Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year

I didn’t read a lot of books in 2014, fewer than ever I suspect, but I did read some damn good ones and a fair few chunksters so the year certainly wasn’t all bad. The biggest impact on my reading in 2014 was from #readwomen2014, so I’ve divided this post into two parts first considering how that campaign affected me and then setting out my personal best books of the year.

PolishCasablanca

As best I can tell that poster was inspired by the film, rather than being used to actually market it, but who cares? It’s a wonderful piece of design. It also bears no connection to anything in this post.

#readwomen2014

I posted originally about the #readwomen2014 campaign here, back in April when it first caught my attention. It made me realise how disproportionately I read books by men, with only 14% of the authors on my kindle being female. A statistic that stark demanded a little reflection on my part, and my goal with #readwomen2014 was to try to rebalance my reading and to find some hopefully new favourite authors who I’d been unconsciously overlooking.

On a personal level #readwomen2014 was a huge success. I finally read Eleanor Catton, whose work I loved. I read more Abbott, Winterson and Didion; my first (but I hope not last) of each of Martha Baillie, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Enright, Amy Sackville and  Claudia Piñeiro. I read literary fiction, crime, SF, essays, there wasn’t a single time when I felt like a particular type of book and couldn’t easily find an example of it by an author I could trust.

None of that surprised me. What did surprise me though was that as the year progressed I started to feel slightly left out of what I tend to think of as the literary conversation. By that I mean the world of newspaper reviews, twitter, the blogosphere, the places I go to read about and discuss books. For me there’s an ongoing discussion between readers, publishers, authors and critics where we share our sense of achievement or excitement at new reads and new discoveries.

Women are well represented in that conversation, though perhaps more often as bloggers than as professional reviewers. Women authors though began to seem less so. The books that were getting the most attention, the most hype, were mainly (Jenny Offill being an obvious exception) by men. I was trying to read books by women, but to do so meant relying less on newspaper and journal reviews because they didn’t seem so interested in what women were writing.

What I’m reporting here is really a sense of distance, a feeling that the more I spent time reading books by women the less I was part of a conversation that was largely about men. It’s an odd feeling, and not a particularly pleasant one. It’s a sensation though that has some statistical backing, thanks to the US campaign Vida. This page shows a US-focused pie chart for 2013 showing reviews of books by men (red) against books by women (blue). 2013 was actually a pretty good year for women in this sense, the chart for 2012 is much worse.

I think we are seeing some progress in this area, not least because of campaigns like #readwomen2014 and Vida, but not enough. It’s noticeable if you spend any time on the blogosphere how much more diverse it is than the literary pages. Women writers aren’t sidelined and books in translation get covered far more with the overall result being that significantly more voices are heard.

The blogosphere though, much as I’m fond of it (and I am after all part of it) is vastly less important than the newspaper and journal review pages, and is completely ignored by the bulk of the reading public. Professional book review pages still matter, but there’s scope for most of them to be a lot better.

My favourite books of 2014

These are in a very, very rough order of increasing preference, though no great weight should be put on exact positions and on a different day I’d probably swap some of them around. The further down the list, the more it’s stuck with me.

Best novel about adultery and economic collapse featuring a protagonist who’s more likable than she has any right to be: The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright. I hummed and hawed a bit about whether to include this one or not, but in the end I thought it captured something of the feeling of living in a boom time that few novels manage, and at the same time it managed to make that most tired of literary subjects adultery actually interesting. Suggestions for other Enrights to try would be welcome.

Best piece of sheer and utter schlock that really shouldn’t be on this list if I have any pride in myself or this blog at all but I still liked it so here it is: The Devil Rides Out, by Denis Wheatley. What can I say? There’s a reason this man sold so many books. This isn’t remotely literary. It’s dated, the style is meat-and-potatoes plain writing with no frills and it’s snobbish to a level that makes Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust look like Marxists.

Despite all those actually fairly serious flaws I really enjoyed this. It’s preposterous, yet somehow while you’re reading it Wheatley makes you suspend a mountain of disbelief just long enough for it all to be a lot of fun. I’ve always loved pulp, and this is good pulp.

Best essay about getting a Kindle: I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant. This is a slightly odd inclusion, but Linda Grant’s essay about how she came to dispose of most of her books and grew to love her Kindle struck a lot of chords with me and got me thinking about my own relationship with books as objects and the way how I’d like to buy books differs from how I actually buy them. I think it’s an interesting read for anyone who loves books, which is anyone reading this, but perhaps fittingly it’s only available on Kindle.

