Guest post: Jack Heath spent a year reading books by women

by Jack Heath

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.

Was I sexist? Or were there genuine differences between men’s and women’s writing, making me prefer blokes’ books? Or was it just a thirty-two to one coincidence?

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.

25 thoughts on “Guest post: Jack Heath spent a year reading books by women

  1. Hi Jack, I have to be the first to reply to this. I think it’s so great that you addressed your gender bias and set out to discover new authors to add to your list of favourites. It could inspire others to address theirs and, while they may not read only women writers, they could try to read more of them. There’s actually a challenge for 2012 for people to read about, and review, books by Australian women:

    Not sure I agree with you about men and women writing differently. I think you could probably find many examples of male writers describing outfits, for example. And your reading is mostly genre/commercial lit, would you say? I think across the board (all genres, lit fic included) it’d be harder to prove that. But anyway, good on you! What’s the next challenge?

    • I’ve always thought Tolstoy devoted a lot of time to describing clothes, for a male writer.

      However, excellent blog, Jack – and a brilliant idea for a reading project!

      I totally know what you mean about being tempted to read books outside your current project – I’m right in the middle of a long, complicated reading project too and I’m always so tempted by the New Release shelves…

  2. I found this rather timely. And really fascinating. A while ago I realised that, despite regularly reading and enjoying books by women, my bookshelf does not contain a single one. Seriously. Not. One. Am I just not reading the right books? Am I sexist? Can I be sexist considering I AM a female writer?

  3. It seems very common for male readers to avoid women writers. In the 8 years I’ve known my boyfriend, I can think of 2 books he’s read authored by a female writer (To Kill A Mockingbird and a book by Isabel Allende). I wish he would redress this skew like Jack has done.

    I also agree w Angela – I’ve encountered lots of descriptions of appearance and clothing penned by men.

  4. Good on you Jack! And for the best description of an outfit by a male author ever, see the awesome account of Maria Gostrey’s necklace and dress in The Ambassadors by Henry James. Ray Chandler also does pretty well for all his characters, male and female. Hope you consider signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge that Angela mentions above.

  5. Justine’s Tweet sent me here, and I’m glad it did. I’m particularly struck by what you said about how men and women write violence–and I think you’re right. I’m sure there are examples of women killing off spear-carriers with no history and no personality, but it’s a lot more fun (for a given value of “fun”) to harrow your reader by slaughtering someone they knew well and cared about.

  6. I clearly don’t read the same genres as yourself, but I have always found the differences between male and female writers very interesting. I only remember haing read two books written by males with female leads: Memoirs of a Geisha and another which was so abomenable I only read about 5 chapters. Isn’t The Girl Who . .. . by Stig Larsson in this same category?

    • Actually, the main character of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was not the girl with the dragon tattoo. It was a sensationally boring (and male) financial journalist. Part of the reason that I didn’t like the book!

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jack!

    In 2009, I discovered that, in the preceding five-year period, only 8% of the books I had read were by women. In the following two years, I improved that percentage a little. It was only this year when I finally accepted that I just wasn’t doing well enough, and committed to making my reading at least 50% written by women. I’ve seen such targets accused of arbitrariness, yet it seems to me that all reading lists are arbitrary because, as Jack says, there are more good books out there than can be read in a human lifetime.

    I’ve found two things particularly hard. First, finding good books by women. Obviously my regular haunts were directing me towards male authors. It took time to find new sources of recommendations, especially because the world is so filled with recommendations for books written by men. Second, I started to resent the constant bombardment with those male recommendations. It seemed that if I didn’t read a good book by a woman, ‘the world’ didn’t care; if I didn’t read a good book by a man, I would be reminded daily that I should be reading it. I think this is why things like Meanjin’s current Tournament of Books and the Australian Women Writers challenge and the Stella Prize are so important.

  8. I read a lot of intelligent crime fiction (by women and men!) and I have to disagree about your generalisation about women writing about violence (and would disagree with pretty much any generalisation about “woman” apart from their XX chromosomes). Returning to crime authors, those such as Cain (in your post), Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid (in past books) have written quite horrific protacted scenes of violence/torture which is one reason why I don’t read them (McDermid has dropped this approach in recent years). Male authors also write violence in this way, from Thomas Harris on to current writers like Oliver Kamm and many others whom I don’t read.
    On the other hand, many women crime writers write about violence in the brisk way you ascribe to males- eg Helene Tursten, Liza Marklund, Margot Kinberg, Ruth Rendell and many, many others.
    Just goes to show, you can’t generalise.

  9. Have you guys seen this post by Max Barry?

    It’s about his experiences as a father of a little girl and how hard it is to find kids’ books with female protagonists. Maybe we’re all socialised from picture book age to think that men are more worthy of our attention?

    Great project Jack, very cool. Did you pick up anything by Lionel Schriver? She is quite amazing.

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  13. I was sitting here thinking about how obscure books with female protagonists and male authors are, but it struck me that I’ve actually read quite a few, at least in comparison to some of the commenters. This year I’ve read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, as well as, just last week, Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler. Glancing at my bookshelf there are plenty of others – the entire Tomorrow Series and the Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden, for instance, and the Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld, and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Every time I look up I notice another – Wicked by Gregory Maguire, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol.
    That rambled on for a bit; sorry about that, but it just occured to me that I have just as much trouble finding books with male protagonists and female authors (I can only spot Harry Potter by JK Rowling and Children of the Red King by Jenny Nimmo) as I do the opposite. I’m sure there are plenty of each out there, but not on my bookshelf.

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