When I went to the library at the end of June, my first visit after lockdown, it was not my typical library experience. Instead of spending time browsing the shelves, I had to order my books online and then wait for the library to phone to set up an appointment to collect them. After weeks of being at home with no plans all day, it felt strange to have to be somewhere at a specific time. The library looked closed when I arrived and I had to wait outside. The librarian opened the door, took my name and then hurried back inside, found my book on a table just inside the door and passed it out to me. That was it. I went to the library and didn’t even get to go inside the library.
In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.
Over the last year and a bit I’ve been reading a lot of books about feminism. Partly as research for a thing I’m writing but mostly just because I’m interested. (This is also why I’m writing about it!)
Here is a short round-up of my feminist reading list.
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto seems to me to be the grandmother of all feminist texts, the one that started the second wave of feminism. First published in 1970, it attempts to cover all aspects of being a woman under the headings Body, Soul and Love. This edition was published in 2006 and includes a new foreword by Greer about what the world is like for women at the beginning of the 21st century.
I didn’t find the book as informative or as an inspiring as I’d hoped. The second wave of feminism is a movement that I’m very familiar with which meant it felt more dated than revolutionary. It’s very much one-woman’s view of the world and how women should think and behave, it’s a bit too academic and a bit too bossy for my tastes.
The added extras at the back include a essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel called The New C-Word, which I did find interesting. It condemns the notion that feminism is all about choice; that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist action. She writes “To say anything goes, feminism is whatever you believe it is, not only renders the movement meaningless but also amounts to a demand for rights without responsibility…We don’t have to respect everyone’s choices and we do have to say to certain women that they are behaving like idiots, that their choices are not good enough for a feminist world.”
The Guardian recently listed The Female Eunuch as one of it’s 100 best nonfiction books, they obviously liked it more than I did!
The Feminine Mystic, Betty Friedan
The Feminine Mystic was first published in the 1963 but to me, it felt more relevant and contemporary than The Female Eunuch. I liked the fact that there was so much research behind it. Fifteen years after they graduated, Friedan sent an intensive questionnaire to her college classmates. She got responses from 200 women. She also interviewed 80 women and analysed popular media, namely women’s magazines. She looked at how women are described in these magazines, in articles and in fiction, and what that says about how women are perceived by society. Similar studies done today look at female roles in tv and film, such as the fascinating Largest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue by Gender.
Frieden coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” for the yearning and dissatisfaction that American housewives felt in the 1950s and 1960s. This problem often manifested itself in physical as well as psychological symptoms. These women got married in their early twenties and were constantly told, particularly by advertisers, that being a wife and mother was the most worthwhile thing they could possibly aspire to. Friedan’s descriptions of how home-making was marketed to women in the 1950s reminded me of the early Noughties when domesticity was very much back in fashion. Women were sold an idealised cupcakes-and-crafts version of femininity and the Domestic Goddess was (re)born. The battle for equality seems to be circular. American women found a place outside the home during WW II but afterwards they were aggressively encouraged to go back to being a housewife. The cult of domestic goddess was a reaction to the 80s Career Women and the Ladette of the 90s. Even in the early Irish State, after women played key roles in the trade union movement, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, once freedom was achieved De Valera’s government sent them swiftly back into the home, literally writing it into Article 41.2 of the constitution. A lot of work has gone into keeping women in the home over the years.
Girls Will Be Girls, Emer O’Toole
At last, a book that’s about my own country written during the present century! After reading books about feminism in different countries and different times in the past, it was wonderful to read about an Irish woman’s experience, particularly someone around the same age as me, who has had similar experiences. This really is unusual and revelatory. Women are uniquely skilled at putting them into the place of the person they are reading about – even if they are very different. We’re good at it because books are mostly written about people who aren’t like us. It’s a much more satisfying experience to see your own experiences reflected back at you through someone else’s eyes. For any Irish woman, this book is work reading for that alone.
There are lots of other great reasons to read this book. It’s written in a more populist way than the more academic texts on this list. In a way it’s a beginners guide because it charts someone coming out as a feminist and realising the need for feminism, which the other books don’t really do.
It’s also very very funny. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the two previous books but O’Toole will have you snorting with laughter and at the most inappropriate things. For a little taster, read her piece about not shaving. But between the laughs there’s also some excellent information, such as also this mind-blowing bit of info about the clitoris.
