Taylor, Helen. Why women read fiction: The stories of our lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxii, 276 p. ISBN 978-0-19-882768-9. £14.99.
I have always been interested in reading, both as an activity and as a study object. I read from childhood, as this is a favourite pastime of the family members, without regard to sex, even today. We were always reading something and always exchanged books and opinions. I never saw any difference in reading between sexes then, most probably because I was growing up within a particular time, country, and environment. Everyone was reading for pleasure around me. It did not matter if I went to the countryside or travelled to a small town surrounding a big factory. Books were in every house. Men, even now, are buying more books in our family, while more women get them from libraries, but even this impression should be be verified by measuring more accurately. With age, I started noticing that there is some difference between what men and women read outside my family circle. Books about war, historical non-fiction, biographies were more enjoyed by men, while women would be attracted to novels, just as it is revealed in the book under review. But the genre literature and national literature in Lithuanian language by Lithuanian authors was read by all, including poetry. The poets were almost as popular as film actors and attracted an audience of both sexes. I realise, that I may be mistaken as this type of study was not been carried out at that time. The sexes were equal and even suggesting a hypothesis that they read differently might have been seen as a grave ideological error!
The distinction between reading by women and men has become obvious and palpable with the arrival of commercial publishing. In time, it became visible in book design, bookshop displays and, of course, in the research that we were discovering in the world. As a woman reader myself, I was fascinated by this research and the findings about the interpretation of literary works by readers, the influence of family on reading habits, the role of reading environment on our choices, the 'death of the author' (Barthes, 1967) and the birth of a reader, and especially the preferences of women and their interpretation of popular texts. It is more an area of my interest than research, so, I write this more as a fascinated reader than a scholarly critic.
I have read the book by Helen Taylor with great interest, marvelling at the difference and similarity of my own experiences in comparison with her findings. The influence of the language and culture that readers belong to will be evident for anyone reading this book, whose native language is not English and who grew up in a less globalised world than we experience today. I was not able to recall any of the books introduced by the author as the formative childhood influences, and was completely astonished by notable absence of Italian, Scandinavian, French, or German authors that figure in my childhood reading, not to speak of Russian, Polish, Hungarian, or Czech authors. I also remembered a mysterious story of Umberto Eco's (2005) book world that to some extent was closer to my own, but still very different. I tried to fill in the questionnaire that the author has attached at the end of the book with a kind request to send the answers back to her and realised how different my reading experience was from the one revealed in the book. This is not a criticism of the book, by no means. It just shows that the influence of ones own culture, language, historical period and book environment has much more influence on reading experience, repertoire, and perception than sex. On the other hand, we know from research that the cultures of men and women within the same community differ more than the cultures of different generations.
So, one of the limitations of the book that the readers should keep in mind is its orientation towards the readers of English language literature and books. This mainly pertains the discussion of the literary works than the reading practice itself, which differs more within different time periods. This is a very appropriate and necessary limitation for this type of books. The author has based her text on a wide research literature and her own empirical material collected over a long period of time and from the members of a very wide audience of female readers. She has also collected interviews with publishers of women's literature and women authors. The second limitation is presented in the title: the author is interested not in reading as such, but in fiction reading. To some extent other types of reading materials are present in the text, but the focus is on literary and genre fiction (which is an awkward distinction, as the author also notes). The book includes materials not only of reading experiences, but of a wide range of activities and phenomena related to reading: attendance of book fairs and festivals, signing sessions, literary tourism, reading groups and clubs. It is amazing how many more women are drawn into these activities than men, but statistics presented in the book are hard evidence of this.
The introduction provides an overview of the issues that are of interest to the author and will be explored throughout the book: female literacy and interest in literature, class and race, aims of reading in general and reading for pleasure in particular, solitary and collective reading, and naturally, sex and literature. The chapters are arranged into three main parts and the fourth one presents the Conclusion. The first part includes just one chapter relating how, where and why women read fiction, concentrating on places, times of life and day, obstacles to becoming immersed in a book, and pleasures derived from reading. It ends with a nice verse by Rosie Jackson (a British poet, writer, and literary scholar) about not buying a Kindle.
The second part is the central to the book and includes four chapters on reading experiences from formative childhood literature to extreme literary pleasures of erotica, cruelty, and phantasy. It also ends quite unusually with a presentation of a literary blogger Dovegreyreader and her blog. The third part includes the study of reading experiences of women writers. It also explores the activities in which readers engage to increase their reading and life experiences, from forming of literary reading circles to literary pilgrimages throughout the world. This part is ended by short descriptions of four books provided by four women who regard these books as an essential part of their lives. The conclusion reflects on the place of reading in women's lives in a more general way, the experiences of the author in conducting her studies and writing the book as well as the discussion about the right to tell the stories of our lives whoever we are. All in all this is a complex study of a phenomenon of reading, merging personal experiences of female readers with their intricate life in the consumer society, with its pressures, pleasures and struggles.
The author knows how to engage the reader and keep attention focused on important issues using a simple style, which nevertheless is sophisticated and clever. The ending of each part with an unexpected interlude provides a distraction, but also a space to re-think what was actually written in the previous part of the book and how it relates to the final. The notes to the chapters are moved to the end of the book and do not interfere with reading, but provide a possibility of quick reference. The questionnaire at the end of the book is fun to answer even if a reader will not be sending it anywhere.
I think that the book has a wide appeal to different range of readers for different reasons. It will be useful for the researchers and students of literature, reading, publishing studies, library and information science, but also for a wide range of professionals producing and distributing books. It may be read by anyone with interest in reading as an activity and pleasure. Men might be interested to find out how women read, while women may read for better understanding of their own experiences.
Barthes, R. (1967). The death of the author. Aspen magazine, (Nos. 5/6).
Eco, U. (2005). The mysterious flame of Queen Loana. Harcourt.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of: Taylor, Helen. Why women read fiction: The stories of our lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Information Research, 24(4), review no. R681 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs681.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.