This is a re-post of a guest essay originally published on September 22, 2014.
Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The YaleReview, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK),Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.)
This summer, I hit the road.
Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.
Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.
These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.
When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.
I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.
This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?
Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.
- A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
- Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
- A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
- During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
- The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
- The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
- After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
- A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
- A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
- A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
- A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
- A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
- A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
- A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.
Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.
If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.
If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)
Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?
Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.
Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6.Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.