I was sixteen when I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for the first time, the first of her novels I had tried. I loved it – my subsequent Woolf phase lasted several melancholy months and involved a lot of kohl-eyed gazing over rivers – but above all, as I followed Clarissa’s sparkling excursions through London and Septimus’s stumbling discursions through his own shell-shocked head, I can distinctly remember thinking: this is the most female book I’ve ever read.
What on earth did I mean? Sure, Woolf’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is deeply concerned with gender, from the feminist rallying call of her essay A Room of One’s Own to the disruptively sex-shifting hero(ine) of Orlando. But although this context may have fed into my teenage judgement, I was actually responding to a less definable set of qualities in the text itself, which seemed to come not just from Clarissa Dalloway but also (a belief reinforced when I read her other works) from Woolf’s inimitable style: a complex lightness, a diaphanous grit, and a self-effacing and subtle penetration into the heart of things, that somehow seemed profoundly… female.
Obviously, we are on dangerous ground. Peddling gender clichés is a reductive exercise at the best of times, and even more so when dealing with an art form that has been historically beset by sexism. But I do believe that we have instincts about ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ that are not all indoctrinated nonsense. And when writing for Bookdiva, which amiably and ambiguously purports to “give women’s books centre stage” and stimulate discussion around literature “with women in mind”, I feel I have to ask: when is a book a female book?
You could define it as something written by a woman. The Orange Prize does just that; founded in 1992 in response to the lack of female authors making it onto literary prize lists, it has given a welcome boost to their visibility, a need still not entirely redundant; according to VIDA, an organisation set up two years ago to promote women in the literary sphere, last year 330 women had their books critiqued in the Times Literary Supplement compared with 1,036 men - with the TLS being one of the less extreme examples.
But even this benevolent form of gender distinction is perennially controversial; as Rosmand Urwin said in the Evening Standard last week, ”if asked to bestow the Orange Prize, you spend half your time trying to justify its very existence”. Looking at the 2011 shortlist, released this month, it is indeed very difficult to identify any consistent ‘femaleness’ in, for example, Emma Donaghue’s eerie, claustrophobic, child’s-eye-view Room and Aminatta Forma’s The Memory of Love, a tale of love and horror in post-war Sierra Leone. Sure, there are strong themes running through all the nominations of love, family, madness, captivity and secrecy – but that could be said of pretty much any set of randomly chosen novels, and is perhaps more indicative of our times than our chromosomes.
So what about books purposefully directed at women, to the exclusion of men? As much as I would like to imagine that there are men out there who enjoy reading about weight loss, shopping, and sex on blossom-strewn hillsides - and that as a woman I disdain such petty pastimes - neither is true. Women should not be ashamed if we enjoy chick lit from the likes of Louise Bagshawe, Jenny Colgan, Jackie Collins et al; but these sort of ‘female books’ are a genre as much as a gender, and woman cannot live on oestrogen-laced escapism alone. Oh, and we often love the gun-touting, dark-alleyed, plot-twisting ‘bloke lit’ of Grisham, Connelly and co. just as much as the boys.
So we come back to the concept of female books of any genre and by authors of either sex; I for one find the ‘feminine qualities’ I found in Woolf’s books equally evident in the output of many male authors, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Bailey, Jon McGregor and Sebastian Faulks. If pressed for specifics, I might say that for me female books are more lyrical and perhaps more opaque, with less reliance on plot, more dissection of relationships, and a tendency towards surrealism or heightened sensuality. But it’s a very personal thing.
Of course, none of this really matters. I read as many ‘masculine’ books as I do ‘feminine’, and I do not imply any sort of moral judgement between the two types. But just as I gender animals (cats female, dogs male), places (Goodge Street male, Russell Square female) and objects (my phone female; my laptop male) I can’t help but see some books as women.
What does a female book mean to you?
This article originially appeared on BOOKDIVA