Girls’ literature? There’s no such thing
Encouraging girls to read female authors only is ridiculous.
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’.
In fact, young readers relate to literary characters and picture themselves in the fictional world created by an author. When I was 13, I read Gone With The Wind, followed by Wuthering Heights. I was first Scarlett, then Cathy – I felt the passion, the emotion, the follow-you-to-the-ends-of-the-earth love expressed by those characters. But I revelled in it all the more intensely because it was so distant from my own reality. At the same time, I had teachers who introduced me to John Wyndham, George Orwell and Charles Dickens. A couple of years later, I decided the books I related to most were not written by women, or even about women, but were by angry young men: Kingsley Amis, John Braine and John Wain.
It’s safe to say that young readers will find what’s relatable in fiction for themselves. But the aim of teachers, librarians and publishers should be to challenge children to read beyond merely the relatable. This needs to involve encouraging children to read for pleasure. Too often today, gaining enjoyment in the act of reading is seen as an impossible, or even undesirable, aspiration.
Last week marked the annual celebration of World Book Day. I’m not a fan. It’s not just that the expectation of parental involvement in fancy dress and potato decorating (yes, this really is a thing) stresses me out. More importantly, it strikes me as an elaborate means of avoiding books. The resort to wacky activities seems to be an admission of defeat, a recognition that little value is attached to reading in its own terms. Therefore, it needs to be literally ‘dressed up’. ‘Book spuds’ are called for when we can no longer persuade children that reading is either meaningful or fun.
Of course, many great teachers manage to combine World Book Day photo opportunities with reading aloud and introducing children to exciting new authors. But all too often the fun needs to come from outside literature, because schools tell children that reading is an exercise to be monitored and logged, books are to be counted rather than enjoyed, and time spent reading is to be signed off by parents as a symbol of their interest and engagement. Rewarding children with stickers, house points and raffle tickets tells them books are of no intrinsic merit and are just signifiers of moral virtue and effort.
Many children’s authors have also come to see reading as of little intrinsic value and simply an instrumental means of delivering a particular message. Books by Jacqueline Wilson are said to help children through divorce, bereavement and mental illness; works by Malorie Blackman broach racism; David Walliams’ books provide a way into talking about bullying. Contemporary children’s books are often more focused on covering issues than delivering a story.
For girls, especially, books are not allowed to be just stories. Lauren Child, author of the much loved Charlie and Lola books for pre-school children, spoke last week about the importance of books in challenging gender stereotypes. Child talked up a new character, ‘Rosie Revere, Engineer’, a girl who ‘constructs great inventions from odds and ends’. Rosie is, no doubt, great, but books with a clunking message have all the literary subtlety of a sledgehammer. This use of fiction to promote feminist empowerment continues for teenage girls who are offered multiple fictional reincarnations of themselves, all imminently relatable, with a message of challenging gender stereotypes and learning to love yourself for who you are.
The more we fetishise books as a purveyor of moral lessons, the more we lose the power of fiction to thrill and delight. Great literature should take young readers beyond the immediacy of their own lives and enable them to try on different identities, experience emotional depths they’ve not encountered yet in real life, and test themselves against a measure of humanity other people can share.
The urging of girls only to read books by women speaks not just to confusion about literature, but also to insecurity about what it means to be a woman today. When being a woman is nothing more than an identity, weakly held and changeable according to feelings, then reading outside of ‘your lane’ poses an existential threat to your sense of self. We need to have sufficient confidence in girls to let them read anything they want – books by men and women, books they find relatable, and pure fantasy. But as adults, we also need to be confident in promoting great literature so that we can point them in the direction of the best that has been written.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.