The film-maker Richard Curtis realised during the first lockdown that he would at last have time to immerse himself in books. More specifically books by women, “to compensate for 63 years of male bias”, he explains. “It’s been an amazing two years: the glory of Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Daphne du Maurier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and so many others.”
Now, 32 books later, he has become positively evangelical. When a male friend had a birthday recently, Curtis gave him four novels by female writers. “I have given away more copies of Olive Kitteridge [by Elizabeth Strout] than you can imagine,” he says. “I spend my whole time romping through bookshops saying: ‘Why haven’t you got more Anne Tyler novels on your shelves?’ I’ve had a genuine epiphany in terms of the novels that I read.”
Yet there are still many men who, like Curtis until recently, barely read books by women. On average, women will read roughly 50:50 books written by men and by women; for men, the ratio is 80:20. Why should that be? “I think subject matter has a lot to do with it,” the novelist Ian McEwan says. Men are said to be more interested in violence than relationships: they often prefer war or crime novels to ones about couples or families, or so the stereotype goes. “But of course there are loads of men writing about relationships and parents and despair and suicide, and all the ways in which love can go wrong. That’s been the engine of English literature for three and a half centuries.”
The broadcaster Andrew Marr points out that men have traditionally not been encouraged to talk about their emotional life. “And if you don’t talk about it very much, you’re less likely to read about it. So the bounce off into fantasy versions of the working life [such as stories about soldiers and spies] is more attractive, because you jump away from an area that you find hard to talk about, and you’re not quite sure of the words.”
Yet this is precisely why the novelist Howard Jacobson turns to fiction by women. “I like the fact that they write about love a lot,” he says. “Because I write about love a lot. And I think it is the most interesting subject. It’s more interesting than guns. It’s more interesting than policemen. It’s more interesting than adventures. It is the stuff of our life.”
Though, of course, it is wrong to pigeonhole women’s novels as purely about relationships. Often they are unfairly cast that way, even when they’re not. Kamila Shamsie won the 2018 Women’s prize for fiction for her novel Home Fire. A retelling of Antigone in the context of the war on terror, it covers deep contemporary themes with an overlay of complex relationships between three Anglo-Pakistani siblings and the son of the home secretary. But, she says: “When my books get talked about, people go much more to the familial and the romantic elements of them. And, actually, the male writers are writing as much about romance and family, maybe more, but they get talked about in terms of the larger political stories they are telling.”
As well as genre, there is the question of how we train young boys to read. Jacobson grew up on Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës: “That was my world. Jane Eyre was the novel I most loved. I was Jane Eyre.” But these days, perhaps because educationists are worried about boys reading less than girls, the curriculum is massively skewed the other way. Recent research by End Sexism in Schools found that, in the key stage 3 English curriculum, 77% of schools teach only one or no whole texts by female writers out of nine, 82% of novels have a male protagonist and 99% of plays are by men. If we don’t inculcate the habit of reading widely at that age, it’s going to be harder for men to learn it when they are older.
And then, what joys they will miss! Curtis has been blown away by the novels he has read in the past two years. “I have become obsessed by the texture of the writing and the observation, and I have started to reunderstand novels as a conversation with an absolutely delicious mind.”
Jacobson feels the same way. “I like the pitch of women’s morality. Austen is wonderfully unforgiving. I love that. She has a terrific sarcasm. It gives me pleasure. I like [Austen’s and Eliot’s] ironies. I like their social cruelties. I like the degree to which they observe.”
McEwan evokes an image from Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, in which the male protagonist is lying in bed, listening to dogs barking all over the city. “He begins to hallucinate that what they’re shouting through the night is: ‘Open the universe a little wider!’ And I think that any time any of us read a novel that we like, the universe is a little wider. For that reason, men must open their universe just a crack wider by reading widely. It doesn’t make sense to confine it.”
Mary Ann Sieghart’s The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It is published by Black Swan.
Male authors on their favourite book by a woman
Not every page of Middlemarch is a masterpiece of impassioned intelligence, where action is imbued with thought, and thought is shaped by feeling; but every other page is. No man or woman can be considered educated who hasn’t read it at least twice.
