Last June, a very famous male author called V.S Naipaul was interviewed by the Royal Geographic Society about his career. In this interview, Naipaul made some rather disparaging comments about women writers, stating that no woman writer has ever written something as good as Naipaul’s work. He dismissed the work of Jane Austen, arguably one of the greatest women writers, as overly sentimental.
These comments about women writers made our contributor SGM very angry. She wanted to do something productive with her anger, and so started a blog, which is about celebrating books written by women. Her blog is called My Elegant Gathering of White Snows and is named after a fiction book about women’s friendships by Kris Radish, which is about celebrating books written by women.
I’ve been reading only books written by women for nearly a year now and I have read incredible works by women such as Maya Angelou, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Agatha Christie and Meg Cabot. There are so many wonderful books written by women that I’ve had to narrow the focus of my reading and read only those books written by women which feature strong, intelligent female characters. It’s been very hard to decide what to read next as so many friends keep recommending me new authors.
One of my favourite children’s authors is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series are some of the most successful children’s books ever written, so much so that as many adults as children have read them. But, as a woman writer, Rowling struggled to get these books published. Initially, despite the fact that her main character is a boy, publishers rejected her manuscript because they were worried boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman. This biased perception continued even once she secured a contract, and she was ultimately made to conceal her sex by use of the two initials J.K. instead of her given name, Joanne. No one said anything about it being a problem if girls didn’t want to read it. Nor have male authors been made to change their names in order to encourage more girls to read their books. Yet over the years, many famous women writers have had to do this: Mary Anne Evans was published as George Eliot and the Brönte sisters were published under the name Currer. It makes me sad that we require women authors to do the same in the 21st century.
The next logical question to me is: would Harry Potter be as successful if the main character was Hermione? Would publishers have refused to publish it because it about a girl? This is a hypothetical question but it is obvious that the best selling children’s books written have always featured boys as the main character. Books like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, whilst incredibly successful, never sold anywhere near the same number of books as Harry Potter.
I am not the only person to be angry about the erasure of women writers (and their possible female characters) from literature. An American website called A Mighty Girl has just launched calling themselves “the world’s largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. The website was co-founded by Carolyn Danckaert and Aaron Smith who wanted to build a resource centre to help other people support and celebrate intelligent and confident girls in the same manner that they had with their four nieces. Their collection of books is incredible and some of my favourite (and my children’s favourite) books are included
Short Book Reviews
Here are some of SGM and her daughters’ favourite books, with a short description and review of each book.
Karen Cushman’s “Catherine” is the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Medieval England who is just at the age when young girls are supposed to get married. “Birdy”, as she prefers to be known, has no intention of just being a “wife”. She wants to be something more, which is very difficult in a society that does not value girls. Birdy is also exceptional in that her older brother, a monk, teaches her to read. This is a diary of her life as Birdy becomes the girl she wants to be. It also features a flaming chicken as a weapon of mass destruction which has to be one of the funniest scenes I have ever read in a book.
Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace loves stories. She loves to read and listen to the stories her grandmother tells her. Grace is a natural story-teller and actress whose class puts on a production of Peter Pan. Grace is told she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s a “girl”. So, Grace sets out to prove the girls in her class wrong.
Patricia Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons tells the story of “Cimoren”, the anti-princess. She is everything they are not supposed to be: headstrong, intelligent, smart, active, and incredibly bored. She is so bored being a princess that she runs away to live with a dragon, as one does. This is book one of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which my eldest daughter rereads constantly.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “Meg Murry” from A Wrinkle In Time is one of my favourite heroines. Along with her younger brother “Charles Wallace”, Meg has to rescue their father after he goes missing whilst experimenting with something called a “tesseract”. Tesseracts are wormholes in the space/time continuum and Meg and Charles Wallace have to travel through them with the help of the three angelic beings: “Mrs Who”, “Mrs Whatsit”, and “Mrs Which”. This is the first book of the Time Quintet.
Which books do you enjoy reading? Does it make a difference if the writer is a male or female, if the protagonist is a boy or a girl?
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