Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

*

Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

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First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

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Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

IMG_0852Like most people, I am familiar with the term ‘mansplaining’. I’ve also heard a fair bit of excitement about Rebecca Solnit as an interesting writer. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me is the origin of the term, something I only learned seeing the word in circulation – when it first became a thing there were lots of little articles about it everywhere, and examples of when women had been mansplained to were shared across social media. It became something of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s even in the OED.

So, once I knew where the word came from, I was curious to know more. I’d heard of Rebecca Solnit a bit, so finding out more about her work certainly appealed. I’m always keen to read a bit more non-fiction, especially something like this that isn’t narrative (I read a lot of that). Plus, the Granta hardback of Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays is very attractive indeed, so I just had to go for it.

It’s funny to hear that something is great, and then actually experience it for yourself. There are expectations, whether they are rational or not. I expected the essay to be good, to be groundbreaking even, but I didn’t know anything about Solnit’s writing style or her narrative voice. Luckily I was pleased with both of these things – her writing is academic and formal enough to be taken seriously, and it is engaging and elegant enough to entertain and keep you turning the pages. With this essay she is writing about a cultural occurrence, but also about a personal experience. The first instance of explaining occurs at a party, with people she knows, and some she doesn’t, and it’s a wonderful example of a personal, female experience that can be translated into the wider context of our current culture and society. It must have been quite the epiphanic moment when Solnit decided to distill this experience and its relevance to women everywhere into this eloquent and succinct essay. It is a perfect translation of life into literature, and then into something bigger that permeates society.

Though the book is under 200 pages, there are six ‘Other Essays’ in this volume. They all centre around gender, feminism, equal rights, freedom. Personally I found Grandmother Spider to be the most compelling. It starts with an analysis of an untitled painting by the artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, in which a woman is obscured by the sheet which she is pegging to a washing line. The wind is blowing it against her, showing some of the shape of her body, but all we see are her hands at the top, trying to peg it down, and her feet below, jarring in their pointy high heeled shoes. This painting and others by Fernandez are printed at the start of each chapter to illustrate some point in the following essay. But this one struck me the most.

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Untitled (image: anateresafernandez.com)

In Grandmother Spider Solnit discusses how easy it is for women to be obscured, hidden from view, made to disappear. She uses the example of family trees, where maiden names are erased, and sometimes lineages only depict the males of the family, leaving out the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. She also writes about the war in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, where countless people were “disappeared”, and how the mothers of the disappeared were the ones who gathered in public to protest. She writes about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project led by the Italian actress Serena Dandini, and how they count every woman killed by a man (about 60,000 annually, worldwide) and how this can be seen as “the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance” – because most of them are killed by “lovers, husbands, former partners”.

I particularly loved the closing paragraph of this essay, summing up Solnit’s reaction to these terrible facts, to this erasure of women throughout history:

To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.

If you have any interest in feminism and equality, no matter your gender, I would recommend this book. I shall certainly be reading more of Solnit’s work – in fact this afternoon I ordered a copy of her new book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. I can’t wait to read it!

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Published by Granta (UK) and Haymarket Books (US) in 2014. I read the Granta 2014 hardback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.

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2009 PMC edition

At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.

I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.

Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.

Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.

This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.

I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!

*

Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

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Articles

I Need Recommendations!

I do indeed. Specifically for my feminism/women reading list. I have recently compiled reading lists of the books I most want to read out of the huge list I have on GoodReads, and realised that I actually don’t have that many on feminism/women/gender. This is an area that I find fascinating and I feel like I haven’t read enough on it.

Here is the list I have so far:

  • Animal by Sara Pascoe
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
  • I Call Myself a Feminist by Victoria Pepe
  • Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
  • The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (own a copy)
  • Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic after Thirty Years by Annette R. Federico and Sandra M. Gilbert (own a copy)
  • The Second Sex by Simone du Beauvoir (own a copy)

As you can see I’ve got a mix of classics and more modern stuff. Honestly I’d rather read more modern stuff (say, since 1980) so recommendations in that bracket would be very much appreciated!

Also I must ask that no one recommend Caitlin Moran to me – I have read two of her books and didn’t really get along with them… sorry.

I look forward to hearing about some amazing books!

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(image: urbantabloid.com)

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Articles, Comment

More Than A Daughter: The Problem With Simplifying Women

I recently read a book called The Undertaker’s Daughter. It is the memoir of a woman, Kate Mayfield, whose father was indeed an undertaker. She grew up in a ‘funeral home’, as they call them in the States, and was thought of for a long time as the daughter of the undertaker and not much else. Her exposure to death and the business of funerals at such a young age had a huge impact on her and played a significant role in some of her most formative experiences – so, it justifiably makes sense that she should call her memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter, as that was what she was for a long time. The memoir also only covers her time living with her family, before she grew up and became Other Things. (I also really enjoyed it, it’s a fantastic book – review soon)

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

But it is still another book called The Something’s Daughter. I’ve noticed a lot of these recently. Kate Mosse’s new book is called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. A quick GoodReads search throws up a huge list of similarly named books. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter; The Bonesetter’s Daughter; The Hangman’s Daughter; The General’s Daughter; Pandora’s Daughter; and that’s just from page one. There are 785 pages of books with ‘Daughter’ in the title. Granted they aren’t all the same format, but they all have the daughter as the subject. And this takes all agency away from that girl or woman. She is defined by someone else (a parent but not always a man) and her relationship to that person. It is instantly infantilising, whether that daughter is an adult or not. Defining a girl by her parentage is something we no longer do (generally) in the modern Western world – but here we are doing it on our book covers.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

My problem with this trend is that is that it is incredibly limiting. Like Kate Mayfield, all women are daughters but they are also many other things. I am a daughter. When I think of myself that way I feel loved and happy, but I also feel very young and childlike (like how you revert to your childhood role when you’re alone with your family). I am a daughter, but I am also a sister and a cousin, a girlfriend and a friend; and a woman, an adult. I think the only time I was defined by my parents it was when I was too young to make my own decisions or know who I was.

Authors and publishers can call their books whatever they want, of course, but things catch on and become popular, and whatever sells is reproduced. The Something’s Daughter is a book trend like any other, but there seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. A lot more than any book entitled The Something’s Son. I searched for ‘son’ on GoodReads and got back a lot more pages of results (1066), but judging by the first few pages this is partly because ‘son’ is also part of a lot of other words, like ‘song’. While there appear to be lots of male characters defined as a son here, not so many are defined in connection to what their parent is. For example, instead of The Something’s Son, it looks like Son of Something is more common, which adds agency to the son, or Son with an adjective, like Prodigal or Seventh. Not quite the same as the daughter books. And certainly not such a noticeable trend. Wonder why that is.

It’s like the trend for faceless women on book covers. They drive me insane. Is she just lips and boobs and shoulders? Where are her eyes? I think the back of a woman’s head must be one of the most common images of a woman used on book covers. We get faceless men too, but not nearly as many. Another trend is books called The Girl Who… or The Girl With… which pretty much started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and hasn’t gone away. Again, a girl being arbitrarily defined by something about her that crucially isn’t who she actually is. Lisbeth Salander is a lot of other things besides being a girl with a tattoo, a girl who played with fire, or who kicked the hornet’s nest. No one is just one thing, and titles like this over-simplify complex characters – most of whom happen to be women. Simplifying women makes them easy to understand and label, pigeonholes them into being just one facet of their personality. The problem with this is that when a woman is simplified, she is reduced, she loses agency and power, and she is contained. She is not allowed to expand and explore, to express and change. The complexity of the self is also reduced in these book titles (for both men and women).

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

For me at least, this highlights the problem of naming a book after a character. Using their name as the title makes sense, but picking one attribute of theirs as the title just reduces it to a movie poster. I appreciate that sometimes these titles are appropriate, but there are simply too many of them that are gendered – calling a book The Something isn’t nearly as problematic. It leaves things open to interpretation and reduces the significance of the person’s gender in defining who they are. So I hope that all these Daughter and Girl titles have had their day, along with the faceless women on the covers. They often put me off at first glance, though of course a lot of them are excellent books and are worth reading. But the importance of covers and titles should never be underestimated, and we need modernity and originality more than ever these days. So let’s see it!

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Articles, Comment

Reading Women… And Men

2014 is officially The Year of Reading Women, thanks to the ReadWomen campaign (you can follow on Twitter here), and the growing disgruntlement among the reading community at the ratio of men to women winning literary awards and being featured in publications like the LRB. Gender has been an ongoing issue in the literary world for years, with both sexes commenting on the fact that more men than women win important awards like the Booker, and books written by men are taken more seriously than ‘chick lit’ and ‘women’s fiction’.

I’ve often thought that the only female writers who are revered as much as their male counterparts are those that are over the age of fifty and have been writing long enough to ‘prove themselves’ – perfect examples being Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They are seen as wise older women who, in their grey years, finally have the experience and, I don’t know, authority to write and be truly praised without being slotted into some sort of women’s genre.

That isn’t to say that the world and the literary community do not respect female writers, but for a long time there was/still is a general feeling that men were somehow superior to women (that old chestnut) when it came to writing about the world, whether fictional or real. It’s the way things work in a lot of areas, even if not overtly. Women often come second. But, as much as I hate chick lit, as least we have our own genre. And now that it’s all referred to as women’s fiction is even better, as chick is inherently a demeaning word, used by the type of people who also refer to women as birds. No thanks.

Women’s fiction as a genre is extremely broad, but I like the idea that women write fiction specifically for other women sometimes. The only downside to this is the perception that fiction written by a woman is only for other women, and I think this has caused a lot of fiction by women to be dismissed in some way as either chick lit or women’s interests, i.e. romance, motherhood, and lunch with friends. This just isn’t the case.

My point – got there in the end – is that not enough people, generally, read books by women. And that’s not my fact, it’s one that is generally agreed upon by everyone, otherwise #ReadWomen2014 would not be happening. I think it’s great, and I really support it. But, however, I am not personally making 2014 my year of reading women. And that is because almost everything I read is written by women. Browsing through my reviews from 2012 and 2013, the vast majority of books are written by women; same goes for my bookshelves. Not a bad thing per se, but the appearance of ReadWomen in my timeline made me think about this. Maybe I need to read more books written by men? It’s very easy to fall into habits of reading the same types of books over and over (my boyfriend tells me that every book I read is sad – someone always dies or cries), and I like the idea of breaking some habits for the new year.

So, I am making 2014, for me, the year of continuing to read women, but reading many more books by men. Not exactly a catchy campaign title,  but it works for me.

What are your reading habits going to be in 2014? Are you going to ReadWomen?

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A great post about ReadWomen2014 can be found on A Life In Books.

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