My Sort-Of, Inadvertent #ReadWomen2014 Reading Challenge

I’m starting with a little anecdote but I’m gonna have to eyeball the timeline, so I hope you’ll forgive the inaccuracy.

Around the middle of February (perhaps before the Vida Count 2013 reports was published, but I can’t be sure), I looked at my reading list on Goodreads and noted that I have been on a 4-book reading streak of all male writers. At that point the breakdown would have been 5 books written by men versus 2 books written by women. I picked up Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste of Bones to break the streak (written by a woman writing under a male pseudonym, natch). I then read 3 more books by women after a lengthy foray into Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I didn’t really articulate it at the time, but it was the moment that I began making a mental note to maintain some semblance of gender parity in my reading this year. This is where I tell you how well the Goodreads interface can aid an obsessive.

The impulse to do this may have come from the zeitgeisty moment going on in the culture that is putting a harsh glare on the the gender disparity in publishing. In January, Joanna Walsh wrote on The Guardian about challenging herself to reading all women for the year. The piece’s provocative title invoked the #ReadWomen2014 hashtag. It was much talked about in book world, with some people making personal pledges to read nothing but women this year. Among the entities that have been a the forefront of discussion is the previously mentioned Vida Count, which tallies the authors reviewed and reviewers of major literary publications. Jennifer Weiner has also been pretty vocal about this, to the point that she has been called “strident” by people who has tried to paint her with a jealous brush.

I’ve managed to stay on top of the sort of informal personal challenge, thanks in large part to several genres that have a robust roster of female authors. As of this writing, I’ve read 27 books written by women to 25 books by men (this could end up being 28 if I finish Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird before New Year’s Day). This doesn’t count authors whom I’ve read twice this year, namely Dorothy L. Sayers, Gail Carriger, Robin Hobb. All three are women.

One perennial criticism for consciously skewing one’s reading list gender-wise is the idea that gender shouldn’t matter, and that the only criterion for picking up a book should be, “if it’s good.” But a reader uses dozens of highly arbitrary criteria for reading a book in the first place. Whether it’s a thick or thin book. If the book cover is especially enticing. If the typeface size is comfortable to the eyes. I’ve started reading books as I was flush with smug exhilaration for managing to snag an important book for 20 pesos. Being conscious about reading women is just one of the many small decisions that you make as a reader.

Furthermore, claiming that you do not consider race or gender important in literature is to remain a passive receiver of a highly skewed and inauthentic cultural legacy that has always privileged straight, white male voices. It is people’s prerogative to ignore things, of course, but I prefer to surround myself with fellow readers for whom a deeper engagement with literature and its reflection of society is important.

What do I plan for 2015? Well, my reading for the year has been pretty white. Out of the 54 books I’ve read (so far) only 11 books are written by people of color. Since this is the area of my reading life that seems most deficient, I’m thinking that this will be what I’ll try to address in 2015. I’ve also lined up short story collections by Filipino authors that I’m also planning to read:

1. Diaspora Ad Astra – An anthology of Filipino science fiction edited by Emil Flores and Joseph Nacino
2. Seroks, Iteration 1: Mirror Man – Speculative fiction (?) stories written by David Hontiveros and illustrated by Alan Navarra
3. Either Now, Then or Elsewhen or WonderLust by Nikki Alfar, depending on which I can find.
4. The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories – A short story collection by Gregorio Brillantes, one of the preeminent SF authors.
5. A Bottle of Storm Clouds – I’ve already read Eliza Victoria’s super twisted Unseen Moon recently and I think I’ve already read a couple of books from this collection.

Aside from those, I’m also planning on doing more doorstopper books in the future. I’ve found that they’re extremely rewarding, but I simply don’t have the stamina to tackle one every month. We’ll see how it goes.

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