Women’s Prize Shadowing & Men Reading Books by Women

Back in April I announced that my book club was one of six selected to shadow this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist by reading and discussing one of the finalists. Our assigned title was one I’d already read, but I skimmed back through it before our meet-up and enjoyed getting reacquainted with Martha Friel. Here’s our group’s review:

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Readability: 5/5

Characters: 5/5

Storyline: 4/5

Can’t Put It Down: 4.5/5

Total = 18.5/20

Our joint highest rating, and one of our best discussions – taking in mental illness and its diagnosis and treatment, marriage, childlessness, alcoholism, sisterhood, creativity, neglect, unreliable narrators and loneliness. For several of us, these issues hit close to home due to personal or family experience. We particularly noted the way that Mason sets up parallels between pairs of characters, accurately reflecting how family dynamics can be replicated in later generations.

Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Our main point of disagreement was about Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness Martha is suffering from. It seemed clear to several of us that it was meant to be bipolar disorder, so we wondered if it was a copout not to identify it as such.

We also thought about the meaning of the term “literary fiction”, and whether this has the qualities of a prize winner and will stand the test of time.

 

We had to fill out a feedback questionnaire about our experience of shadowing, and most of us sent in individual blurbs in response to the book. Some ended up in the final Reading Agency article. Here was mine:

“This deceptively light novel was a perfect book club selection, eliciting deep discussion about mental illness, family relationships and parenthood. Martha’s (unreliable) narration is a delight, wry and deadpan but also with moments of wrenching emotion. Mason masterfully controls the tone to create something that is witty and poignant all at once.”

Probably the main reason we were chosen for this opportunity is that we have a man – my husband, that is! – who attends regularly. This year the prize has been particularly keen to get more men reading books by women (see more below). So, he was responsible for giving The Male Response to the novel. No pressure, right? Luckily, he enjoyed it just as much as the rest of us. From the cover and blurb, it didn’t necessarily seem like the sort of book that he would pick up to read for himself, but he was fully engaged with the themes of mental illness, family relationships, and the question of whether or not to have children, and was so compelled that he read over half of it in a day.

I’m not sure who I expect to be awarded the Women’s Prize tomorrow. We of West Fields Readers would be delighted if it went to Meg Mason for Sorrow and Bliss, but I’d also be happy with a win for Louise Erdrich or Ruth Ozeki – though I wasn’t taken with their latest works compared with earlier ones I’ve read, they are excellent authors who deserve recognition. I don’t think The Bread the Devil Knead has a chance; I’d be disappointed in a win by Elif Shafak in that I would feel obligated to try her novel – the kind that gives magic realism a bad name – again; and, while I’m a Maggie Shipstead fan in general and admire the ambition of Great Circle, it would be galling for a book I DNFed twice to take the title!

Who are you rooting for/predicting?

 


I’d like to mock you with that thought,

jeer at the man

who won’t read novels

written by women ­­–

at least not if they’re still alive

~from The Poet by Louisa Reid

Maybe you’ve seen on social media that the Women’s Prize has been canvassing opinion on the books by women that all men should read. This was prompted by some shocking statistics suggesting that even bestselling female authors can only attract a 20% male readership, whereas the best-known male authors are almost equally popular with men and women. They solicited 60 nominations from big names and ran a public poll. I voted for these 10:

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Possession (A.S. Byatt)

Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)

The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)

We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver)

Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)

Orlando (Virginia Woolf)

*If I could have added to that list, though, my top recommendations for all men to read would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and probably a different Octavia E. Butler novel from the one nominated).

Three of my selections were among the 10 essential reads announced on the WP website. Their list was headed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though of her works I’d be more likely to direct men to Oryx and Crake.

I’ve seen discussions on Twitter about why men don’t read novels (at all, prioritizing nonfiction), or specifically not ones by women. Do you have any theories?

