Thoughts on #ReadWomen2014

As mentioned in my 2013 reading review, I’ve been fairly surprised and not a little disappointed to discover how (comparatively) few books by women I actually read. Had you asked me to guess, off the top of my head, I’d have confidently asserted that at least half the books I read were by women, probably more. Most of my favourite authors are women, and I feel like my reading list is dominated by women authors. However, looking at the actual numbers, that’s nowhere near true. Last year only 30% of the books I read were written by women. Over the past four years, the closest I’ve got is in 2012, when the female/male split was 60/40.

I recently backed a great project on Kickstarter: Women destroy science fiction, a project to produce an all-female issue of Lightspeed Magazine (and since they absolutely smashed their funding goals, they’re now also producing “Women destroy horror” and “Women destroy fantasy” issues!). The success of this project (having initially aimed for $5,000, they’ve raised more than 10 times that amount!) makes it abundantly clear that there is a real appetite for fresh voices in science fiction, and genre publishing generally – an area all too often dominated by men.

One of the great things about backing this campaign has been the daily updates featuring short personal essays about women’s experiences in science fiction publishing. A recent essay, We are the fifty percent, really struck a chord with me. I’d urge you all to click through and read the whole thing, but here’s a few choice quotes:

Sometimes I catch myself feeling like I only read writing by women. “Ugh,” I think. “That is so skewed.” Then I crunch the numbers.

They are almost always fifty percent.

Sociological research suggests that when women and men speak equally in a conversation, both men and women perceive the women as dominating the conversation.

At the same time as I entered my editorial position and was criticized for running work “dominated” by fifty percent women, the podcast’s male-edited science fiction counterpart hadn’t run a story authored by a woman in weeks. No one said a thing.

That hit home with me, because I can see from my own experience how easy it is to perceive anything more than a handful of women writers as being a majority. Perhaps that’s because, in a patriarchal society, male is the assumed default – anything that deviates from this draws attention, and appears to be demanding more space than it actually is. Conversely, an all-male reading list or collection will not raise many eyebrows, if any, because that’s just the natural state of things.

Before I crunched the numbers from last year’s reading, I genuinely believed I’d read more books by women than by men in 2013. At the very least, I was certain it was at least a 50/50 split. I never would have guessed the actual split was only 30/70. And I’m a self-identified feminist, and very conscious of these issues. How much easier is it for people who don’t actually think about the bias against female authors, who don’t think it’s a big deal, to just assume everything’s fine and this is all just humourless feminists trying to force sub-par female authors on unwilling readers in order to maintain some kind of gender quota?

Joanna Walsh's beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

Joanna Walsh’s beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

This is why I’m hugely in favour of the Year of Reading Women. There are so many extraordinarily talented women out there – if my reading list is skewed towards male authors, how much fantastic writing am I missing out on? I’ve decided against only reading women this year, simply because there are other books by men that I want to read that I don’t want to miss out on for a year – it’ll just make my TBR pile even bigger! However, I’m keeping note of the author’s gender for every book I read, on an ongoing basis rather than totting it up at the end of the year as I’ve done previously, and I’ve pledged to read at least one book by a woman for every book by a man I read this year. That should ensure that, at the very least, I’ll have an even 50/50 split for 2014. I might even tip the balance the other way, which would make up for the awesome female-authored books I must have missed out on over the past couple of years! So far in 2014, I’ve read 5 books by women and 6 by men. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s NW (which is wonderful), so that brings it to an even 6-all so far this year. A good start!

A final quote from the Kickstarter essay, for anyone still looking for inspiration to #readwomen2014:

Women aren’t supposed to talk as much as men. We aren’t supposed to take up as much space as men do. So when we talk, we must be SHOUTING. When we take up space, we must be EVERYWHERE.

If our presence will always be perceived as a taint, then let science fiction be tainted. If our speaking voices will always be perceived as shouts, then let us shout.

We’re here. We’re fifty percent of you.

And we deserve some room to bellow.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent post! I’ve decided to read more Hilary Mantel this year (I’ve previously read the two ‘biggies’) so am going to work through her earlier novels. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was also a fantastic book that I read in January. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is lined up on my Kindle, as well as a shitload of Doris Lessing. I *may* let a few male authors sneak in, but like you I’m looking forward to hearing a lot of female voices this year 🙂

    • Thank you! I love Hilary Mantel – Beyond Black is marvellous. I read The Luminaries towards the end of last year, it’s wonderful! Eleanor Catton’s first book, The Rehearsal, is on my list for this year, as is The Goldfinch. I’ve actually never read any Doris Lessing, to my shame, so she’s definitely on my list for this year too!

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