The Trouble With “Women You Should Be Reading Now” Lists

1. They are very, very limiting. 2. That we need them at all.

Woman reading a book
We shouldn’t be reading authors merely because they are women or black or Asian or queer or any other mark of identity.

Photo by Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Literary and other lists are popular because they are so often entirely arbitrary—the 10 greatest this, the 50 most unique that, the eight whomever you should watch for—all determinations made by one cultural critic or another, or the vague entity of staff. When these lists are published, we get to read, consider, dissect, and frantically comment about how we agree or disagree. We get to share how we might recompose the lists more appropriately. It’s a lot of fun.

Lately, there has been a proliferation of a certain genre of list: The [insert number here] Women You Should Be Reading Now. Time recently published its list of 21 female authors you “should be reading.” The list is fine even though, as these things go, I do have opinions about its composition. I was thrilled to see Elliott Holt named because I loved her debut novel, You Are One of Them, published in 2013. It was also a pleasure to see Taiye Selasi named, because Ghana Must Go was another favorite.

No two lists will ever be the same, and this list at least makes an attempt at diversity—a primary concern of any good list-maker and list-reader—albeit a somewhat narrow sort of diversity. There are, for example, no African-American women on the list. There are no Latinas or South-Asian writers. And at what point do we stop using Amy Tan and Louise Erdrich as the sole beacons of literary light for people who look like them? To be clear, these women (along with Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and the rest of the women on the list) are writers you should be reading, but they are not the only ones and they shouldn’t be the only writers of color represented when these lists come out year after year.

At their best, these lists do reach readers who may not be familiar with writers of a certain demographic. But if “women” are still a demo in need of PR, these lists, while purporting to help expand reader perspectives and support women writers, often end up having a narrowing effect. The lists reinforce the misguided notion that there are only a few excellent “female” writers (or writers of color, or otherwise underrepresented writers). Certainly the writers who consistently make these lists are consistently excellent, but these lists too often tell us what we already know.

I also wonder when these lists stop being useful. I am always interested in diversifying, in all ways, how people read, but the conversation about literary diversity seems stalled and stagnant. We shouldn’t be reading authors merely because they are women or black or Asian or queer or any other mark of identity. We shouldn’t be reading to check off boxes. We should be reading in a way that, when we look at what we’ve consumed, we recognize a diversity of perspectives and ways of seeing the world. 

This has also been the year of the ReadWomen2014 campaign, which urges you to “take action” against inequality by “making sure the next book you read is by a woman.” What a sad state of affairs it is that people need to be reminded or instructed to read women. That people need to perform their reading of women, to read a female writer as if they are adopting a stretch of highway—look at me participating in this oh-so-worthy endeavor, reading The Goldfinch. Hashtag social action. Hashtag women.

I am a woman. I am a woman of color. I am a writer. I have no interest in compartmentalizing or distancing myself from these aspects of my identity. At the same time, I do not want my work as a writer subsumed wholly by identity. There is more to what I write. It is exhausting that we are still trying to convince a certain segment of the population that women are equal to men, that women deserve respect and fair consideration in all professional and creative and personal realms. I cannot believe we need to count and point out worthy women writers like we’re begging for scraps at the table of due respect and consideration.

Sadly, we are there or we wouldn’t be reminding each other to ReadWomen2014. We wouldn’t be asking readers to look at this list of great women and that list of great South-Asian writers and this other list of queer writers you should know. (There’s also the issue of journalistic laziness, but I don’t think these lists persist simply because they are easy to execute.) I, for one, will continue to read these lists and learn from them and get mad at them and contribute to them because the need is still significant. The need will be significant until people no longer say some variation of, “I don’t see difference. I just want great writing,” as if difference and excellence are mutually exclusive.

In a better world, we wouldn’t read a writer because she is a woman or [insert identifying characteristic]. We would read a writer because that writer might be awesome or terrible or might intrigue or infuriate us and we want to know more. We would take a chance because that’s so much of what we do when we read. We take a book into our hands. We turn the first page. We wait to see where a writer will take us, what she will show us. We hope for the best and sometimes we’re disappointed and sometimes when we are luckiest, we are transported. I look forward to the day we are freed from the burden of obsessing over the tour guide and surrender to the sights.