To Janeites – indeed, to anyone who’s read semi-widely and who isn’t V.S. Naipaul – it’s obvious that women are capable of writing great novels. Have written quite a lot of them, in fact, and are still turning them out by the dozens. And yet, many boys and men still balk at picking up a book with a female name on the cover.
Thus it was that the Guardian decided, ahead of Wednesday’s announcement of the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, to ask a number of male readers – novelists, journalists, critics, TV personalities -- to recommend their favorite books by women.
Let us cut the Guardian a break and ignore the (presumably unintended) implication that male approval is the highest imaginable accolade for a female writer. ("You've really arrived now, sweetheart! Boys like your books!")
Instead, let us turn to the list of recommended titles. It's a pretty good selection, comprising books I love (Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet), books I’ve always meant to read (Homegoing, The God of Small Things), and at least one book I think is hugely overrated (The Goldfinch). In other words, your basic best-of list.
Austen is mentioned only in passing, apparently as someone so firmly fixed in the canon that a recommendation is unnecessary: “I would leave aside the unassailable triumfeminate of Austen, Eliot and Woolf in favor of our contemporary literary culture,” says Ian McEwan, before suggesting what sounds like an interesting book by a Dutch novelist I’ve never heard of.
I’m always happy to get book recommendations, but I can’t help thinking, with a sigh, how unlikely it would be for an editor to greenlight the mirror-image version of this feature: A story asking female readers to recommend their favorite books by men. Because books by men – well, we just call them books, right?