Reading Women with Leslie Vryenhoek

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

First up is Leslie Vryenhoek. Leslie Vryenhoek is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. Her novel Ledger of the Open Hand was shortlisted for Newfoundland and Labrador’s prestigious Winterset Award, long-listed for the international Dublin Literary Award, and won a silver medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Leslie has also worked as a professional communicator in international development, advanced education, emergency response and the arts. Based in St. John’s, Canada, she travels extensively to gather stories about the lives of poor working women, which have been published worldwide.

IWD2019_Leslie Vryenhoek
Leslie Vryenhoek on Reading Women

Why read women?

It’s a trick question, ridiculous on the surface, and more maddening the deeper you delve. What does it mean to “read women” anyway?

Doesn’t the question presume that there’s some commonality, or at least a common sensibility, in all women’s writing? Doesn’t it strip away the author’s distinct voice, her individual experience, and leave just a set of genitalia holding a pen: estrogen as muse, the uterus as scribe?

Isn’t the call to “read women” just another way of saying “Look, these books aren’t quite as good, but you should read them anyway (please) because the ladies are trying so hard”?

Well maybe. And no. And absolutely not.

Still, it galls me. We should be decades beyond having to exhort anyone to read what women write.

Except we know (because booksellers tell us so) that men regularly say “I don’t read women.”

Except we know that when men write about relationships and sex, egos and feelings, it’s brilliant, courageous and deeply human social commentary. When women write about those things, it’s ChickLit. Or at best, it’s women’s fiction, ghettoized on the shelf and ignored by serious readers.

Except we know that a young man who signed up for the same amazing literature course I did (not way back—I mean in this millennium) took one look at a syllabus that was 50% female and said nope, he didn’t mean to take a women’s studies class.

And who can blame him for thinking that? Syllabi, like the bestseller lists and the big award shortlists, almost always favour male authors. And here’s another thing they favour: books about men, about male protagonists and male pursuits no matter who wrote them.

So here’s another question: Are you reading women if the author is female but you’re still reading about the lives of men?

I know it’s rude to answer a question with another question, let alone a barrage of them, but I’m vexed. I hate the question. And yet—

And yet books written by women that view the world through a female lens, that contain women as fully realized characters—as narrators and protagonists and multi-dimensional individuals, not just wives and lovers, mothers and daughters—those are exactly the books I gravitate toward. Those are the books I love. So I must have an answer.

Fine, here it is then, as near as I can figure and in broad general terms.

Read women because women’s stories are different than men’s; because women’s brains and the way they experience the world is different. Nurture or nature, conditioning or hormones—whatever. It’s true. So not reading women is like growing up without any female influences in your life. You’re missing a piece of the puzzle; your understanding of the world is truncated.

Read women because you’ll have to endure far fewer eyerolling mentions of simultaneous orgasm during intercourse—and a much deeper understanding of the consequences of sex.

Read women because women learn young to listen, to sand their outright opinions down into propositions, to consider other points of view before pushing forward. That early-girl training is a hindrance in most careers, but it might be the best possible training for writers. It makes women better, I think, at crafting distinct multiple viewpoints (see Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, Carol Shields’ Swann, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, for starters). It makes women adept at revealing the subtleties and moral failings of the human heart.

Read women because women’s books tend to ask more questions than they answer.

Some of my favourite books by and about women:

Short stories –

  • Carol Shields’ elegant, insightful collections in The Orange Fish and Various Miracles
  • The muscled prose and memorable women, of Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing and Play the Monster Blind
  • Rosalind Gill’s Too Unspeakable for Words—uncommon stories that take you right inside what it was to be female in 20th-century Newfoundland

Novels –

  • Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise for its smart, funny and deeply original protagonist
  • Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler, a wild ride alongside women of 1890s San Francisco
  • Martha Baillie’s mysterious, evocative The Incident Report and her earlier, gutting The Shape I Gave You
  • Anything by Louise Erdrich, but most especially The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
  • Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman – I like it better that To Kill a Mockingbird with all its complex and messy feelings of grown-up Scout and her imperfect daddy Atticus

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019