What books should children read? This age-old question was answered last week by columnist and author Caitlin Moran: ‘If I had one piece of advice for young girls, and women, it would be this: girls, don’t read any books by men. Stay away from them.’ Moran claims never to have read books by men when she was younger, a fact she now credits for her happiness, confidence and apparent all-round brilliance. Perhaps this revelation also accounts for Moran’s inability to write a column without personal anecdote and shouty capital letters. I guess we’ll never know.
Meanwhile, in honour of Women’s History Month, a bookstore in the US hit the headlines for shelving books by men with their spines to the wall. This stunt, a performance art work, was ‘intended to visually capture, in a quick and striking way, the continuing dominance of male-authored works in the cultural consciousness’. As a bonus, it would promote books by women authors.
The idea that women are underrepresented in literature is bizarre. From Jane Austen to the Brontes, George Eliot to Virginia Woolf, through to Daphne du Maurier, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Atwood, the list of female novelists goes on and on. These authors have been read by women and men alike, studied, celebrated and recommended. In the past, some female authors used pseudonyms to get published, but this was, in part at least, to secure a wide audience for their work and to avoid the label ‘women’s books’.
Today, it seems, female authors must be women first and foremost. It’s not patriarchal publishers or sexist book-buying fathers who are desperately seeking to label writers and confine readers to suitable books for women – it’s feminist campaigners like Moran. The lesson of cultural appropriation, that you should ‘stay in your lane’, is being reinterpreted as a message of female empowerment. According to this view, books written by ‘old men’ are considered positively dangerous for girls. They ‘are not the voices you should allow in your head,’ as Moran puts it; ‘they live in another century, and you are the future’.
This argument demonstrates a spectacularly limited view of reading as a narcissistic exercise in which readers find only themselves reflected in the words on the page. Anything that doesn’t speak to the immediacy of your own life, or your potential future, is not worth bothering with. As such, it taps into the mood of the times. The highest compliment paid to pop singers and YouTube stars today is that they are ‘so relatable’.