Why women read more fiction than men (OK, not all men!)

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Kerryn Goldsworthy reflects on women and fiction…

Daria Shevtsova, pexels.com

When I was a little girl at primary school in the 1960s, my sisters and I and all the other kids from outlying farms would be picked up by the school bus at the farm gate every morning, and dropped off there every afternoon. In the afternoon it didn’t leave the school gate till half an hour after school was out, as it had to connect with the bigger bus coming from the bigger town with all the high school kids on it.

One hot day when I must have been eight or nine, both of my sisters were sick at home. I went to sit alone in the school library and read while I waited for the bus. Not much later I was so deep into the Elizabeth Goudge children’s classic The Little White Horse that by the time I looked up, blinking, the bus was long departed, and the headmaster had gone home.

By this time there was adult panic elsewhere. Eventually the headmaster came to find me, and my long-suffering mother had to drive the five kilometres there and back over an unsealed road to come and get me. I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. I would have been happy to stay in the library all night with the heroine Maria Merryweather and Zachariah the cat.

One of the panel discussions at this year’s Feminist Writers Festival is headed “Why Women Read Fiction and Men Don’t”. The title is a provocation, for of course some men read fiction. I can hear the indignant cries of ‘Not all men!’ and they would be more justified than usual. But ten minutes’ online research of the statistics will show you that women read far more fiction far more often than men, that they read different kinds of fiction, and for different reasons.

I think of that hot afternoon in the 1960s every year around this time, when the portable stands down the middle of shopping malls are crammed with next year’s wall calendars and we are all reminded that we must gird our loins for the coming of the new year. And every year I look for the Reading Woman calendar, which is exactly what it says it is: twelve paintings of women reading. Medieval art is awash with these images. Vermeer, Utamaro, Manet, Matisse and countless other artists all produced at least one such painting, all conveying the solitary remoteness and intensity of their subject. The reading matter has the woman’s whole attention. She is unaware of any observer, transported to another world. If you said Boo, she would jump.

In a painting by the 19th century American artist Winslow Homer, a young woman is lying on her side on the grass in front of a high, dark hedge. She is dressed in the smothering clothes of the time, a dress with long sleeves and a high neck, buttoned through from chin to ankle, her long hair swept up to the crown of her head. The hair, untidy and straying from its pins, is the same colour as her dress, a flaming apricot. Her whole figure seems to be emitting a golden glow against the dark foliage. Her pose is relaxed to the point of abandonment, lying on the grass with her head cradled on some sort of bundled-up coat or mantle, but her hands are tightly clutching the book she holds, her face absorbed, her eyes fixed on the pages, intent.

What is it that has this young woman so in thrall? The painting is called The New Novel. She is reading fiction, and she is, as Helen Garner once said, away on the high seas of narrative.

Studies of gender difference in readers’ habits have thrown up some surprising results. One survey reports a startling difference in completion rate: men make a quick decision about a novel and will give up on reading it sooner than women. Another survey asked readers to nominate the novels they felt to be most significant: men mostly nominated “books of alienation and indifference”, like Albert Camus’ The Outsider and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, while most women chose “books of passion and connection”: novels by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. Women liked books about domestic realities and families, while men preferred books about social dislocation and solitude.

Researcher Professor Lisa Jardine says this survey also shows that women were far more likely than men to regard well-loved novels as inspiration, companion and guide, something to support and help them through “difficult times and emotional turbulence”. And at this point as I read the study, I remembered the moment last autumn when I chose my dog-eared and yellowing Penguin Classic Jane Eyre to come with me and keep me company as I sat by my sleeping father’s bedside on what I knew would be the last day of his life.

So perhaps women read fiction because novels can become, over time, like the dear human friends on whom we rely for support and advice. Perhaps women read fiction because we value stories of emotional connection and family ties. Perhaps women read fiction because, as the legendary publisher Hilary McPhee once put it, novels give us ideas about how to live our lives. Or perhaps women are just more open: open to advice, to imagination, to connection, to the possibility of change.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section. Reproduced with permission.

Erin Gough: Legacy Books

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I discovered feminist literature as a young adult by accident. What I was actually looking for was descriptions of girls kissing girls. Detailed descriptions. Preferably with instructions in the footnotes.

The first lesbian kiss I ever read in a book was in first year uni. It was in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, when Sally kisses Clarissa: “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life,” Woolf writes. “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down!”

