#ReadWomen: A Focus for 2019—And Beyond

What was activism and new awareness has become habit and daily practice.

It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.

Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”

Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective.

In 2013, in terms of prize attention, things looked bright for women writers of literary fiction. Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for her 800-page novel The Luminaries; short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature; and Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize. In America, however, the biggest money for the most-hyped-book went to Garth Risk Hallberg, who signed a contract worth $2 million for his first novel, City on Fire. For translated literature, the “big book” news was also about a man’s work: the first English translation of Zibaldone, the 2,600-page tome by Giacomo Leopardi.

Since Davis won it in 2013, the Man Booker International Prize has been awarded to women two other times: Han Kang in 2016, and Olga Tokarczuk in 2018. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to a woman once—to Donna Tartt in 2014—and has been awarded to women only three times in the last decade. The National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize has gone to women four times in the past five years: to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013), Marilynne Robinson (2014), Louise Erdrich (2016), and Joan Silber (2017).

Since its launch in 2014, the $50,000 Kirkus Review Prize for fiction has gone to a woman every year: Lily King (2014), Hanya Yanagihara (2015), C.E. Morgan (2016), Lesley Nneka Arimah (2017), and Ling Ma (2018). The biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature, also worth $50,000, went to women twice in the past five years: Dubravka Ugresic in 2016 and Edwidge Danticat in 2018. The Best Translated Book Award, given by Three Percent, has gone to one woman in the last five years: Can Xue (2015).

One standout success in American literary fiction since 2013, something approaching Hallberg’s massive haul for City on Fire, was the “Cat Person” phenomenon—Kristen Roupenian’s short story that shook the world. After it appeared in The New Yorker in December 2017, a bidding war landed Roupenian over a million dollars for a two-book deal. Good money, for sure, but less than half of what Hallberg was given for one book. Regarding the buzz around Roupenian’s work in the magazine, The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman said, “We have not seen anything like that with fiction,” so it’s key to note that, even with this achievement, the American market valued writing by a wildly popular woman writer half as much as work by a much lesser-known man. (Roupenian’s story collection, You Know You Want This, will be published next month, and is in development with HBO.)

This year, Isabel Allende received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Letters at the National Book Awards, making her the first Spanish-language author to receive the honor; and Toni Morrison was honored with the prize for Excellence in Fiction by the Center for Fiction in New York.

Besides Munro’s Nobel for Literature in 2013, Svetlana Alexievich won it in 2015. This marks a shift, because in its 110-year history, the Nobel has gone to only fourteen women; to have women win it two years apart, then, seems like a positive statistical outlier. Of course, the prize wasn’t awarded this year because, as the #metoo justice movement continues (another significant development, along with #binders, that is far too large to cover in one short post like this), the head of the Swedish Academy was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of rape and financial misconduct, leaving the future of the literature prize in question.

In terms of current “big” books by women, Diane Williams’s collected works was published this year, coming in at 700-plus pages. But in translated literature, the big news this year, as in 2013, is again a book by a man: the two-volume set of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, coming in at more than 1,700 pages. (If any translation publisher needs a point in the right direction to find big books by a woman, Marianne Fritz’s work, which Adrian Nathan West wrote about for Asymptote, would be one place to start.)

From this survey, there aren’t many definitive signs we’ve really entered an era of more lasting equality, although the major absence of a Nobel this year signals change may be underway. Yet even with this development, the bigger picture isn’t especially rosy. As literary agent Julie Barer wrote on Twitter last month, “Both the 2017 Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for fiction went to men. Only 2 of the top 10 spots on the NYTimes Fiction bestseller list right now are by women. Only 1 of the top 5 highest paid authors in the world is a woman. I think the male voice is doing just fine.”

For my part, it’s been five years since I made my reading resolution. It’s transformed my outlook, my work, and my bookshelves. Nine out of ten books I read, and review, are by women. I’ve kept separate bookshelves for a few years now and have hundreds more books by women than I used to. My personal canon has been completely and joyfully remade by reading writers such as Merce Rodoreda, Tove Jansson, Marie NDiaye, Marguerite Duras, Can Xue, Cristina Rivera Garza, Bae Suah, Anne Garreta, Eley Williams, Fleur Jaeggy, Renee Gladman, Aglaja Veteranyi, Carmen Boullosa, Magda Szabo, Asali Solomon, Wioletta Greg, Nell Zink, Andrea Lawlor, Janet Frame, Sofia Samatar, and Joanna Walsh. The list goes on.

And so does the #readwomen movement. In my life, what was activism and new awareness has become habit and daily practice, which will evolve further as time goes on. I see it as one small part in a continuous process of discovering great writing by women, among the collective daily efforts of booksellers, publishers, editors, critics, agents, publicists, and educators. So, long live #readwomen. It’s something the world still very much needs, and probably will for many generations to come.

Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction writer and literary critic. He served from 2013 to 2015 as interviews editor for Asymptote and a was fiction panelist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2011 and 2012. He can be found on Twitter @matt_jakubowski and his website mattjakubowski.com.


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