“Shockingly, the clitoris remains either misrepresented or omitted in much contemporary medical literature, including many of the anatomy textbooks used to train doctors. In spite of the pioneering work of the urologist Helen O’Connell in the nineties and early noughties, the first 3D model of the clitoris wasn’t made until 2009. So, to put that in some kind of perspective: modern science authoritatively mapped and made models of the human genome before it adequately described or modelled the clitoris.”
It angers me that science and medicine plays so little attention to the female body. To the extent that car test-dummies are always male so they only examine what happens to the male body in a collision (and extrapolate that the same would happen to a woman. It wouldn’t. Our bodies are different.). I think it is shameful that women’s bodies are treated like this. Doctors still don’t really know what causes endometriosis even though 1 in 10 women suffer from it and there is still a lot unknown about the menopause, which all women will go through.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This is not really a book about feminism. It’s a book of personal essays with a provocative title but it certainly delivers on that title. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay on The New C-Word was about calling out women who’s “choices are not good enough for a feminist world”. Gay’s book gives you permission to be that person. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes bad choices now and again.
Roxane Gay is a great writer and here she writes persuasively and engagingly about a host of different topics including gender, race, rape culture, women in popular culture and competitive scrabble tournaments. I found her writing about race and popular culture particularly enlightening. This book should be required reading for Gerry Adams and his ilk. It’s book that made me see the world differently, and while Gay writes critically about popular culture, she is also very enthusiastic about the things she loves. I find her very likeable from her writing. She’s also good fun on twitter. It is one woman’s view of the world, but instead of attempting to say that this is the way it should be for all women, these are personal essays that only aim to show one person’s experience of the world. It’s a more inclusive way of writing.
That’s some of the books I’ve been reading in the last year. Some upcoming feminist books that I am looking forward to include Lindy West’s Shrill and Laura Bates’ Girl Up. Both women are in Dublin this month to talk about their books and I’m looking forward to seeing them live as well. I’m always interested in recommendations of good nerdy, feminist books so if you have suggestions, please let me know!
“Stop pretending that you are not powerful.”
This is one of my favourite lines from the author Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw her in Liberty Hall last month. It was in response to an a question from the audience about what to do if someone is afraid to show their work to the world. Her response, to the predominately female audience, was that for most of human history, women were not allowed to have a voice. In many parts of the world, women are still silenced in many ways. We are lucky enough to be born in a time and place where we are allowed to express ourselves which means we have a responsibility to all those silenced women. There are enough powerless people in the world, stop pretending that you are not powerful.
Another line (borrowed, I think from Brene Brown) was that courage is contagious; by speaking up, you will encourage others to do the same. I really liked both these sentiments. They made me think about #WakingTheFeminists where the courage to speak up was most definitely contagious, it ran like a virus through the theatre community and made things happen.
The event in Liberty Hall – Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Rosin Ingle – was very enjoyable. As a big fan of Gilbert’s new book Big Magic, Roisin Ingle was an enthusiastic interviewer and Elizabeth Gilbert was a generous interviewee. She was happy to talk about the book, happy to tell stories from it and to make fun of herself a little bit. She seems to be a chatty person in general – she talks to her creativity, she talks to her fears, she talks to her ideas and her characters; it seems to works for her.
The main thrust of the book is that creativity is for everybody; everyone has the ability to be creative. Gilbert’s describes creativity as being close to curiosity and makes the point that asking yourself what are you curious about is a less stressful question than trying to “be creative”. Instead, just follow your curiosity. She stresses that creativity is healthy, it’s natural and it shouldn’t be the domain of a chosen few.
I also like her idea of creativity being a little bit magic. Gilbert personifies ideas as living things looking for the right collaborator. If an idea decides that you are that collaborator and you don’t show up and show the idea that you are serious about bringing it into the world, it will go off and find someone else to work with it. This appeals to me because I am a fan of collaboration and because it injects a sense of urgency to any creative work. You have a responsibility to the idea, you owe it a daily word-count or regular work hours because it picked you.
Other creative tips from the evening that resonated with me:
Take the day job.
When she was 16, Gilbert made a solemn vow to live a creative life; but she didn’t expect creativity to provide for her, part of the vow was that she would provide for both of them. She says that this was because it was something that meant too much to her and something that she enjoyed too much to put under that sort of pressure. As someone who recently started a non-creative job, this pragmatic pledge stuck a cord with me. It also reminded me of Sara Benincasa’s essay Real Artists Have Day Jobs.
Do it even when it’s boring, because that’s when things get interesting.
There’s a feeling that creation should be all about finding your flow and then it’s all magic and easy. The reality of making something from nothing is not like that. It can be difficult and it can be boring, but you have to get through the dull parts to make it to the fun stuff. Gilbert listed other things that contain a lot of boredom before the pay-off; these included meditation, sex and raising children!