What one book by a woman do you think all men should read?
Advertisement

41 responses

  1. Lovely photo! You all look as if you’ve just finished a very satisfying discussion. The Mason’s sitting on my TBR shelves and I’m looking forward to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that was midway through actually — we grabbed the host’s partner to take some photos as he walked back in the room. And did you see the one ‘person’ on the iPad? That’s our member who moved back to Texas after spending the pandemic trapped in Newbury. She still joins in!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I’d not spotted her. How lovely that she still joins in!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I want to read this book, but have too many others to get through first (also, as a bipolar person myself, am not sure how much I want to see it fictionally portrayed).
    But the statistics about men reading women’s books is quite shocking – possibly because men tend to read less, and especially less fiction. However, I have seen that even among groups of friends who are big readers, in fantasy and sci-fi literature they barely know even the classic women authors in the genre…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know that. I wonder what you’d think about the characterization. Mason does make a point of saying that it’s a made-up mental illness as she was keen not to claim to know what it’s like or how to treat it, etc.

      There is some deliberateness required at the beginning, I think. Maybe not as conscious as ‘read X female author instead of Y male author’ but ‘if you like so and so, try these three female authors who are similar’. From there perhaps it would become second nature.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a man (!) I’d like to say I do read fiction by female authors almost as much as by men, certainly in the last few years. Of the ones you mention I’ve read a few A S Byatt novels though not, as yet, Possession; I enjoyed Orlando many years ago, and have a new copy to read soon, and I got a lot out of Kindred though it was a painful read.

    Incidentally, for comfort reads I tend to go for Diana Wynne Jones and Edith Nesbit for children’s fiction and Ursula Le Guin for more challenging narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good on you! And of course there are some bloggers like Simon (Stuck in a Book) who specialize in female authors; together, you’re helping to redress the balance. With my choices, I wasn’t trying to school men on anything in particular about the female experience, more to show that women can write books as sweeping/absorbing/experimental/subversive as anything men write. Can you cite your parents or a particular teacher or librarian as helping to cement your tastes early on?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm, my mother introduced me to Mary Renault in my teens, but apart from the ubiquitous Blyton when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s I suppose Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction stands out for me. I went to an all-boys grammar school so didn’t really expand my horizons till I went to uni and discovered Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy.

        No librarians were involved that I remember, I just haunted libraries and bookshops and followed my nose. It’s only in recent years that I’ve made a determined effort to get close to a 50:50 ratio, actually finding it very, very rewarding.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s great. Sometimes it does take that conscious effort. I’ve somehow naturally drifted towards reading 2/3 or even 3/4 women writers.

        Like

  4. Great review and photo! I wasn’t sure that Martha’s diagnosis was that clear-cut, there were a few I was considering.

    I’d like more men to read The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick, which I hope would make them think about the burdens and labour of pregnancy and how being pregnant is not just a natural process that comes naturally to all women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One member has a daughter who’s bipolar, was diagnosed at 17 and at age 40 after long deliberations has decided to have a baby on her own — so it hit very close to home for her! We were also reminded of a friend of ours who spent time in a mental hospital late last year and has a family history of bipolar. But of course, as you say, there are elements of various conditions and Mason has deliberately left it vague. I wasn’t as bothered by the blanks for the diagnosis, vs. a few other members found them distracting and a copout.

      That’s an interesting choice! I don’t know it. I wonder if that’s part of why Handmaid’s Tale topped the vote — for its view of how women’s bodies can be objectified as being just for producing children.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorrow and Bliss will be one of my 20 books of summer – well that’s the plan. I’d second St John Mandel for men to read, but also they would love Natasha Pulley’s new one out in a week’s time or so, The Half Life of Valery K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sci-fi/speculative/steampunk stuff does seem like perfect fodder for men. I think you have men in your book club?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have two blokes who’ve been with the club since before I joined. It’s great because they’ll give whatever we pick a go, and we probably read more non-fic and occasional SF etc too because of them I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I noticed that the other book clubs picked for the shadowing seemed large, and two of the others had one or more male members.

