me with a real sense that Phoebe was living and breathing.
That’s another aspect of Reading Girls, I think. Female characters in books by male authors are often totems rather than individuals. My favourite character in any book is Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and Isabel is the totemic totem, the character who is mysterious and downright infuriating even to her own creator. So to read a book by a woman is to have women described without that pervasive air of mystery, and Essie’s book in particular is very good at that.
I don’t really have a conclusion, or a point to make, other than this: if it is an effort for men to pick up and read books by women, it’s an effort that’s almost always worth the candle. It’s a patronising truism to say men don’t understand women, but it’s also at least partly true. Reading a good book by a skilled female writer at least makes our ignorance a little less wilful.