There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. – Vladimir Nabokov
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions but at the start of 2014 I decided to see if I could read one hundred books over the course of that year, a modest enough goal seeing that I normally get through about fifty anyway. As an aside I decided to read a rather vague “more” books by women not because of #readwomen2014 which I only learned about about halfway through the year but simply because I was very conscious of the fact that the only books by women I tend to read are those sent to me for review and most of those are books I’d never look at normally. I’ve never set out to avoid books by women but very few I’ve looked at over the years—even by the famous and highly regarded—ever appealed (maybe it’s the covers, maybe I’m as shallow as that) which both embarrassed and puzzled me. Of course, having a goal and wanting to ensure I met my target, I found myself picking the shortest books I could lay my hands on and soon it became obvious I was going to smash my target so I upped it to a hundred and forty without telling anyone; I’ve never been very good at working with people peering over my shoulder. I also noticed another pattern emerging: I was reading more and more world literature. So I decided to add that into the mix: let’s see how many books from different countries you can read, too.
In the end I finished and reviewed 160 books (non-fiction – 4, poetry – 7, science fiction – 4, short story collections – 9, fiction (mainly literary fiction) – 139) half of which were written by women. In total I read 145 different authors from 39 different countries if I count the UK as a single country: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain (a representative from each of the four countries), Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain (Catalonia specifically), Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America.
Twelve of the authors were Nobel Prize winners. The average number of pages was 187. The oldest book was written in 1899. In decades the rest were:
1900s 1 1910s 1 1920s 1 1930s 5 1940s 4 1950s 3 1960s 12 1970s 14 1980s 14 1990s 12 2000s 41 2010s 51
There was no plan but I am surprised so many books were as recent as they were. But there you go. A number of books were, I found, written later than I’d imagined. Clearly I show a marked preference for British and North American authors: 37 Americans, 1 Anglo-American, 29 English, 1 from Northern Ireland, 8 Scots, 2 Welsh, 4 Canadians, a Welsh-Canadian, a Canadian-American and two Russian-Americans. A number of authors were peripatetic and it was really hard to say what nationality they should come under. I’ve treated Ayn Rand, for example, as Russian-American since she lived in the States from February 1926 until her death in 1982 but she never lost her thick Russian accent; Beckett, on the other hand, spent most of his life in France but I’ve still treated him as Irish. Nabokov was also born in Russia but lived for extended periods in Germany, America and Switzerland but I’ve listed him as Russian. Doris Lessing was born in Iran but she’s English through and through. Herta Müller is generally referred to as a German author but I’ve listed her as Romanian; she’s as Romanian as Lessing is English.
In a number of cases I was restricted by what was available in translation but as I was trying to read as many books and as widely as possible I had to steer clear of a number of authors I would’ve liked to have had a crack at like Kenzaburō Ōe and Halldór Laxness whose works tend to be on the long side. There was also the matter of what I could lay my hand on and it’s obvious that in the UK I’m going to have an easier time finding short English language novels than I am finding the latest Iraqi bestseller although Frankenstein in Baghdad sounds like it might be worth having a look for.
One of my goals this year was to try to answer a simple question: Why do I prefer books by men to books written by women? Like most questions it’s easily framed. Not so easy to come up with a decent answer. If you asked me to list all the writers I’m keen to read (or read more of) I can give you a list an arm long and the vast majority would be male. I had to force myself to keep reading women’s books because there were so many books by males I wanted to read. Throughout the year I kept writing notes and pasting links to articles I intended to check out but the closest to an answer I came up with is this: Women tend to be storytellers and I’m not big on stories. Men can be and many are—Ron Rash, for example—but it’s much easier to list women who are great storytellers. But isn’t a storyteller the same as a writer? If they write the story down then, yes, of course; it’s semantics really. I think by ‘story’ I’m thinking ‘plot’ not that I’m saying plotters are inferior to pantsers or even that women tend to be plotters but I clearly prefer books where the structure’s buried. And I like adventurous writers. Standouts (among the women) were Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller and Julie Otsuka’s wonderful The Buddha in the Attic, but it’s worth noting that I gave five stars to The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, If I Could Tell You by Jing-Jing Lee, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Spare Room by Helen Garner, Old Filth by Jane Gardam and Latecomers by Anita Brookner, so I’m not saying that women can’t write, although maybe I was a little generous with Jing-Jing Lee as a debut novelist, but I did like the book and I’m not going to take it back.