        Like

  6. Well, if it helps buck the statistics, my husband bases much of his reading on my recommendations, so there are plenty of women authors on his list.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m forever putting books I’ve read and loved on my husband’s bedside table for him to read. Probably more female authors than he would pick up on his own!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My husband reads quite a lot, but it’s all nonfiction. He was an English major in college but somewhere along the way, after we were married, he decided that fiction was too much “heartache and drama” for him. LOL. So now he reads mostly about old baseball and history. If I shoved a female author at him and implored him to read it, he probably would, but he’s not going to seek one out. I just think, well, nonfiction is better than nothing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh I agree, reading is to be encouraged, no matter what. That’s interesting that your husband was an English major but gave up on fiction! I wonder if there’s a novel that could draw him back in, like The Art of Fielding or something by Richard Ford.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. My book of 2021 was The Bells Of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman. I can recommend that if he wants to pop his head above the parapet and try travel literature, Laila

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I have read Station Eleven! I am hoping to get to around 40% of female authors read this year, but so far I am around 28%. Part of the issue is that the genres that I mostly read are still male-dominated, though that is thankfully beginning to change a little.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, there are more women and BIPOC being published in travel and nature writing. It does seem to require some extra work to seek them out, though. When you do read fiction it’s usually SFF, right? Have you tried many female authors from that genre?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Usually. I did read Salt Lick recently and really liked it. I have four books by Emma Newman that I want to read soon, and one by Sarah Pinsker. I even have some travel and other non-fiction by women from the library, just need to get to them.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Our book club was much more divided on Sorrow and Bliss than your group was. Some people loved it, others (including me) were more lukewarm. We did think some of the characterisation was excellent (the father for example) but just found the book disappointing.

    Mason’s decision not to name the mental illness was also felt to be a cop out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think some loved it more than others, but it was very thought-provoking. There was one member who didn’t find it funny at all, just sad.

      Like

      1. the humour was a big topic of conversation with our group too

        Liked by 1 person

  10. What one book do I think all men should read? The Power by Naomi Alderman!😈⚡️This book has stayed with me over the years and had me fervently wishing it were nonfiction up until January 20, 2021 at 11:48 a.m. Fittingly with your post, it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

    I don’t know which book will be chosen on Wednesday. I would chose The Sentence. The Island of Missing Trees would be in last place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t like The Power as much as I wanted to, but thought it was based on an intriguing idea.

      Great pick! And I would agree with The Island of Missing Trees being in last place — I couldn’t get through more than a few pages of it.

      Like

  11. The Ozeki won, so I guess I should check it out. I have been doing my small best to get men to read more books by women by lending books to my brother. So far, he likes everything I have lent him. I wish I had seen that survey before it was closed. I would have loved to participate in it. How fun to have contributed as your book club did!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great! I’ve had mixed success with getting my family reading. I made an effort to get my dad into reading again when he was recovering from a surgery some years ago, but it didn’t work. Then when my sister was widowed young, she turned into a big reader for a year or so and she and I swapped bereavement memoir recommendations. But mostly I just put books on my husband’s bedside table and he dutifully reads them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My sister also reads, but she generally just reads books like mysteries, and as she says, “Things that move right along.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That would generally describe my mother’s reading tastes. I try to be happy that people are reading, no matter what it is 🙂

        Like

  12. This was the starting book for #6Degrees of Separation this month, and to be honest, I’m not interested in reading it. But they just announced the winner and I’m THRILLED because I just LOVED the book they picked!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had mixed feelings about Ozeki’s latest but have loved her previous novels, so I was pleased to see her work recognized!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pleased to say my husband has read four of those ten books men should read, plus a different one by Adiche, so he’s done well – also loves Ruth Ozeki and has read most of Barbara Kingsolver. I’d say Girl, Woman, Other is a good one for men to read in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s brilliant! And yes, GWO is a good choice.

      Like

  14. I’ve had Sorrow and Bliss on my wishlist for ages – maybe you mentioned it when you first read it? – but still haven’t got hold of it. Gosh, it sounds great though.

    I found the list of books they came up with quite weird – I’d read quite a few, but disliked almost all the ones I’d read! I read about 60% books by women, so wouldn’t know where to start with my own list, though fun to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a bizarre list. I think you must be a rare breed for how much you read by women. Lots of your picks would probably be older ones?

      Like

  15. […] what some others have said here: Rebecca, Kim, Laura, and Amanda for […]

    Like

  16. […] this year my book club took part in a Women’s Prize shadowing project run by the Reading Agency. They’re organizing a similar thing on behalf of the Booker Prize, but […]

    Like

  17. […] Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, The […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: