Among Graham Norton’s guests on his final show of 2019 were the actors Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys and Florence Pugh. Hanks and Rhys were promoting their new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Hanks stars as Fred McFeely Rogers, host of the long-running American children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. At one point, Norton directed Hanks’s attention to Pugh. Pugh, twenty-four, plays Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, a kaleidoscopic new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, a book which has caused me to experience every kind of literary crying. Hanks, laughing, with relish declared that he had never read this book, that no man has read this book, that there is a triumvirate of books – Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Jane Eyre – that no guy has ever read but must pretend to have read, perhaps to win the approval of women. And then he laughed again. Pugh laughed too, painfully; Rhys grimaced but couldn’t demur. Apparently he hadn’t read them either.
Men not reading women’s writing is widespread, and they begin not reading early. In the university applications that cross my desk, it’s common for male candidates not to mention a single female author, despite otherwise showing evidence of wide and ambitious reading. The opposite is rare.
As it turns out, though, without women, men wouldn’t have much to read at all. Women are responsible for fiction’s survival, as Helen Taylor details in Why Women Read Fiction. We buy, borrow, download and lend the majority of fiction books, from classic literature to romance, erotica and saga writing. Taylor has surveyed more than four hundred female readers, documenting their responses to fiction and their urgent, frequently furtive efforts to scrape out space for reading. Most movingly, a number of Taylor’s respondents stress the conflict between reading and domestic labour: a former library development manager confessed she can only read ‘when I’ve done everything else (washing, Hoovering etc)’, while others recall having faced accusations of ‘sneaking off’ or rudeness for choosing reading over angelic housewifery. E-readers divide women: they conceal our consumption of romance and erotica but do not offer the tactile and olfactory experiences provided by old books, dog-eared, inscribed and nostalgia-inducing. Even acclaimed female writers dread being, in the words of Hilary Mantel, ‘Little Womaned’, as if they’re somehow unable to write for ‘wider society’. Women are a vital interpretative community, but it’s still assumed that our experience is niche.
Nonetheless, Taylor’s book is neither exclusively nor primarily about the anxieties associated with reading. The chapter on childhood reading is a particular joy, with Caitlin Moran declaring that she owes everything to Little Women’s Jo March and Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. Another chapter explores Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre under the heading ‘The Novels Women Love Best’ (Tom Hanks, take note). Taylor masterfully unravels the history of women’s reading. She examines both the ‘feminisation of literature’ (exploring the woman reader’s financial and cultural influence on writing over six centuries) and the potential of reading to aid social mobility among women readers. The book benefits, too, from Taylor’s dexterous deconstruction of the language used to censure women for taking pleasure in reading. In short, cultural commentators have chastised women for seeking ‘escapism’ rather than assessing why they might want to ‘escape’. This drive has deep historical roots: one of the book’s most memorable quotations comes from Elizabeth I, who wrote in 1576 that she read so that she might ‘less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life’. For most of us, reading is as valuable in removing us from our own minds as it is in allowing us to explore other people’s.
Returning to the present day, Taylor’s consideration of race and reading is the most alarming part of the book. In the UK, over 90 per cent of purchasers of fiction in every category except classics and young adult fiction are white. A 2017 report by Arts Council England, in Taylor’s words, ‘deplored the fact that BAME fiction had gone backwards in the previous fifteen years’. This is a salutary, shocking statement that we should bear in mind, particularly now that Bernardine Evaristo’s deserved Booker Prize triumph is allowing the literary establishment to feel they’ve got things sorted.
The great joy of Taylor’s book is the light it shines on communities of women readers, something that helped me recognise my own. My mother is responsible for my parallel addictions to detective fiction, Nancy Mitford, and anything set in Cornwall about A Family And What Happens To Them (what happens is usually The War). My godson’s mother and I exchange books marked ‘you’ll like this’ with a psychological perspicacity that borders on the offensive. My wife prefers George Eliot to the Brontës, but marriage has made us experts in buying each other books (‘awful things in postwar Germany’ for her; ‘did you know this terrible Victorian fact?’ for me). Reading Taylor’s book has also made me join a book club. I did not like the January book; I did enjoy drinking gin while saying why. I would like to be in a book club with Taylor’s correspondents, having so much enjoyed the warmth, intelligence and insight of their conversations with her throughout the book.
This history of women’s reading perhaps suffers from a necessary sacrifice of depth to breadth. But Taylor’s inclusion of a questionnaire for readers to fill in and return to her indicates that this is a prologue, not an epilogue, to her consideration of the subject.