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.