Reading books by women

My literary training was on the traditional canon. Donne, Herbert and Milton from the seventeenth century. No-one much from the eighteenth. Keats, Robert Browning, Thackeray, Carroll from the nineteenth. From the twentieth century, I chose Yeats, Joyce, (T. S.) Eliot, Forster and – post war – Hemingway, William Golding and Ted Hughes.

I read Jane Austen. I read George Eliot. I read Virginia Woolf. Even at Oxford in the late nineties they were clearly on the reading lists. But I read few women of any period apart from that.

In my early twenties, a boyfriend introduced me to A. S. Byatt. I binge-read all she’d written, hating the girly characters, at one with the spiky intellectuals. Then I reverted again to men.

But recently I’ve started to read more women. Particularly contemporary women. Elena Ferrante (the shorter, weirder, more psychologically-twisted works). Anakana Schofield’s Malarky and Martin John. Rachel Cusk’s Transit. Eimear McBride’s Lesser Bohemians. Deborah Levy’s short stories and Hot Milk. (It helps that five of this year’s six Goldsmiths shortlisted writers were women.) I’ve also recently read Jenn Ashworth’s Fell, Anna Vaught’s Killing Hapless Ally and various things by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Yes, women write about men and men write about women, and we should all read everything and learn from the best. I have not at all stopped reading books by men. But the women I am reading now more often teach me new things than do the men I read. (There are exceptions: Toby Litt’s blog and book of literary criticism, Mutants, are significantly influencing how I am currently thinking and writing.)

The women show me that cliché of all out-of-the-closet clichés: that I am allowed to write about experiences that I’ve never seen in writing before. Ferrante on the narrator’s period starting in the middle of her father’s funeral. McBride, brilliantly, on sex. I’ll even, at some point, go back to The Bell Jar.

It also helps to read contemporary women who are writing challenging fiction. That is, after all, what I am also trying to do. In the past the models I’ve sought out have been men – Adam Thirlwell, Ned Beauman, Jon McGregor. I mimicked their styles as I attempted to find a style of my own. I don’t think anyone would describe me as unintellectual; but these men are self-consciously intellectual in their writing in a way that currently does not fit who I am. The women I’m now reading are intellectual in a different way, and one which appears to complement better the way that my mind works.

What does that difference consist in? I haven’t worked it out yet. I’ll let you know when I do. It is, however, true that I am more easily inspired at the moment by female than by male writing.

This is all a post-breakdown thing.

It would be fair to say my relationship with my female side has always been ambivalent.

For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that women are inferior to men. I’ve always fought against that, done everything I could in my life to disprove it. But I’ve believed it deep down all the same.

Because of that, for a long time my best friends were nearly all male. The activities I engaged in (extreme skiing, mountaineering, even – heaven forbid – management consulting) have tended to be more with men than women.

I’ve never much liked women. Just as I’ve never much liked myself.

That is changing.

I don’t have children, which means I haven’t gone through the most quintessentially female experience of pregnancy and birth.

But I feel more female that I have done in the past. I’m becoming more actively feminist. I’m spending more time with friends’ children. I do a lot of yoga, which in 21st century London is largely a female pursuit.

I’ve become interested in gender difference.

My female friendships are more important to me than they have ever been before.

It’s not that I’ve stopped reading men. It’s that I’ve become more curious about the female experience (not necessarily the feminine experience, but potentially that as well.)

To my surprise, my second novel, even more than my first, is set in an overwhelmingly female world. (I shall be writing about rock climbing next, to balance out any softness that might imply.)

One necessary result of all the post-breakdown treatment I’ve been having, is that I’m starting to like myself a little more. And it appears that I’m becoming more female at the same time.


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