Review by Gill Davies, 23 January 2020
Women read a lot more fiction than men; they also buy more books, attend writers’ events, blog, exchange ideas, and form reading groups. Helen Taylor’s research documents these activities, drawing on women readers’ own words and proposing answers to her titular question, “Why do women read fiction?” In the process, she touches on prizes (Booker, Orange, Nobel) and book reviewing, preferred formats (e-books or print) and the popularity of literary tourism and the “heritage” of great writers.
In the past, women’s reading has often been represented as a moral weakness, a reprehensible escape from their responsibilities, even dangerous. And even now some women may be rather shame-faced to admit their pleasure in reading and their efforts to find time and space to indulge their interest. Harriet, one of your Shiny editors, regularly posts on her blog a picture of a woman reading. Looking at the variety and number of these paintings, I am intrigued that so many artists have found the subject compelling. Typically, in a rather voyeuristic response, the painter focuses on the image of a woman, entirely caught up in the private experience, and excluding both painter and observer. By keeping her thoughts and responses well hidden the woman is dangerously self-contained, and a threat to the (assumed) male viewer. The mystery of the woman reading is one which Helen Taylor sets out to solve through a very personal kind of literary sociology. She asks, why do women read fiction? But in the process she also asks what do they read? And who do they read it with? Where do they read it? When do they read? What do they take away from the experience and how do they share it with other readers?
To answer these questions, she conducted over 500 interviews with readers and writers, received questionnaires, visited literary festivals and met members of book groups in libraries and their homes. She investigated internet fan groups and blogs, and interviewed writers about their work and formative reading. The result is a very enjoyable and wide-ranging analysis, full of interesting details and observations. One of the central conclusions is that, for women, reading is not just a leisure activity, a ‘hobby’ or a pastime – it’s central to their lives. Taylor discovers that everyday reading is for many women a way of charting their lives. A new novel may open up undiscovered lands but it is simultaneously a way of finding themselves. And – for many – it is even better if done in the company of other women.Taylor clearly enjoys working with these women readers, sharing their enthusiasm, admiring their collaboration.
She asks how women are influenced by what they read; what they remember from their earliest experience of the intense encounter between themselves and a text.
We learn that most of her respondents prefer fiction to non-fiction or poetry, and prefer realistic writing to fantasy or science fiction (although some female forms of SF that are on the “softer” boundary of the genre are also popular – Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point). Crime is also hugely popular – though I would be interested to find out whether certain types of crime fiction appeal more to women readers than to men. As you would expect, tastes shift as women grow older but there is always a marked preference for a strong narrative with sympathetic characters in a credible setting. The authors mentioned by Taylor’s interviewees are mainly but not exclusively women writers. Almost all enthuse about Austen and the Brontes, alongside childhood favourites and Young Adult or recent children’s fiction that can still be enjoyed by adults (the extraordinary popularity of Harry Potter, as well as Beatrix). For members of book groups, there was an appreciation of the empathy generated by discussion and the moments of recognition in sharing the experience of reading and responding to a book. But they also treasured the private moments that came with reading alone, the escape from work and family responsibilities.
The women who contributed to the study were not just the elderly inhabitants of suburban reading groups – the book also has a chapter on romance and erotica. Taylor wonders why women enjoy apparently exploitative, sexist, representations of intimate relationships? Feminist critics from the 1980s onwards, including Helen Taylor herself in a study of of Gone With the Wind and its readers, worried away at this apparent paradox. Here she takes a look at more recent developments in the steamy romantic vein, including Fifty Shades of Grey. I was intrigued by some of the views expressed – but I still don’t want to read it! Other sections of the book examine how and where women find what they want to read. Especially for older readers, libraries were crucial in their formative years, but there are also some very interesting reflections on current library use (despite government funding cuts) by women especially young mothers with babies, ethnic minority women and others seeking inexpensive stimulation in the company of like-minded people. There is an interesting section on new “conversations” about books by on-line bloggers, through Facebook and Mumsnet. And the huge expansion of reading-related activities, which cater mainly to women readers, is covered by looking at bookshops and publishers, special events at literary festivals, book signings and so on. I can’t do better than end, as Taylor herself does, with the words of one of her correspondents: “I am so glad I have had a reading life.”
Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction, The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford University Press, 2019). 9780198827689, 276pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)