Here’s the thing, though: the books I want to rave about were all by men despite the fact many didn’t get the full five stars. I seem to have a thing for flawed masterpieces because even though I gave What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver and Seize the Day by Saul Bellow five stars and deservedly so I was far more excited by You & Me by Padgett Powell, The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock by John Manderino, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers and A History of Books by Gerald Murnane, although I gave some of those five stars, too, I now see.
What I didn’t see was a “woman’s voice”. Half the time I’d forgotten who the writer was I was reading. Jane Gardam and Pat Barker (in Regeneration) mimicked men perfectly. And Among Women Only by Cesare Pavese could just as easily have been written by a woman. That said, in my review of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill I noted:
Aphorisms run shoulder to shoulder with anecdotes—the ghost of Erma Bombeck hovers—and existential angst leaks out onto every page. Fetch a mop! I’ve been thinking a lot about the female voice in literature; quite resistant to it I am and yet I have to wonder if a man could’ve written this book and not simply because the book is written from a female’s point of view.
In Elizabeth Costello (which technically I read in 2014 but as the review won’t be published until next year it doesn’t get counted) J.M. Coetzee writes:
'But my mother has been a man,' [Elizabeth’s son] persists. 'She has also been a dog. She can think her way into other people, into other existences. I have read her; I know. It is within her powers. Isn't that what is most important about fiction: that it takes us out of ourselves, into other lives?'
'Perhaps. But your mother remains a woman all the same. Whatever she does, she does as a woman. She inhabits her characters as a woman does, not a man.'
'I don't see that. I find her men perfectly believable.'
'You don't see because you wouldn't see. Only a woman would see. It is something between women. If her men are believable, good, I am glad to hear so, but finally it is just mimicry. Women are good at mimicry, better at it than men. At parody, even. Our touch is lighter.'
She is smiling again. See how light my touch can be, her lips seem to say. Soft lips.
'If there is parody in her,' he says, 'I confess it is too subtle for me to pick up.' There is a long silence. 'So is that what you think,' he says at last: 'that we live parallel lives, men and women, that we never really meet?'
What goes on in the mind of a dog? Was Kerstin Ekman’s dog any more or less of a dog than those imagined by Richard Adams?
I only abandoned one book last year, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. And by ‘abandoned’ I mean I read more than a page or two before deciding I couldn’t be bothered finishing it. I actually got about fifty pages in and it was a book I really expected to enjoy having worked in offices all my life but maybe that was the problem. It bored the pants off me.
Of those I did finish that were disappointments: I Am an Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler (I guess I was hoping for another Vagina Monologues but this was tame); Anna Kavan’s Ice and Sheila Heti’s Ticknor both confused me; Voices from the Other World by Naguib Mahfouz and Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano, both Nobel Prize winners, failed to excite me and Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf which I find I gave three stars to but can remember absolutely nothing about. Had I run into you in the street I would’ve sworn blind I’d never read anything by her.
Broadly speaking I didn’t get much out of the African and the Middle Eastern writers; I struggled to get much out of the Indian and Oriental writers; the South Americans were a little better but my favourites are all from America, the UK, the EU and Russia. I’m not saying I’ll restrict myself to… I suppose it amounts to the bulk of the North Temperate Zone (I wonder if temperature has anything to do with it? no, don’t be daft, Jim) but I won’t be picking books willy-nilly like I did last year even if they are short. Some of my choices really were quite arbitrary.
This year I’ll still be reading of course—can’t stop reading for a whole year (actually I can and I have but I’m not planning to)—but I will be focusing on longer books by authors I really want to read and skipped over in 2014 for whatever reason. And there will be some women in there too. I really ought to give The Golden Notebook a go. The list of authors, both male and female, I’ve not read and ought to have read is still far longer than it ought to be.
Here, then, is my complete list in alphabetical order by surname. Click on the book title to access my review.