TW: This post makes brief, passing mention to accounts of rape and assault in some of the books I read.
I decided to spend 2020 reading only women authors. It shouldn’t have been a revolutionary act, but somehow, by the end, it started to feel like one. There’s a clear gender bias in publishing (male authors are published more often than women, have their books submitted for more awards, and are highlighted in publications more frequently). When much of the world is already written by men – not just books, but history itself – it felt like this was some small way in which I could try to tip the scales.
It wasn’t a strict rule, nothing set in stone, and I even made the occasional exception (including my friend Mike’s fantastic graphic novel, Flamer, which he published last summer). My goal for the year wasn’t a limitation or a constraint, but a focus – to seek out women writers in a way I hadn’t before.
Beyond this commonality, there was no shared theme between the books I read, and I kept no comprehensive list – it felt like doing so might somehow rob me of the magic of it, might end up imposing order when all I wanted to do was meander. I went from non-fiction memoirs to young adult to literary fiction. I loved a few, hated none, left no book unfinished. And even though not every story was joyous, I found that there was something beautiful in them, in surrounding myself with the words of women. A patchwork quilt of experiences, woven together by this facet of our identity.
Not once was I irritated with how women were portrayed, and while I was often angered or upset by how the world treated them, it never felt gratuitous. Their pain was real, and it was theirs, and they shared it with me. There was something strangely comforting in that – these complex and imperfect women existing in a vicious and stupid and unforgiving world, and knowing that none of us were alone. It had been a long time since I’d found a friend in a book. I thought I’d outgrown it. But maybe you never do.
And god, they were so gloriously, beautifully human. They had acne and mastectomies and unpleasant voices and long noses and were too tall or too fat. They were irritable and unkind and wore the same sweatshirt too many days in a row and drank too much or not at all. They befriended dragons and defeated monsters and fell in love and were hurt or raped or murdered and these things were significant not because of the men they were related to or the ones they loved but because it happened to them. These stories belonged to women. Both the characters and the authors.
(There were zero descriptions of pert breasts or erect nipples.)
When the new year started, I picked up a book by a male author in a genre I hope to one day write in. I had heard of his work, and this latest novel had gotten rave reviews.
There were things that I took issue with, and somehow I thought these things were just my problem. The teenager in a sexual relationship with someone seven years older than her; the classic depiction of a beautiful woman who ends up being a betrayer; the woman who is fragile because of her mental illness. The book and the author were so beloved that I figured it was my inability to just be cool, another example of me being a humorless bitch because that’s what feminism does to you.
It was like all the lessons of the last year just vanished.
About halfway through the book, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a graphic and horrific rape scene. I read it late at night, and found I couldn’t sleep afterwards. The act of violence was between two men. I don’t know if that makes it less of a problem. I find sexual violence against women is terrifying for a lot of women to read. And sexual violence against men is also terrifying for a lot of women to read.
Because it’s sexual violence. And a lot of us have personally experienced that.
Men have a right to tell those stories, too, of course. We all do. But we have to do it responsibly. Especially if you wield a bigger audience, and you come to the conversation with a great deal of privilege, as men so often do.
I put down the book. Over the next few days, I went through a strange mental exercise that I’ve been through before – wondering what I did wrong, wondering if I should have been more careful (should I have read more reviews? Looked up triggers for this book?), wondering again if the problem was with me. I felt betrayed, somehow.
I read a few more chapters, wondering if the assault would be addressed, if the character’s own trauma would be discussed (it wasn’t, except his attacker threatening to do it again). From a plot perspective, it wasn’t even relevant. I tried to figure out the purpose it served, other than to be homophobic and terrifying. I read spoilers for the book, hoping someone would make sense of the scene. No one did, or could. In the middle of the glowing reviews, a few people commented on how horrific it was, how blindsided they were, how it was never talked about again.
I’ve read stories of rape last year, written by women, some of which were autobiographical. It felt like they were holding my hand and leading me through the pain, and then out of it. Their assaults were not the heart of their story.
They were the heart of the story.
I told myself to keep going – that I could get through this damn book. I am a completist, after all. It was words on the page. Then I got to another chapter, where a woman with a disability was being tortured.
And I decided that I was done.
But enough about that book. Let’s not shift the spotlight away from where it should be. That happens enough already. I don’t need to do it in this post, as well.
Instead, let’s go back to the books I loved last year.
It’s still far from a perfect collection. I had hoped to read more poetry and more plays, I wish that I had sought out more women authors who remain underrepresented in publishing: trans women and indigenous women, and women with disabilities. But I remind myself that nothing ended when the clock hit midnight. My reading list is a work in progress, something malleable and alive. It goes on and on. And I keep adding to it, every damn day. There are some men on the list, of course.
And a hell of a lot of women.
Here are some of my favorites from last year:
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (TW sexual assault, plane crashes, death. This is YA, and it’s handled very delicately but still.) A story about two sisters – one in the Dominican Republic, one in New York, who deal with the aftermath of their father’s death, and discover that he was living a dual life, with, yes, two families in two different countries. It’s heartbreaking but ultimately beautiful and redemptive and it’s written in verse.
Circe by Madeline Miller (TW sexual assault, violence, murder. Honestly, this one was the easiest to handle for some reason.) Okay, it’s not like you haven’t heard of this one, right? It was on everyone’s list. But, damn. It’s so, so good. Told from the perspective of Homer’s witch, she is given life and agency, and it’ll leave you feeling like everyone who got turned into a pig maybe had it coming.
Fleishman is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (TW, mental breakdowns, divorce, child bullying and abandonment) Admittedly, I slept on this one, too, and was probably the last person I knew who read it. But it’s such a fantastic exploration of a marriage (and people) falling apart, done with precision and vivid writing, and it unravels like a mystery.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (TW sexual assault – alluded to, violence, racism, child endangerment and murder). An afro-futuristic tale of a genderqueer doctor/scientist struggling against a racist, oppressive system on a spaceship. Simply one of the most unique and captivating books I’ve read. It’s a tough read, emotionally, but so, so good, and Rivers Solomon’s voice is unlike anyone else’s out there.
A Heart In the Body in the World by Deb Caletti (TW gun violence, murder, stalking) A young woman tries to grapple with an act of violence by (literally) running across the country. It’s so sad, but also redemptive and sweet (it takes place partially in Seattle, and the family at the heart of it is Italian, which hit close for me for a lot of reasons.)
My To Be Read (TBR) list includes Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin (where she goes undercover and infiltrates white supremacist groups online), Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby’s book of essays (another book I’ve been sleeping on), and Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism. I also just bought Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and I’m planning on picking up Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. If there is something you want to recommend, please do so in the comments. (My book buying attitude over the last few years has basically been this.)