Best novel using crime as a vehicle for social critique: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France. A tremendous examination of social tensions in Argentina and quite how ugly things can get when the money’s gone, all through the lens of a prestigious gated community. This is a fascinating novel in a great translation and one I’m really grateful to Guy Savage for pointing me towards.

Best melancholic novel which I found quite sad even though it’s been widely reviewed as a biting black satire: Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen. This fell into my period when I just got swamped in work and fell badly behind on the blog, so I haven’t written it up yet.

It’s in part a satire on the UK publishing scene and the sheer oddity of promoting books by having authors, generally not the most outgoing of individuals, read out bits of their books to audiences mostly composed of people either already in the publishing business or wanting to be in it; in part a series of comic interactions between Paul Ewen’s drunk and slightly delusional Francis Plug alter-ego with various Booker-prize winning novelists; and in part too a critique of contemporary UK culture and the utilitarian value we place on art.

Best novel by Eleanor Catton that’s not The Luminaries: The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. I loved this. I loved its tricksy nature, the absolute skill with which it’s put together and the fact that I never knew quite what I was reading. It’s an exceptionally accomplished first novel, and on its own catapulted Catton into my personal “writers to watch” category.

Best novel that if I didn’t like it I’d be thrown out of the Modernist-novel-liking community: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Being honest, this is a novel I respect more than love, but I do respect it a great deal. It’s tremendously well written and structured, has passages of great beauty and power, and could repay reread after reread with more to find each time.

It’s also though written in the context of a social and historical milieu so specific that chunks of the novel are fairly hard to understand without having first read some background notes. While I don’t think this would ever have been an accessible novel, its connection to such a specific place and time has made it now fairly difficult for reasons largely unconnected to its style, which perhaps helps explain why it’s a book more studied than read.

Best what exactly was that about again?: The Yips, by Nicola Barker. The last book I read in 2014, but definitely a good one. This is one of those Marmite novels which either resonate with you immediately or which will be extremely annoying. I find myself reaching not only for the obvious words like funny, but also for words like luxurious, abundant, fecund even. I’m not quite sure what that means I’m saying about it, but since I’m not quite sure what it was about either I think that’s ok.

Best novel I can’t help but love and why would I want not to?: Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell. This is just an utter delight. It’s a spoof crime novel with possibly the worst amateur detective in the history of fiction as its lead. It’s warm, funny, charming, skilfully written and observed and just generally an absolute joy.

Truth be told I probably have more affection for this than any other book on the list – it’s that sort of novel. It’s also the second Argentinian novel on this year’s list which is interesting. Looking back it reminds me slightly of Szerb in style, which is about as high praise as I can imagine.

Best clean-lined novel filled with empty spaces: Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion. Ok, we’re into the seriously good stuff here. Didion’s novel is a cocaine-blast of light and nothingness, a marvel of haunting and arid beauty. As I think about it now my mind’s filled with imagery of deserts, identikit motel rooms, snakes, a car racing down highways insulated from heat and life and mess but never insulated enough. This is intensely cinematic; a book that’s learned the language of film in an utterly different way to that used by Döblin in his Berlin Alexanderplatz but which is just as effective, perhaps more so.

Best novel featuring over a 100 pages on a single dinner party, observing it in slower than real-time gloryThe Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright. This was a serious challenge. The first half, while necessary, is a slog. It pays off, but you work to get there.

Proust continues to have moments of incredible insight. The depiction of the narrator’s grandmother’s death is awful because it’s so ordinary and so sad as she becomes lost to her illness long before she’s actually gone. Equally, the dawning realisation that the Guermantes and their world may not hold up to close scrutiny, that what was worthy of worship from a distance seems all too human close up, is brilliantly realised. Proust remains for me among the greatest of authors, not least because his subject matter is so very specific and yet somehow within it he finds all humanity.

Best ancient Greek epic which I’ve read now three or four times and yet which never pales in interest or excitement: The Iliad, by Homer and translated by Richard Lattimore. This is another one that fell into my review black hole when work swallowed me, so the writeup’s still outstanding. This though is a high quality muscular translation with a real feel for poetic rhythm and a genuine sense of the epic. It’s a fluid and rewarding read, powerful and resonant and while I can’t say if it’s the best translation out there (views differ) it’s a bloody good one on any account.

If you’ve not read The Iliad you really should (and it’s the only book on this list I say that of). Even after 3,000 years this remains an exciting and essential text packed with humanity. The older I get the more tragic I find this, the senseless waste of years and lives for so little point or gain.

Best faux-19th Century novel undermining its own narrative concepts and also my best novel of 2014: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Just wonderful. This is an intricately structured novel capable of being read on multiple levels every one of which is rewarding. It’s filled with rich characters and descriptions, the prose is dense and satisfying and the whole book just shines with intelligence and the comfort that comes from reading an author absolutely in control of their material.

And that’s it! Not a bad list even if it wasn’t the best year. 2015 currently promises to be much better though, getting off to a roaring start with incredibly impressive books like The Good Soldier and Jacob’s Room. I enjoyed Hamid’s How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and look forward to his next, and so far at least I’m hugely impressed by Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

I’ll end though on a book that I think I read in late 2013, but it’s hard now to tell. For some reason it didn’t get included in my 2013 list, so I’ll mention it here as a final category at the end, a sort of lifetime achievement award. Here it is:

Best novel set in a roadside diner: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. Classic noir, tautly written and effortlessly quotable. If you have any interest in noir fiction at all then this is just a must-read. Also a strong contender in the best novel about people making truly bad choices category. No idea why I overlooked it last year.

Advertisements

26 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

26 responses to “Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year

  1. Great post. I love The Forgotten Waltz and Anne Enright in general. Hope 2015 is another great year!

  2. I like your “best of” categories, especially “Best piece of sheer and utter schlock that really shouldn’t be on this list if I have any pride in myself or this blog at all but I still liked it so here it is.”

  3. At the moment I think that, of the novels, Portrait is my favourite Joyce. The others I tend to agree that I respect more than love. But it is The Dubliners that I love of all his books.

    Agree with you about The Iliad, which I am inclined, like Inferno, to read once a year, either a favoured translation or a new one that snags my attention. Just please spare me from Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad or Clive James’s Inferno.

    This year I am increasingly thinking of invoking DG Myers/Dizikes rule of not reading anything less than 10 years old. I could care less about missing the buzz (with rare exceptions) and (again with one or two exceptions) don’t read book reviews in papers or journals.

  4. Enjoyed your column very much; made note of rec’d books.

    I am the author of Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual, published by the University of Nebraska. Mine is the first biography to offer a special focus on Sinclair’s support for women writers. Here are quotes from a few trade reviews:

    “Coodley’s biography should renew interest in the works of this passionate writer.”—Publishers Weekly. “An invaluable look at Sinclair’s full life and influential work.”—Carl Hays, Booklist

    Despite this, my book remains largely unknown. If you have any suggestions, I would be very grateful.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Where There’s Love, There’s Hate was definitely one of the hits of the year for me! 🙂

  6. Love your list, you inspire me to read Portrait again, once I fell in love with Ulysses I kind-of abandoned everything else Joycean which means it’s been 30+ years since I read the others. Maybe I might love Portrait even more than I love Ulysses? Who knows…
    Agree 100% about The Iliad. I have a theory about Homer … The Odyssey is great when you’re young – all those adventures! – but The Iliad is for when you’re older and have learned something about the world and how complicated it is.

  7. I’m glad that Claudia Piñeiro made your list. I’ve read three novels by this author–all different–all excellent. I hope that more are translated. I have the Enright novel here, so one of these days…

  8. Where to start with a list this good, Max? Well, I’m delighted to see Where There’s Love, There’s Hate in your end-of-year highlights as it’s a joy from start to finish. I have the Piñeiro in my TBR and hope to read it later this year, especially if Richard arranges another reading event for Argentinian literature.

    Joan Didion is on my list for this year, and I’m planning to read Play it as it Lays with Emma. I loved Catton’s The Luminaries, and The Rehearsal remains in my list of possibilities for the book group. More Penelope Fitzgerald for me too as I loved The Beginning of Spring.

    Glad to see an honourable mention for James M. Cain. I think he’s a terrific writer and I probably should have included his Double Indemnity in my end-of-year round-up. It’s been a while since I read Postman, one to reread at some point. Have you read Mildred Pierce? That might be my next Cain.

    A fantastic post, Max – I really enjoyed reading this.

  9. Max – what a fun list (now those are some clever categories for literary bingo!), and for me one with a lot of new titles and authors to explore. While it’s unfortunate that #readingwomen2014 may have left you feeling “slightly left out” of “the literary conversation,” the current post demonstrates quite the other side of that phenomenon: how much you’ve added to the literary conversation. I know I’ll be looking at a few of these writers as a result. And 2015 looks likes it off to a great start.

  10. Thanks Cathy, hopefully so. Hopefully better in fact!

    Lollipop, I occasionally go to industry award dinners, where the award organisers make their money by selling tables at the dinners. Since people won’t buy if they’re not likely to win, you get some really specific awards on occasion. Best Southern European Bond Financed Road Deal, and you think wahey we were nominated until you stop a moment to consider how many road deals were bond financed in Southern Europe last year…

    I actually think good schlock by the way is much harder to do than it looks, as the occasional literary writer finds out when they dabble in it and turn out something that’s neither fun nor literary.

    Anthony, I’ve not read the other novels yet. The Dubliners I both respect and love, it stands for me above Portrait.

    Do you ever read Purgatorio and Paradiso?

    The ten year rule isn’t a bad one, but wasn’t it you put me on to the Alice Furse I’m currently reading? That could easily get lost in ten years, though it deserves not to be.

    Lauren, you emailed me once before on this. I’m interested in Upton Sinclair so if you email me again I’d be happy to take a look at a review copy. I don’t generally, and I get to review books very, very slowly most of the time, but Upton Sinclair’s an interesting subject and your book therefore I suspect does merit more attention than it’s got.

    Kaggsy, it’s just great isn’t it?

    Lisa, did you read Finnegan’s Wake? Nice point on The Iliad and The Odyssey.

  11. Guy, yes, she’s a definite winner. I’m very keen to read more by her (though my roomy at work massively spoiled me on the plot of one of them, though in fairness only because she was so blown away by it and couldn’t help but talk about how amazing it was).

    MT, thanks!

    Jacqui, a joy from start to finish, absolutely. I definitely think you’d like the Piñeiro too.

    I was planning to read other people’s end of year lists now (though as I recall yours is one of the few I have read), and annoyingly I lost the links I’d saved so I’m now tracking them down again. I’m considering getting Beginning of Spring as my next Fitzgerald even though I own The Bookshop, it frankly sounds more interesting.

    Mildred Pierce I haven’t, which is shocking I know. I have it though so I shall.

    Scott, thanks. I guess part of my point in that first half of the post was that at risk of promoting something I’m part of, I genuinely do think the blogosphere is much better at listening to a wider range of voices. I think it’s space and economics. Newspapers obviously have to print reviews of books their readers expect to be reviewed, so that’s half your space taken up by Amis and McEwen and so on, and then the space there is is sharply limited since culture pages tend to be first up against the wall when austerity hits (as it does every year now for traditional print). The people writing in the book pages are doing all they can, but their room to move is extremely constrained. The Guardian I think still acquits itself pretty well most of the time.

  12. Max, I have read and enjoyed both Purgatorio and Paradiso, but return to them less frequently, in latter case only a single reading.

    I’m pleased that you are reading Alice Furse’s book. I wasn’t applying the ten-year rule last year; its simply an awareness of a number books by writers I love that I want make sure to read, rather than keep putting them off for the lure of the untested. In Alice’s case, I got to know and be drawn to her voice though her blog first.

  13. Finnegan’s Wake is on my To Start list for this year. I have twice listened to an audio book of it, abridged unfortunately, but it gave me a sense of how it should sound, and perhaps how to approach it. I’ve bought a reader’s guide and a tome called A Skeleton Key to FW (both as yet unopened) but I have yet to buy a nice copy of FW to actually read, I only have a freebie of it on Kindle, and I hate my Kindle and will only use it if there is No Other Way. I don’t want a paperback that will fall apart with re-reading like my first Ulysses did, I want something that will last. I wish the Folio Society would do one…
    I’d be grateful if anyone has any suggestions for a really nice edition, you know, to show off on the bookshelves though LOL of course no one will believe I’ve actually read it, even when I have. FW is always at the top of the list in those lists of books people own but have never read.
    The plan is to read it, all the way through whether it makes sense or not, and then to read it again, using whatever I can find in the guide or the tome or online to unpack bits that don’t make sense to me. That’s what I did with Ulysses which I’ve now read four times and I am hoping I will love FW as much as I love Ulysses.

  14. max: which title did you get the spoilers on?

  15. Sam

    Thanks for so many great recommends, Max. It’s funny, I wasn’t aware of #readwoman2014 but I too ended up reading an unusually high percentage of woman authors in 2014. Read my way through almost the entire Penelope Fitzgerald corpus (except the bios), while waiting for the bio to arrive in the US. Read a large chunk of Gardam (Filth trilogy and the stories), which made for a nice contrast with Fitz. Fell in love with Rosemary Tonks’s poems (not out here either, but her first book is still in libraries). The recent Muriel Sparks essay collection brought me back to a her novels, and I fell like many others for Ferrante’s Brilliant Friend trilogy (only halfway through). No intention in any of it, just following my readerly bliss.

