Late last year, spurred by revelations of gender disparity in the literary world, I got talking with some friends – men and women – about our reading. While we agreed that the various biases in publishing seemed unforgiveable, we admitted that our personal practices weren't exactly egalitarian, either.
In 2012, I read roughly six male-authored books to every title by a female writer. This was typical of the men in our group; surprisingly, several of the women didn't fare much better. My personal reading habits felt like an uncomfortable echo of larger trends in publishing: despite that most readers of fiction are women, for example, a far greater proportion of male bylines fill our bookstores. And while it's easy enough to blame editorial and marketing departments for such a thing, readers (viz., "the market") share some responsibility for what is being bought and sold.
A potential remedy to the inequalities in publishing seems to begin, simply enough, with the books we choose to read. And beyond some larger, social project, I've always fancied myself an equal opportunist; half of my closest friends are women, so why would I not read books by a similar proportion of writers? I worried that some secretly chauvinistic part of me didn't actually value women's experiences or how they might be captured in literature.
So my friends and I vowed to achieve equality in 2013, compiling a "Mondo List of Women Writers" to use as a resource over the following 12 months. The results are in: of the 105 books I read in 2013, 51 were by women, 52 were by men, one was by a husband-and-wife duo, and one was a mixed-gender anthology. (As I write this, at the end of December, I'm currently reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves to even the score.)
I'm glad to have read many of the books I did, especially those that resulted from stepping outside my normal reading habits. There's little chance, for example, I would have discovered Betty Lambert's outstanding 1979 novel, Crossings, had I not been open to a recommendation from the Vancouver writer Anakana Schofield, author of a very fine book herself. I binged on the stunning work of Anne Carson, and finally got to Wuthering Heights – which, if 170-odd years of accolades haven't convinced you, is a hell of a story.
But before I go patting myself on the back for a job well done, keeping track of my reading has revealed an even more disproportionate statistic: 96 per cent of the books I read in 2013 were by white people. This bothers me, especially since racial inequalities, in the arts and elsewhere, are something I (allegedly) think about a lot. So, now that I've got the whole male-female thing sorted out, should I create other reading quotas? Might 2014 be the Year of Black Writers? But then what about LGBTQ Writers? (Or, considering the relative dearth of domestic titles in my list – less than 20 per cent – Canadian Writers?)
All this can start to feel overwhelming, and it also makes me wonder if reading, a private pursuit, can really remedy not just the problems in publishing but larger cultural issues. Sure, we ought to buy more books by women, but it seems improbable that a society might shop its way into a paradigm shift and suddenly value writers as its vanguard. These days, books mostly offer a refuge from life in "the real world," (that is, for most of us, a virtual world that is not real at all), so I wonder how much influence a book might have beyond each person's individual experience of it. Never mind that contemporary literature less often challenges how we think than simply carves out spaces for quietude and stillness amid the rush and clutter of 21st-century lives.
Yet, even on a personal level, I don't feel particularly better about myself having read 51 books by women. If the point of this project was to transcend numbers – to glean some understanding of a gender other than my own – I'm not sure how George Eliot's Silas Marner, about a man, was a better selection than, say, Daisy Miller. (A master of human psychology like Henry James surely offers equally perceptive insights into any character, male or female.)
In fact, my most revelatory experience of gender came reading Saul Bellow's Herzog. The book's particular flavour ("a revenge novel," a friend of mine calls it) can be summed up here: "Women," claims the titular character, "eat green salad and drink human blood." All ironies aside, Herzog's simplistic and hostile relationships with women felt cautionary: how blithely male resentment can extend beyond an ex-wife to half the people on earth! And isn't reading most stimulating when we find ourselves not mollified by but in opposition to a writer and his ideas?
I don't read for a generic understanding of anything. Poetry, novels and short stories are not anthropologies; they distill and illuminate individual lives, a necessary antidote to our mass-market culture. As such, I am no more interested in "books about women" than I am "books about men" or "books about turtles." I am, however, deeply interested in a novel like Mary McCarthy's The Group, about a particular group of women at a particular moment in history – and, most importantly, their experiences as human beings at that time.
To be clear: I am glad to have attempted to balance my reading this year. But, as Miriam Markowitz pointed out in a piece about gender and publishing in The Nation, "Counting is crucial, but it is not a conversation; it's arithmetic." Women's underrepresentation in bookstores and on course curricula requires corrections within the industry and academy. But a male and female author are not necessarily at opposite ends of a reader's personal literary spectrum. Less important than what we read (and who it's by) is how we read it: pity the fool who mindlessly cheers along to Herzog's misogyny; preferable is the reader who engages, even critically, with Jamaica Kincaid's postcolonial screed, A Small Place.
Most rewardingly, my reading over the past 12 months has forced me to question my usual taste in books. In 2014, I hope to no longer default to a certain type of writer – white, dead, male, whatever. Establishing quotas is not inherently progressive, but it can help us examine our choices, to consider books or writers we might otherwise ignore or resist, and sometimes – as was the case for me with the wonderful Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic – recognize that we were missing out not having read them sooner.
Pasha Malla is the author of People Park and The Withdrawal Method. He is a frequent Globe Books contributor.