In the last week, both The Guardian and the Irish Times published lists of dystopian fiction that might help their readers make sense of the current political climate. Neither list contained a female writer. Not Octavia Butler, who foresaw insidious intent behind the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Not Margaret Atwood, who took the current treatment of women to its logical conclusion in The Handmaid’s Tale. Not Naomi Alderman’s recent book The Power, which examines gender inequality in a fresh and sometimes terrifying way. Not… OK, I’m not just going to list writers here, but I think the point is made.
Excluding women from lists like this may seem like a small thing to get upset about in the circumstances, but it’s upsetting nonetheless. The idea continues that men write great books of social importance, women write domestic stories about feelings. Even if this were true (and to be clear, it’s not), domestic novels such as Middlemarch or South Riding and the entire catalogue of Jane Austen demonstrate that such stories can and do also contain valid political and social commentary.
I understand that ultimately, what we read is down to personal taste and if you want to read exclusively male writers, that’s your choice - even if what you’re choosing is to miss out on a lot of what literature has to offer. It is worth examining, however, why lists like these in the media, and school reading lists continue to promote the canon of male writers – and predominantly straight, white men at that. I’m not advocating wiping men off the list, but reading something like Orwell or Vonnegut means more if you read it alongside Atwood or Butler.
It strikes me that the disregard of women writers has a parallel in the continuing snobbery around genre fiction as somehow consider “less than” literary fiction. First of all, if you think you’re in any way a better person because you read the Booker shortlist instead of a fantasy series, you’re not. Secondly, you’ll find in genre fiction such as crime, science fiction or fantasy that the author base is more diverse – still not perfect, but certainly it is a more progressive arena. Finally, genre fiction can and does comment on personal and social issues, sometimes in a more moving and gripping way. I wonder if this is because in genre fiction, the story is so much more important than the writer. On this more level playing field, people of both genders and from all walks of life can and do succeed.
It only takes one book speaking directly to you to make you a lifelong reader. I would never judge someone based on what they choose to read – or not to read – but when compiling lists of recommendations, wouldn’t it be worth casting the net more widely, not least because you have a greater chance of hitting the mark? Reading is one of those self-perpetuating habits; the more you read, the more you want to read and I can’t understand why anyone would want to put limits on that.
I am aware I missed so many other examples of dystopian fiction written by women and that I could have listed so many more examples of female writers of social, political and literary importance. I recommend following #ReadWomen on twitter for more recommendations.