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Why Women Read Fiction: A persuasive and vigorous case

Academic Helen Taylor engages with what women have read and how

Why Women Read Fiction
Author: Helen Taylor
ISBN-13: 978-0198827696
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £10.99

The terms “female reader” and “female writer” might be exasperating, but the premise of Why Women Read Fiction is persuasive; women are by far the biggest readers and buyers of literature, library users, festival goers and book clubbers. Why is this? As the opening quotation (from man writer Ian McEwan) puts it: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

Sally Beauman dislikes being called a female writer; she missed out on a literary readership due to how her work was categorised. Louise Doughty was referred to as “the author of cheery chick lit”, despite her novel Crazy Paving being about urban terrorism and chaos theory. The investigation is witty and incisive when it considers writing as well as reading fiction, with observations from authors such as Sarah Moss, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant.

The book engages with what women read and how, touching on social tributaries, the solace of being read to aloud and its relationship to audiobooks, and the intense attachment to particular titles through generations. From The Secret Garden to Cat Person, Pride and Prejudice to Fifty Shades, it speedboats over topics and genres, from erotica and crime, fantasy and young adult to the “brave new world of feminist dystopian sci-fi”.

It is at its most evocative when plumbing the quiet passion and absorption of childhood reading. Caitlin Moran’s girlhood titles are a sensory bloom: The Railway Children, Jane Eyre, Ballet Shoes, What Katy Did, Gone with the Wind.


There’s a degree of frustration with some aspects of the exploration into how women read (guiltily, to flee from family duties, to escape chores), and with the somewhat lopsided demographics of the 400 or so women consulted. But the study never purports to be an exhaustive work of scholarly social science; rather it’s a lively and vigorous voyage by its academic author.

Whether the why of the title is answered is arguable, but just as Taylor’s mother described a book of quotations as lines taken from her life-long reading, the sheer array of titles, commentary and exposition here leaves in its wake a kind of literary perfume.