  16. I think you’d like Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, Max – it’s an unusual book and several scenes have stayed with me. After reading it, I bought a whole bunch of her novels in a closing-down sale and The Bookshop is in that pile. It’ll probably be the next Fitzgerald I read as its one of her earlier ones and might make a good contrast to Spring.

  17. The Odyssey is also great when you are older! At least it is great when I am older.

    Max, I enjoyed your list.

  18. Tredynas Days

    Enjoyed reading this list, Max, and like the sound of several titles you mention. Best woman writer I read in 2014 was Sybil Bedford, ‘The Legacy’; I wrote a couple of pieces about it on my blog. I just revisited your piece on Doblin, and rekindled my desire to read BAlex.

  19. I enjoyed your list as well – the categories are priceless.
    I’m surprised though that people only comment on the list and not on your participation in #readwomen2014. Actually, no, not surprised it makes me uneasy.
    I find your observation that you felt left out of the “official” discussions while reading more women extremely intetresting.
    I’ve done some “research” on which blogs by women bloggers are visited and commented on by men and those findings make me very uneasy too.

  20. I love your categories and thanks for all the thoughtful reviews.
    I want to read several books of your list but I’m also glad that your detailed reviews helped me realise that I’d better stay away from Joyce and Catton. 🙂
    PS: I still have Homer to read. I just need to take time and find the right French translation.

  21. Pingback: In the Media: 25th January & 1st February 2015 | The Writes of Woman

  22. Anthony, I’ve finished the Furse now and was really impressed by it. I’ll write it up in a week or so.

    Lisa, good luck! I can see how an audio book might help actually, though shame it was abridged as you say.I like my kindle, but Joyce isn’t well served on it. There’s no decent version of Ulysses for example.

    Your plan on how to read it makes a lot of sense. When I get to Ulysses I plan just to read the thing and if I miss half of it so it goes. On a reread though I can see it might be interesting to unpack more with a guide.

    Guy, I think it was All Yours. She told me the entire plot, but couldn’t remember the title, but it looks like the one. I do still plan to read it.

    Sam, some nice readerly bliss there though. I’ve not read any Gardam yet. Will probably start with Old Filth (speaking of which, I knew there was a sequel, I didn’t know it was a trilogy though).

  23. Jacqui, thanks, I probably will promote it over The Bookshop. Tom, good to hear as I plan to reread it later this year.

    Tredynas, I still have your Bedford pieces bookmarked, I wanted to keep them until I had time to read them properly. The Doblin is great.

    Caroline, the blogger point sounds interesting. I think in the wider literary world there’s a partial distortion effect because (bizarrely) some men won’t read books by women but I’ve never encountered any women who won’t read books by men. There don’t need to be that many such men (though I think there’s a fair few) before the numbers start skewing towards male authors getting more attention.

    Why you’d choose to arbitrarily cut off half off literature is beyond me, but of course it says nothing at all about the writers they don’t read and a great deal about those men.

    There’s many more factors of course – the dominance of male reviewers, the tendency to see some topics as universal if written by a man and personal if written by a woman, a general societal discounting of female voices and experience. I suppose it would be odd if our literature didn’t reflect our wider social problems, much as one might hope for better.

    Emma, always happy to put someone off a book.The last thing any of us need is more stuff we feel we have to read after all…

  24. chowmeyow

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on readingwomen2014. Very interesting perspective, and it’s awesome that you made it a priority in your reading. I’ve normally been very close to 50/50 in my reading, without doing much to sway it one way or the other. However, in January I read 18 books, and only 2 were by male authors. I’m wondering if this is a fluke – but the two books I’m currently reading are also by females. At this point I’m just observing it – I guess I’ll just have to see if the trend will continue or not. Still just picking up whatever captures my interest right now.

    I also greatly enjoyed your list of favorites of the year – a unique way to present them, and a lot of great sounding titles to add to my TBR list.

  25. Apologies, I missed you’d left a comment (some emails alerting me to comments got spamfiltered for some reason, not sure why).

    I suspect there is an element of chance when we hit trends like the one you describe, but at the wider level there does seem to be an issue with men not reading women (much less so vice versa, though I note that’s where you happen to be right now it’s clearly not a general policy that you apply against male writers).

    Thanks re the list. I don’t think it is unique since I’m pretty sure I got the idea of those kinds of titles from another blog, but I can’t now remember where. Anyway, best always seems to me so arbitrary, best by what possible criteria?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s