Why women read fiction

Are women drawn to imagining other lives because their own are still so constrained?

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Towards the end of Helen Taylor’s book, Why Women Read Fiction, Bidisha – writer, broadcaster, film-maker, artist – gives a blunt answer to Taylor’s question. “I think women read a lot of fiction because life is so crappy,” she says. She recalls her days as a novelist, when she would look out at a sea of women’s faces in the audiences of literary festivals. “I thought, oh my god I know who you are, you are that mouse who lives in books, the kid who wasn’t cool so you stayed at home reading books.” She goes further: “Do you not know you are the pawn in the entertainment wing of the patriarchal military industrial complex?” She calls the extent of women’s immersion in fiction “a trauma response”.

Taylor, emeritus professor of English at the University of Exeter and (among many other accomplishments) the first director of the Liverpool Literary Festival, is shocked. She wonders why Bidisha felt compelled to see those festival-goers “as a homogeneous group of passive stargazers with no autonomy”. And it’s true that Bidisha’s judgement seems harsh; almost comically so, one might say. And yet is it really? Taylor does not appear to see the irony when, just a few pages later, Zoe Steadman-Milne, formerly literature producer at Bath Festivals, gives her answer to why women read so much fiction – in the UK, the US, and Canadian fiction markets they account for 80 per cent of sales – and why they appear to make up the majority of literary festival audiences. “I think a lot of it is to do with stimulation,” Steadman-Milne says. “Women may feel understimulated intellectually. The day-to-day monotony of caring, looking-after, housework… so maybe it’s the opportunity to be yourself and think of yourself not as a mother or a wife.”

Surely, in 2020, this too is a startling statement to read. The image called to my mind Laura in David Lean’s Brief Encounter – released in 1945 – changing her book at the library; the novel as metaphor for her longing to escape from her marriage, the dreary round of her life. And while Bidisha’s statement may be hyperbolic, Steadman-Milne’s matter-of-fact analysis demands investigation – which is exactly what Taylor sets out to do. “No one to my knowledge has tried to describe how fiction matters to contemporary women of different ages, classes and ethnic groups, and how we use it in our lives to create and sustain life narratives,” she writes.

To that end, along with “lengthy interviews with selected women writers and professionals in publishing and the media”, Taylor sent out an informal questionnaire to which she received over 400 replies. The questionnaire is reproduced at the back of the book, and some of the replies are salted throughout. “I make no claim for scientific objectivity,” Taylor says.

That reading fiction can be a transformative experience is clear from the case of Taylor’s own mother Ida, born in 1916 in a working-class Lancashire family. Ida left school at 14, but her discovery of the treasures in the public library turned her into a voracious reader who relished the pleasure of discovery and literary adventure.

Ida lurks behind her literature professor daughter’s quest to discover what draws women so to stories, and what they get from those stories. Fiction offers a journey out of the self, into other lives, other worlds. As Hilary Mantel tells Taylor: “What I have taken from fiction is that, however painful it is, you have to go on a journey, you have to leave home and you have to make your way in the world. That is what I see as a life’s work – making one’s way in the world. Sooner or later you’re going to have to open the doors with the monster behind.”

Yet Taylor’s book made this reader wonder what that journey means for most women, and what it can mean in the 21st century. We must also ask who these readers are. Bidisha is a writer of colour, and as Taylor notes, BAME writers are under-represented on bookshelves and in the review pages of newspapers and magazines. Yet I admit I was startled by the revelation that, according to Nielsen Market Research, well over 90 per cent of UK fiction purchasers in every category (bar classics and young adult fiction) are white.

Taylor speaks in depth to Bernardine Evaristo, who in the autumn of last year became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, with her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo told Taylor that from the perspective of “‘a black British, British-Nigerian, mixed-race’ woman she writes ‘into the otherwise silences’”. Taylor notes journalist Danuta Kean’s 2015 report “Writing the Future”, which detailed the (mostly) homogeneous nature of the publishing trade. One would like to think things are changing, but Taylor also refers to Arts Council England’s 2017 report, “Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction”. The report, she writes, “deplored the fact that BAME fiction had gone backwards in the previous 15 years”.

Such under-representation is a structural problem that is beginning to be addressed in the wider literary culture. Taylor leaves aside the issue of why women appear to read so much more fiction than men do – and in a sense, fair enough. She can’t cover everything, and her book isn’t called “Why Women Read Fiction and Men Don’t.” But I was disturbed by what felt to me like an acceptance of a “feminised” culture of reading. Taylor quotes one of her older correspondents who told her that “boys are not encouraged to live in a make-believe world. When I was a child, boys were steered towards the practical… girls could be creative… I don’t think this has changed. Books for males are informative and boys’ books used to mould the future man. Men ‘do’, women are introspective.”

This may sound old-fashioned, but according to Taylor it was backed up by her broader survey. “Women are list-makers and social secretaries par excellence,” Taylor writes at one point; hence the proliferation of women’s book groups. “Are” list-makers and social secretaries? Perhaps better to say: have always been encouraged to be these things. Or have only been allowed to be these things.

I confess that, despite being a stalwart of the literary scene, I mostly failed to recognise myself as a reader in these pages. Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are the novels women love best, Taylor claims. Not this woman. I feel certain that it was my position in a patriarchal society that drove my childhood reading even before I knew what that position was. As a girl I loved Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea; JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Richard Adams’s Watership Down and – though honestly, I was far too young, and it scared the pants off me – Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. I wanted to put myself inside those books: I was the hero of the story. Slowly I absorbed the fact that those heroes were, well, heroes. Men. Like Ged, the wizard of Le Guin’s Earthsea, I had to shape-shift to become who I wanted to be. This wasn’t an issue for me as a girl; I feel rather differently, now. In my reading – and therefore in my life – I have, to some extent, accepted a “masculine” culture.

Fiction offers the possibility of other imagined lives. That’s terrific. Yet in women’s real lives, they are still, by and large, paid less than men for doing the same jobs. Women MPs are standing down from parliament, citing the abuse they have received, or the pressures on their family life. It is wonderful that women – myself included – gain so much from reading fiction. Yet the ways in which women are encouraged, or permitted, to engage with the world beyond the page are still often limited. I am energised by Bidisha’s daring interrogation of literary culture. In asking why women read fiction, Taylor’s book makes a start: but there are deeper, bolder questions still to be asked. 

Erica Wagner’s books include “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives
Helen Taylor
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing