Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Emeritus Professor Helen Taylor seeks to understand why women are the primary readers of fiction, their relationship with novels and how that affects their everyday lives. The answer to these questions is something I would love to learn more about and thus was the impetus for me to pick this up. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Before I go into why this wasn’t for me, I’d like to say that this review is very much my own opinion and wouldn’t dream of stopping others from picking this up for themselves. If you would like to go in blind, don’t read this review. If you would like to know why this didn’t work for me, read on. Just know, this is not a book I would recommend, especially not to keen readers looking for an insightful and balanced look at the reading habits of women.
Helen Taylor is clear in the introduction that it is based on interviews and questionnaire answers from 428 women. At the time I accepted this limitation and carried on still hoping for an insightful, interesting and engaging read. Unfortunately the small pool of women interviewed became more and more problematic as the chapters went on. The book is split into four parts with more focused chapters within them looking at different aspects of the female reading experience, eg. ‘Reading as a Girl’, ‘Romance & Erotica’, ‘Women, Crime, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy’, ‘Book Clubs’ etc… The lack of diversity and experiences within the voices she quoted became apparent very quickly when the same handful of classic books and authors were repeated so often they seemed to epitomise the female experience. Despite the ages ranging from early twenties to late seventies/early eighties, the lack of diversity in the responses was marked. This was especially noticeable in the chapters focusing on genre fiction. When the pool of voices recorded is this small, it is difficult to get interesting and varied views. It felt like the same handful of books kept cropping up and were lauded as the books of the female reading experience which I found frustrating.
Naturally my experiences are by no means representative of the whole but I didn’t find much to relate to and I would have expected more to ring true. Despite being published in 2020 it almost felt like a time capsule, the experiences described felt more suitable to decades gone by than what I experienced and am still experiencing as an active and voracious reader who interacts with other keen readers online and in person. In the sections focusing on romance, erotica, crime and SFF fiction the author’s scorn was apparent. The quotes, research and statistics collected from her questionnaire answers and interviews were used to support her own prejudices and arguments. I was looking for a more balanced analysis of findings on the female reading experiences rather than historic conservative views on genre fiction.
This was evident in Taylor’s word choice when discussing elements of reading she clearly disapproved of, such as re-reading. When discussing the act of re-reading a book she used the words ‘admit to’ and ‘resort to’ which showed her disdain for that particular activity. Fine, to each their own, but instead of exploring why some may dislike re-reading and detailing a balanced view on the topic, she just moves on. I found this problematic as it portrays re-reading as a guilty pleasure, which, as most people who love reading agree, should not be a phrase anyone should utter or feel in relation to a hobby they adore. I think we all agree that there should be no guilt or shame attached to any kind of reading or learning! This is explored further by describing how many women feel that their reading time should never take the place of housework, socialising, spending time with partners and other loved ones and that they feel guilty when they take the time to read. Okay, undoubtedly this is an experience many readers can relate to in some way or another, but what I didn’t like was the way that this was offered as the ‘norm’ for women and that men in particular frown on their other halves reading a good book (again, note the lack of diversity in this subject…). Apparently women read certain books in secret or when their male friends and relatives are away so they’re not seen as self-indulgent or reading, shock / horror, a romance book. I had to remind myself repeatedly while reading that I know so many male readers online and in person who love reading, including my dad and husband, and that even if they didn’t, I know very few men (if any!) who would want to surpress this hobby in anyone let alone their spouses and friends. Bizarre!
This was particularly frustrating in the romance section. The authors views, and ignorance of the audience and genre in general, came through thickly in this part and as a romance reader myself, as well as a devout SFF, historical fiction, non-fiction – you know, generally bookish – reader, infuriated me. Again, it was noted that women hide their romance reads from others in shame, as if it is something demeaning while also acknowledging that it’s one of the largest markets for female authors and readers alike. Instead of really exploring this and looking at the deluge of online information, websites, reader and author social media pages there’s just a focus on the feminine covers and Fifty Shades of Grey. As if that is the only erotic novel out there. I appreciate that there are some instances when it is not appropriate to showcase raunchy romance covers, for instance I wouldn’t want certain covers or steamy paragraphs to be on show when I am at work as it is a professional environment but I certainly don’t worry about it at home or in the company of family and friends! The judgemental way this was explored as the correct way of reading romance got under my skin. Reading reviews of this book online it struck me how those who do not consider themselves romance readers enjoyed this chapter as an ‘insight’ into this world and I am horrified that this is their introduction. Additionally, the chapter on Women, Crime, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy contained a mere sentence referencing to fantasy reading. Apparently, women don’t read sci-fi or fantasy as it is all about manly things like science and data and isn’t true to life enough. The dystopian Handmaid’s Tale is an exception, naturally. Yet later in the book it is noted that women read for escapism – what’s more escapist than sci-fi and fantasy??! At the very least it deserves more discussion.
Ultimately, I found the lack of diversity and use of the women’s experience to further the author’s own view on reading disappointing. I was hoping for a balanced view on a variety of women’s reading habits, ideally globally rather than 428 questionnaire responses from what seems like the UK. The lack of discussion on areas that Taylor is clearly unfamiliar with was frustrating and I found the token emphasis of the ‘variety’ of socio-economic backgrounds in some of the book clubs she asked to participate as acknowledgment of the clear lack of diversity displayed throughout. While the latter half was marginally better, overall, I didn’t enjoy this one.