It’s how I felt as I read it. To see such a thing in a work that was considered Legitimate Literature, was mind blowing for me. I read to the end to see if Sally kissed Clarissa again. She didn’t, which was disappointing, obviously. But it was okay. Because what I found was Virginia Woolf – someone who expressed her thoughts in a way I recognised, who offered critiques of the roles women were obliged to play, who enunciated my secret desires – for rebellion, for creative expression, and for sex.

A few years later I read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, about two young women trapped in a secluded house in Victorian Britain with a controlling and sadistic uncle figure, who has an unhealthy obsession with literary porn. Told from the alternating perspectives of the two young women, Waters reclaims the Victorian literary canon from men. Not only that, she reclaims female eroticism from the male gaze. Because, you see, the two young women fall in love, and rather than objectifying them in the way that so much ‘romp’ literature does, Waters privileges their thoughts and desires, presenting an alternative to the ‘girl-on-girl action’ so often produced for male consumption.

This was a story written for me to read.

And at last, some instructional detail.

And then came Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, the Australian detective verse novel, that again subverts and reclaims – this time, noir fiction. Told from the perspective of lesbian PI Jill Fitzpatrick, it uses the lenses of gender, sexuality and poetry to re-present the tropes of crime fiction: “I’m not tough, droll or stoical” Fitzpatrick says of herself. “I droop after wine, sex or intense conversation/ The streets coil around me when they empty/ I’m female/ I get scared.”

Reading these books made me recognise the feminism in books I’d read before I knew the meaning of the term.

As a teenager, I was among the first generation of readers to discover Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi. Smart and strong, Josephine Alibrandi faces a world of prejudice – because her mother committed the sin of having a child outside of marriage; because she is an Italian-Australian from a working class background in a white middle class world; and because she’s a young woman, which means she faces sexual harassment as well. Alibrandi is a complex, intersectional work. It is humanist, it’s hilarious, it is feminist. Importantly for me, it was set in Sydney, in a world I recognised intimately. I might not have been from an Italian family, or in love with a boy like Jacob Coote, but I knew these people, I had gone to that school, I had been to Stanmore Maccas. What I learned from Marchetta was feminism in my local context; and that there might even be a way for me as a writer to explore through fiction the prejudices I faced myself.

In high school, partly because I hadn’t yet come to terms with my sexuality, I don’t remember accessing any stories with queer characters. That’s not to say they weren’t around, but there were only a handful, and unsurprisingly, they weren’t on the syllabus at my religious girls’ school. This was the main driver for me to write the two novels I’ve written – so that there are more than a handful of stories out there that young Australians can access at that crucial age when we are trying to figure out our place in the world. Stories they can see themselves in, to feel that sense of validation that comes with recognising yourself on the page. Both my books have lesbian protagonists. My latest book, Amelia Westlake is explicitly feminist and activist – it’s been described as a queer feminist heist rom com, which I love. I started writing it when the news was full of Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse stories, which got me thinking in particular about power structures within schools and how they operate to the detriment of students. I had just finished writing it as the #metoo hashtag exploded, and the book’s storyline resonates with those themes too. What I wanted it to be was a celebration – of queerness and femaleness – but also a story of solidarity; one that functions as a call to arms. Because who will fix this fucked up system if not us?

Australia needs more feminist stories – a breadth of stories that actually represent the range of experience in our community. Fortunately (although still too slowly) we are hearing stories from a wider range of voices. There are two young Australian writers who have blown me away in recent years. Ellen van Neerven, whose writing speaks to her female Indigenous experience, to deep-seated racism, to colonisation, and to queerness. And Nevo Zisin, whose memoir Finding Nevo, unpacks gender and the politics of gender with incredible wisdom, and in crystal clear prose. I feel like we have so many incredible feminist writers to be grateful for, and so many more to look forward to.

Erin Gough was part of the Legacy Books line up at FWF18 Sydney.

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Applications are simple! Please fill out this form by 5pm (EST) Monday 15 October 2018.

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FWF Round-Up: April 2017

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It was such a pleasure to get our nasty woman on this month, with our first events for 2017. At our sold out “Giving up the Good Girl” conversations, Angela Pippos, Jamila Rizvi and Krissy Kneen joined Veronica Sullivan in Melbourne, while Rebecca Starford and Michelle Law chatted with Krissy Kneen in Brisbane.

Big thanks to our partners: Queen Victoria Women’s CentreAvid Reader Bookshop and Readings.

We are delighted to announce our next event in Lismore on Sunday 4 June: Tracey Spicer: The Good Girl Stripped Bare. Tracey will be in conversation with FWF Co-Chair Cristy Clark about her memoir, presented in partnership with NORPA.