Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Reading women in 2014

This post has been trickier than I thought writing it would be. It's been on my 'must finish' list for quite some time now, but I've struggled to string together the words I've wanted to to express my thoughts. However, the time has come for me to bite the bullet and just finish off what I've started, because it's a topic I'm very passionate about and frankly, as Elizabeth Gilbert once said, done is better than spending an eternity perfecting something that you never get to share with anyone. So here I go.  

Artwork by Joanna Walsh

Last year I took on my first official reading challenge: the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The premise was to read and blog about as many Australian women writers in 2014. And in case you're wondering, yes I achieved my goals - huzzah!

My motivation stemmed from reading this article, which posed the question of why we don't read more books written by women. It was an idea that really resonated with me because it wasn't until reading it that I realised I could be reading more books by women. And it really troubled me that I wasn't, considering that I'm an Australian woman myself. So why wasn't I?

For starters, prior to the challenge I simply paid more attention to books by men. Why this was the case I'm not entirely sure - I suppose the fact that they're talked about publicly more is one reason (in fact, it was only last month that I received an email from a large Australian book-seller who didn't mention any Australian women in their recommended reading list, only mentioning Australia). As David Pritchard, who is the editor of an American journal which dedicated its 2014 reviews to women and writers of colour, says, "Women writers and writers of colour are underserved and undervalued by the contemporary community." So why is this the case?

The Cherchez la Femme podcast on 'Feminism and Girls' sheds some light on this. In it, Emily Maguire mentions that young children, particularly boys, are not expected to read stories with female protagonists in them (I'll discount fairy tales here, which young boys will be familiar with, because their portrayal of female protagonists is often problematic. By this I mean that the females in them are usually naive, helpless damsels who get themselves into trouble and can only be saved by men). Instead, books with female protagonists are considered 'girly' books, and reading them is somehow emasculating. This in turn silences the values and concerns of females. And yet in contrast, it is expected that young girls will read stories with either male or female protagonists unproblematically, meaning that they are exposed to the values and ideas of both genders more. 

How does this relate to devaluing female authors?

Well, I'd argue that this pattern towards not reading stories with female protagonists continues into adulthood, particularly among men. For some reason, it's still thought that reading books by and about women is only relevant for women, where such books are considered 'girly' and 'fluffy' and not worthy of anyone's serious time. Jodie Picoult agrees, having commented on the sexist nature of the publishing/bookselling industry regarding this very issue. Picoult's books, which deal with heavy topics ranging from the Holocaust to assisted dying, are rarely taken seriously. "I write women's fiction," Picoult says, "And women's fiction doesn't mean that's your audience. Unfortunately it means you have lady parts." Subsequently it means that women's writing is often devalued.

And yet, infuriatingly, Picoult points out that men authors, such as Nicholas Sparkes and Jeffrey Eugenides, get praise for writing what are mostly romance books. A genre that, when women contribute to it, gets written off as trashy 'chick lit' fiction. These double standards are part of the reason why reading more books by women is so important - so that we can hear and appreciate the value of stories by women in a world that often drowns their voices out.

Now, I'm not saying that all books by women should be read by both men and women, because frankly, as with any book, not all stories will be of interest to everyone. And to me, that wasn't the point of the reading women challenge. For me, its purpose was to broaden readers', as well as my own, horizons of the sorts of books they would consider worthy of reading, and to notice female authors more. This meant that I didn't solely read books by women last year, because for me, cutting out books by men entirely isn't the solution to this issue either: completely cutting out one group to make room for another is something I find problematic. Instead, strategies need to be put in place to ensure that those who might normally get unnoticed and drowned out don't; strategies similar to introducing workplace quotas to ensure that women aren't ignored when being considered for particular roles. This challenge was a type of quota exercise - I set the number of books authored by Australian women I wanted to read, and I achieved it.

So in the end my take home message is this: if you haven't done so already, challenge yourself to read more books by women, especially Australian women for all those Australians reading this. And set yourself a specific goal to make sure you actually do it. Because women's voices have been underrepresented for too long and they need to be given the value, support and recognition that they deserve. After all, they've got bloody good stories to tell.

Australian women's books I read in 2014

Read and reviewed
Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years edited by Samantha Trenoweth
Night Games by Anna Krien
The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers
Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World edited by Jane Caro
Ducks on the Pond by Anne Summers
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Class Act by Maxine McKew

Read only
By the Book: A Reader's Guide to Life by Ramona Koval
Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review: The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

Before I get stuck into my review of The Rosie Effect, I very quickly want to comment on its predecessor, The Rosie Project. Because if I'm going to be honest, I have to admit that I didn't totally love it. While I thought Don was an excellent narrator and loved the perspective he provided to me as a reader, I did think the story itself was too predictable. And overly predictable stories are a pet-hate of mine. But perhaps that's what was needed in order to make Don's story more accessible to people reading it? Who knows?

Despite these minor grumbles I did like The Rosie Project enough to read it's sequel, The Rosie Effect. And this was anything but predictable. At a whopping 411 pages long, The Rosie Effect takes you on a whirlwind adventure as Don and Rosie are unexpectedly expecting their first baby in their first year of marriage. 

Most of the craziness that results is ironically due to Don trying to be more empathetic and considerate of others, which we as readers can certainly empathise with. After all, how many times have you done something because you think it's for the right reason, when really it has the opposite effect? Well, this is a phenomenon that Don becomes increasingly familiar with and fortunately as the reader you get to laugh and cringe at Don as he fumbles along trying to do the right thing by those he cares for

It's this growth in Don - where he is more considerate and caring of how his actions effect those closest to him - that I really enjoyed in The Rosie Effect. After all, Don is the most unlikely person to start a men's support group, learn the ins and outs of fatherhood and bring together broken families. And yet he gets himself into all of these scenarios without realising the (unintentionally) positive effects he is having on others. As the fortunate reader you get to go on this journey with Don, who despite helping others, still finds much human behaviour utterly confusing and unpredictable. And thus Don reminds us that this is a wonderfully fundamental part of being human, making it easier for us as readers to connect with him and see the world from his perspective.

But it's not all happy-go-lucky for Don and Rosie, who face their own relationship challenges as they both adjust to the realisation of becoming parents. Simsion's portrayal of the daunting prospect of becoming parents is both touching and unnerving, particularly due to Don and Rosie's different approaches to coping with the upcoming changes. 

Overall The Rosie Effect is a great read and a great sequel to what was such a hit of a first book. It's very funny and very entertaining and has a lot of heart.

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