Reading fiction has been my escape ever since I was young. With most of my childhood spent as an only child, my evenings were usually quiet affairs: I’d have my nose stuck in a book next to the fireplace while my parents’ nightly news on the TV provided ambient background noise. Entire universes opened up to me through the pages of paperbacks that had frayed spines from my multiple re-readings. I loved the characters as if they were living, breathing human beings. I adventured with them through jagged mountain ranges, fighting dragons and traveling to the ends of the earth by their side. I learned to empathize, to put myself in others’ shoes, and to imagine what it would be like to come from a different background with different circumstances — all by reading fiction.
Back then, it was Harry Potter, Eragon, The Golden Compass, Lord of the Rings, Percy Jackson, Ender’s Game, and Sherlock Holmes. I read the occasional Judy Moody, Ramona, or Junie B. Jones, but all the fun exploits were the ones with male protagonists. Besides, my guy friends sure as heck weren’t reading any of the “girly” stuff.
The disparity between “female” and “male” books became even more apparent as we got older. Try and recollect the first books that you can remember from your high school reading lists. You most likely analyzed them to death in class, discussing the symbolism of this or that seemingly insignificant object or instance. Think of books that left a lasting impact, ones that made you go “Ah, so this is why they call this a classic.”
What titles come to mind? Probably The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, The Odyssey, and Catcher in the Rye. If your school was progressive, maybe they threw in some works by Junot Díaz.
Sadly, the only two books that I can remember from high school with female main characters are To Kill a Mockingbird and Their Eyes Were Watching God. During the most formative years of our lives, when required-reading books in our adolescence should have tackled complex and nuanced issues like sexual identity, gender, and ethnicity from diverse authors, most of the works we read were by white males who wrote of white male protagonists. It wasn’t just my high school either — reading lists nationwide tend to be disproportionate, sparsely including the occasional Brontë or Austen as token female authors.
It wasn’t until college that I began to read more books from a female perspective. I was astounded by how much I was able to relate to the protagonists that Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Plath brought to life; The Bell Jar brought me to tears the first time I read it. Entering into the intimacy of the characters’ worlds, some of which were autobiographical, I sometimes laughed endlessly and other times ached with sorrow, and read so much of my mother’s strength between the lines. I realized that how I viewed life from a character’s eyes had been normalized to be through the male lens.
And then there was the world of “Women’s Fiction”, otherwise known as that separate section that I saw in Barnes & Noble stores or on Amazon. It always seemed strange to me: why, culturally, was there a type of “women’s fiction” that only females were expected to enjoy and understand, when there wasn’t really an equivalent “male fiction” genre? Also, if you blatantly gendered fiction into some sort of binary, the only readership that the authors in the “Women’s Section” could hope to pander to were women; it meant that there was little chance that men would purchase these books, at least not directly from this section in particular. Does that not severely limit the scope of audience that female writers could hope to appeal to, effectively hindering them from entering into a more influential literary sphere? And what makes a novel “female” or “male”, anyway? Is it the content — if you include more talk of things like flowers and housework and gossip, does that make your literature more “feminine”? Or is it the protagonist’s gender? It seems like it would be difficult for women to find a co-ed audience if their work is labeled “women’s fiction” at the nearby bookstore. And a double standard exists: if women don’t include the “male world” in their work, they usually lose out on mass appeal, but male authors don’t have to include “feminine” perspectives.
On the bright side, if you look at the infographics that VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have provided from 2015 and compare them to the numbers from 2010, prestigious publications like The Atlantic, New York Times, Boston Review, The New Yorker, and New Republic are making great strides of progress towards gender equity in the writing and publishing industry. A lot has changed over the past five years, and many editorial boards have committed to pushing for more equal gender representation among book reviewers and the authors of books reviewed. But the gender bias still exists in how female writers’ work is perceived in the literary world, especially by male audiences. The books that are creating the most cultural splash in literary conversations are still predominantly works written by males. Men, and all of us to a certain extent, still are not in the habit of reading women, or about women, starting from a young age. Fiction written by women is still limited by its categorization, and is read and interpreted quite differently. Reactions to the literature are sometimes imbued with implicit biases or traditional prejudices.
Growing up with fictional male heroes, I wish that I had earlier met Esther from The Bell Jar, or Maya in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I now know that had my parents and teachers encouraged me to read more fiction by female authors, I would have had a much more enriching and empowering childhood. And beyond just gender representation, our literary culture, habits, and high school reading lists are hopefully shifting towards a more intersectional experience, one that includes stories from diverse backgrounds and identities.
Iris Kim is a sophomore studying business and applied analytics. Her <strong> WOMAN </strong> column runs every other Monday.