Treat your art like someone you’re having an affair with.
Be excited by it, be in love with it, spend every spare minute with it. Instead of waiting until you have enough time and the right environment to work, do it every chance you get! Something happens when you work on an idea everyday. Gilbert said that this was the idea trusting you to show up, so the creativity shows up as well. When you do this, things start getting serious.
My signed copy of Big Magic is currently sitting in a large pile of books beside my bed and I’m looking forward to reading it in the new year.
Since the sad news of his death came last Friday, I have read some lovely tributes to Terry Prachett, and often had a little weep. (I really like these two on the Standard Issue website – AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER and DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH, and this one by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian.) I started reading Prachett’s Discworld books the summer I did my Leaving Cert and fell in love with them immediately. They were recommended by a friend – we’d bonded over a shared love of Red Dwarf and then I sent her off to read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and she sent me off to read the Discworld novels. I am very grateful to her for that – what a gift! All those wonderful stories, all those jokes, all those terrific characters. And now, there’s no more. No more Sam Vimes fighting everyone in sight so he can get home to read his son a bedtime story. No more stories about Tiffiany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegleys (after the final one). The news of his death was very sad, even if it was not unexpected. (That’s a lie – I didn’t expect it, I was hoping for a miracle cure. Surely it was a one in a million chance.) As well as reading other peoples tributes to him, it makes me want to watch The Hogfather and wonder what’s happening with The Watch tv series. But I also feel lucky to have those books in my life, and lucky that despite being a fan for 15 years, I still haven’t read everything he’s written. And even those I have read, I know I will read and enjoy again. They are so crammed full of jokes and clever parodies and wonderful minor characters, along side the great plots, that I know they are worth reading again.
Celebrating all the great books he gave us feels more useful than being sad about his passing. And in the spirit of celebration, I started thinking about other writers that are still with us and still writing wonderful books that make me glad I’m alive to read them!
1. Jilly Cooper is still writing and is working on a new horsey book! I love this article about how Riders is 30 years old and the best erotic fiction of all time! I started Riders the morning after my granny died. I was 15 and instantly hooked on Jilly Cooper. For a long time, her books were my literary drug of choice – the ones I went for when I needed to escape from my own boring life. I’ve probably read Riders, Rivals and Polo at least 5 times. And yes, her books are not as saucy as they used to be, either because I’m not 15 any more or because she’s almost 80, but I am still looking forward to her next one.
2. Caitlin Moran has to included on a celebratory list because she is just a pusher of joy. She’s an enthusiast and somehow manages to be infectiously enthusiastic about the simplest things like fluffy towels. She makes the world brighter and more bearable. I don’t know know if she’s working on a new book but I am looking forward to watching Raised by Wolves over the next few weeks and liked this profile in the Guardian at the weekend.
3. Marian Keyes. I’ve been reading Marian’s books longer than I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s and I still look forward to every single one. I read her most recent book – The Woman Who Stole My Life – just before Christmas and really loved it. I bought it a gift but had to read it first! She’s also an absolute tonic on twitter, another person who is just out to find the joy in things. I really think the people who decry twitter as a rage-filled cesspool are just following the wrong people.
4. Tana French is an Irish crime writer that I heard about from an American classmate a couple of years ago. For some reason she is much better known in the States than in Ireland, though all her books are set in Dublin. And they are wonderful. I don’t read a lot of crime novels but I really really enjoy these. I love getting hold of a new Tana French novel, looking forward diving into that world and knowing that I’m going to be completely obsessed with it for the next few days.
5. Louise O’Neill, another Irish woman, who published her first novel the very creepy Only Ever Yours last year. It’s set in a future world where girls are trained and rated for the sole-purpose of male pleasure. It’s terrifying and heart-breaking, and one that stays with you for days. Her next novel is about rape culture and I’m really interested to see how she dissects that messy minefield.
I’ve also heard great things about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. And Kate Atkinson has a new book out this year, and so does Judy Blume and Ali Smith and Harper Lee! So many great books that I can’t wait to get my hands on. Not to mention all the writers that I haven’t yet become acquainted with. Yes, I’ve listed loads of women writers, mainly because these are the books I’ve excited about right now. I’ve never had trouble #ReadingWomen but I do read male authors too. I read Funny Girl by Nick Hornby earlier this year and absolutely loved it, I’m looking forward to David Nichols’ Us and I’ve just started This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz.
These are the people I’m looking forward to reading, the books that make me happy.. Any gems that I’ve missed?