I would leave aside the unassailable triumfeminate of Austen, Eliot and Woolf in favour of our contemporary literary culture. In Hanna Bervoets’s novel, translated by Emma Rault, the setting alone is compelling and has always been in need of an accomplished novelist’s attention: desktop workers enduring sweatshop conditions to remove vile, cruel and deluded posts from a social media site. To witness daily, in cascades, the very worst of human nature has its effects on a group of young friends. Alcohol keeps them barely functional as they begin to unravel. The dreamlike climax of the final pages is beautifully wrought. Men might usefully confront in Bervoets a writerly intelligence at once so tender and so willing to look into the abyss.
I reread it this year and it remains astonishing: first, at the level of the sentence, because her sentences are very beautiful; and second, because of Woolf’s ability to enter profoundly into the interior life and thoughts of her characters. Why should men read it? Because we have interior lives too.
Strout is my absolute favourite, and Olive Kitteridge is the masterpiece. Its profound humanity; its deeply flawed but wonderful heroine; its remarkable structure, separate stories from one life that add up to a total picture; its perfect language page after page. It would be crazy to generalise about men’s books and women’s books – but I do feel my whole life has been hugely enriched and my sense of the world deepened by at last flying around in the other half of the sky.
It’s the only perfect book ever written. There isn’t a wasted word, and every word is poetry. It’s a magical piece of writing that has something to say about every important thing in our lives – funny, beautiful, moving and playful. Nobody else could have written this. It’s my constant companion, and I’m so glad it exists.
Michael Donkor: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This novel boldly pushes the scope and possibilities of what historical fiction can do. Intimate yet expansive, it follows the legacies of slavery and colonialism across the generations of one Ghanaian family. One of the many extraordinary achievements of Gyasi’s enviable debut is the writer’s ability to make all the myriad descendants here – enslaved mothers, carpenters, academics – equally worthy of the reader’s sustained engagement and compassion.
Resisting the claims of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, I’ve chosen a novel that resonates in times of war, the first of Barker’s 1914-18 trilogy set at Craiglockhart hospital and involving Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist WHR Rivers – all men, but this is a woman’s fresh perspective on war and trauma.
She is the lightest, wittiest and most provoking novelist writing about modern Britain. I read everything Ali Smith writes. Then there’s Anne Enright who tells us about the condition of contemporary life better than anyone else. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was the other new novel I’ve enjoyed most this year – spare, sensuous and haunting. Women see parts of the world men often miss; I suppose all of these books move into corners, fears and experiences my favourite male writers avoid. But what matters is quality; and at the moment most of the highest quality writing is coming from female voices and female hands.
Derek Owusu: The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
The prose is inventive and poetic, and the observations so startling and nuanced that you never doubt you’re in the presence of something special. When it was first handed to me, I read it three times, one sitting after another, and have added to that number since.
Because men are so easily scared, claim they like to be, and since Poe no one has done terror on the page like Du Maurier, who ought to be recognised as an astonishingly great writer.
One of the greatest books I’ve read. It opened my young eyes to the civil rights issues in the US while also providing the greatest male/father role model I’d ever read. Sure, I wanted to be Elvis or Bruce Lee but I never quite shook wanting to be Atticus Finch.
It’s a beautiful novel from 1920 about an older woman’s relationship with a much younger man – and in its multiple inversions of gender and desire and power it should hopefully allow men to think more freely and acrobatically.
When I read her bleak and engrossing novel it had a similar effect on me as when I’d first read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: the appalled fascination of confronting a dark future, astounding in its detail, that seemed all too plausible.
It’s a book you become engrossed and invested in so quickly that you desperately want to know what happens but really don’t want to get to the end.
Real men read books by women. In my genre, try The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter – great story, great characters, pace, thrills and action … just as fast, hard and tough as anything I write.
The book is an observation of the male ego and the damage it can do to those who possess it and those they interact with. It left me squirming as I read it – and an (almost) reformed character afterwards.
Who could have guessed that the essential guide to becoming a man would be written by a woman? Not just a classic of comic fiction but a portrait of a true romantic, going through the problems that every boy endures and every man remembers.
Funny, clever, acid and so ruthless and sad: show me a better writer of any gender in the UK today than Gwendoline Riley.
In order to properly write, Maya Angelou would have a rented hotel room in whichever city she was living in. She would arrive in the early hours of the morning, lie on the bed and begin to read. Maybe the Psalms, maybe James Weldon Johnson, something, as she once said, to remember how beautiful and pliable the language is. My own Psalms and James Weldon Johnson is Singin’ Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas It has inherited timelessness through a life lived for language and storytelling, and I am in love with it.
Join the conversation and tell us the books by women you think every man should read in the comments.