It was a little more than a year ago now that I was walking through Central Park in NYC with another young adult author (the gifted Justine Larbalestier), and she asked me if I liked any books by women. I was surprised by the question, but I shouldn’t have been. I’d just listed my favourite authors as Matthew Reilly, Chuck Palahniuk, Lee Child, Ben Elton and Robert Silverberg. There was a healthy mix of nationalities, ages and genres in there – but it was a bit of a boys’ club.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t read or enjoyed any female-authored novels. I counted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie amongst the best books I’d ever read. But for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to name any of these authors in my top five.
I resolved to find out, by spending a year reading only books by women. And what a year it’s been – I’ve delved into the mind of a sociopathic lawyer with Angela S Choi in Hello Kitty Must Die, gone beyond the apocalypse with Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, and experienced the terror of full-body paralysis with Joy Fielding in Still Life. And I concluded that two of my three hypotheses were correct. Yes, men and women did write differently, and yes, I was sexist.
For one thing, I started the year with the expectation that there’d be less violence in female-authored fiction. That idea was dispelled around the time a human spleen was found floating in a toilet on page three of Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain. But after twelve months of murder, torture, impalation and dismemberment, I’ve grown to suspect that women, as a general rule, simply write violence in a different way.
Male authors – including myself – tend to surround the protagonist with paper-thin extras who are slaughtered unexpectedly and without mercy. The deaths of these cannon-fodder characters create a sense of danger for the reader. It seems that female writers prefer to create this effect by developing a smaller number of characters more thoroughly, and then making them vulnerable. Where David Wellington might disembowel one of his faceless villains with a jack-hammer in his novel 13 Bullets, Tara Moss might instead choose to slice off a single toe of a character you actually care about in Fetish, which elicits a similar gasp from the reader.
My year in no-man’s land changed my views about several other things. For example, I used to think it was self-indulgent for writers to describe the outfits of their characters. It was boring for the reader, I thought, to watch authors dress their cast like dolls. And it added nothing to the story.
What I didn’t appreciate until now was that an outfit can make a statement. When a writer describes the attire of her heroes and villains she is telling you something about them, using the language of fashion. If you’ve ever seen a picture of me, you’ll know that this is a tongue in which I am far from fluent, but I can hardly hold that against the author. If only twelve months was long enough to learn this new language – I’m still baffled by all this talk of halter tops and ‘chiffon’.
But there are exceptions aplenty to these generalisations, and by saying that there are trends in feminine writing, I don’t mean to imply that all the books I read in this last year were in any way similar. Exploring The Secret Garden with Frances Hodgson Burnett was a very different experience to uncovering Everything Beautiful in Simmone Howell’s delightfully strange bible camp novel. The menacing, claustrophobic surroundings of Catherine Jink’s Living Hell bear no resemblance to the nightmarish dystopia of The Dark Griffin by KJ Taylor.
John Marsden once referred to the stack of unread books beside his bed as his ‘guilt pile’. An unintended side effect of the year I spent discovering my feminine side was that half the books on my own guilt pile were doomed to remain there for twelve more months. Day and night, The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness taunted me from the bedside table, until my fiancé bought me Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, which I placed on top of it. A friend asked if I’d read the copy of Midnight’s Children he gave me for the birthday before last, and I had to confess that I still had not.
I learned almost as much from the questions I received as I did from the task itself. Another friend wanted to know if I could read a male-authored book provided that the main character was female. I said no, but it made me notice how rare such a book is. Someone else asked if I could still read Chuck Palahniuk’s work. ‘Well, he’s gay, after all,’ they said. I replied that as far as I was aware, being a woman and being a gay man were not quite the same thing. (But who am I to judge this sexist, ignorant statement? As an eight-year old boy, I read The Sorceror’s Son by Phyllis Eisenstein. I loved it, but I remember thinking, ‘Phyllis? That’s a strange name for a man.’)
A fan wrote to me and asked if I would be reading books by transgendered writers. I was honestly conflicted about this, but eventually concluded that I wouldn’t. It was better to be safe than sorry. Having said that, while reading Second Glance by Jodi Picoult, I thought it possible that Picoult was one of Dean Koontz’s pseudonyms. I kept reading, but only after convincing myself that it was probably the other way around.
The toughest part of the year was seeing so many of my favourite male authors release new books and not being permitted to read them. I spent hours standing in bookshops, torturing myself by reading the blurbs of the latest Stephen King, Anthony Horowitz and Dan Wells books, all seemingly released the day after I embarked upon this challenge. (In the words of Homer Simpson, ‘Why did I have to start my diet on pork chop night?’) Each time, I’d slink guiltily away from the shop without making a purchase.
But now that it’s over, I have twice as many favourite authors to keep up with. The curse of all bookworms is the knowledge that there are more good books out there than can be read in a human lifetime, and now that I’ve discovered JD Robb, PD James, Agatha Christie and dozens of others, the pain is so much worse.
But if nothing else, the next time Justine Larbalestier asks me who my favourite authors are, I’ll be able to give her a much more balanced list.
Jack Heath is the award-winning author of six thrillers for young adults, which are now published in eight countries. His novel Money Run has just been published in the UK.