The first author name I remember — my then as now suffering from this peculiarity in which I only remember names of authors I like and only usually after the second book that knocks my socks off (there are exceptions, F. Paul Wilson being one of them. Never forgot his name after reading Hosts.) — is Enid Blyton.
I never read her really young books, Noddy and the like. I suffered from the issues of a kid raised amid adults, in that I skipped picture books altogether. I think I figured out how to read from my brother reading me Disney comics. I remember the story (the seven haunts) that I re-built from picture cues to what he’d read, then took the words apart to get the phonetics. This I concealed from everyone, because if they got wind I could read one of my principal pleasures — having someone read to me — would be over.
By first grade, though, the sham was up and I was reading mostly Enid Blyton. My brother is almost ten years older than I and I think by then he had just stopped re-reading those books even for nostalgia, so there were all these “kid mysteries.” They’re — if I have it right, since I never read the American versions — a little different from Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in that the kids are more free ranging, less organized, and the adventures — one of my favorite series was “of adventure” as in Sea of Adventure, Valley of Adventure, etc — can range all the way to the Greek Islands.
Anyway, almost every kid I knew of my generation and the older on grew up on Enid Blyton. (If you go searching for her books, please be careful. The recent editions have been abominably “updated” to put in the new tech. In itself this might have been inoffensive — it wouldn’t be, because note that it’s impossible to make some plots work around cell phones, but — but they also took the time to infuse it with a whole lot of new political correctness which totally robs the books of charm.) Boys and girls, and I don’t remember anyone making a big deal of the fact that the boys were reading a female writer. Or the fact that she was THE female writer that dominated YA.
It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that friends introduced me to her boarding school stories which are more… well… imagine Harry Potter with all girls and without the magic, but also very feminine, for a given definition of feminine, which is neither the frills and pink we imagine for tradition, nor the current idea of feminine. The boarding schools had girls who behaved like boys and wanted to be called by boys’ names, who were tough athletes, and some who were absolutely feminine. The first btw was not taken as any form of transexuality but simply as an expression of a sort of female persona. Girls who were very masculine and fond of masculine pasttimes (Sports, dogs, horses) grew up to be the horsey women we all know from British upper class. The sturdy country women of Agatha Christie’s books, who have no time for nonsense, wear tough boots and tweed, and concern themselves with horses, dogs and gardening (which was not considered a contradiction) could have come (and probably often did) from those young women. Yeah, there was also “veiled lesbianism” I suppose, though I think nowadays we read that a lot into places where the older times simply read same-sex friendship. I went to an all girl school and while there were a lot of crushes, they were a sort of romantic friendship that had no physical expression except in very, very, very rare cases. (And one of the cases caught in flagrant was also the first to marry — a man — and have kids in the class, so I think she just liked sex.)
Anyway, the boarding school books are more a “Harry Potter for girls” and while I’d still recommend it to anyone who has daughters, the boys might fling it away in disgust. (Or not.)
I recommend all of her books, even if they might handicap you in modern American society. You see, they inculcate a certain kind of … Britishness. Fairplay and don’t brag, and take your lumps without a whimper. And also, look after those who can’t look after themselves and who are “yours” somehow, and fulfill your obligations. Don’t rat. Don’t snitch. And she inculcates all this without SAYING it or preaching. The characters might say it, and they certainly show it in their attitudes, but there’s no easy pre-packaged moral at the end of the story. (The might handicap you: if you go into a profession that requires self-promotion in the present day US, that “don’t brag” is almost disabling. Ask Dave Freer and I.)
But, you’ll say, why would anyone question a YA author being female? Aren’t women, after all, the guardians of childhood.
Yeah, sure. BUT. And the BUT is really important. BUT we are living in a time where it’s believed we must have women writing about women for women to read, and men writing about men for men to read. Note Enid Blyton was read by both sexes with very little compunction. (Even the boarding school adventures, and even when one was way too old for them. I.e. my brother read them on the sly when I was reading them. I know. He sucked at remembering exactly where I’d left the book.)
At around nine or ten, on a summer day when I had nothing else to read and my best friend, from whom I borrowed books, was on a month long vacation, I started reading mysteries. It’s kind of weird it took so long, since dad read them voraciously and they were all over the house. But you see THE Portuguese mystery imprint was Vampire. And I hated horror movies/books. (Still do. I don’t see a lot of value in scaring myself. Life is scary enough. By this I mean what is now called Grimdark, of course, not horrible situations in which people triumph.) But I was bored enough to overcome it. My first book was Fer de Lance by Rex Stout. (Which weirdly I THINK was also Robert’s first mystery book.)
I don’t remember consciously discovering Agatha Christie but I think I found her after hearing someone say that trying to figure out something or other was like “trying to figure out a mystery by Agatha Christie.”
By the time I was 13 she was my favorite mystery writer and somewhere in Portugal I have a complete set of her works, and somewhere here I have a complete set of her works.
I read Agatha Christie the same way I read Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, and way too many others I can’t now remember, until I came to the states and discovered Ellis Peters and a dozen others. I never paid any particular attention, I’ll be honest, to whether my writer was male or female. Oh, sure, there was a flavor. I can’t imagine Agatha Christie being written by a man unless he were PROFOUNDLY gay and lived the sort of life gay guys sometimes lived in English villages at the turn of the century. Her novels like the boarding school stories of Enid Blyton are intensely feminine in a difficult-to-pin way. I think this is why the bien pensant, particularly leftist ones hate her. They want to extol females, but only females who behave like men, and she is the antithesis of that. It is easy to see from her thrillers (my LORD they were bad) that she didn’t really “get” international politics or world affairs at the visceral level some of us do. They just didn’t matter to her. However, whatever the critics say, she had an unerring eye for the “private wound” and the private motive, too. She knew what made normal people, living normal, daily lives tick. I often find myself telling my husband “As Agatha Christie would say” about something one of our friends or acquaintances did. I think this makes the intelligentsia uncomfortable too. So many of them are so small in their private lives, if you know what I mean.
Then I fell into science fiction at 11 or so. I confess my first reads were male: Simak, Heinlein, Asimov. But that was mostly because it was what fell under my fingers first. I later came to have female favorites, too, though none of the ones most people like, which tend to annoy me, in some cases because of my very different background. The only one coming to mind right now that I read before I got married and still in Portuguese was Anne McCaffrey, but I know there were… oh, yeah, Ursula Le Guin, too (I was hit or miss with her. Some books I loved, some went for the wall at speed) and Joan Vinge.
Later on, some women achieved the pantheon of honor of “I’ll buy in hard cover” including Diana Wynne Jones and for a good long while Mercedes Lackey and Connie Willis and others, though you’ll forgive my “moving and my brain is mush” for not conjuring their names. Buying in hard cover is sort of a medal of honor for a writer, when the reader is a young mother with kids who needs shoes. (Need shoes all the time. Robert’s feet finally stopped growing at 17e, thank heavens after Amazon started selling shoes and allowed us to order weird sizes, otherwise we’d have had to have them specially made. As is, each pair costs a small fortune.)
At the same time as the people above, I was also buying in hard cover in sf/f Pratchett and F. Paul Wilson. And a lot of guys and women in mystery.
So, what is this all about?
It is about the fact I’m tired of getting fan letters saying “I finally read your books, having hesitated long and hard to start. Forgive me, but the fact that you’re female made me doubtful.”
Ah, yeah, that. And then I became conscious of an hesitation to pick up female-written books, myself.
I, who am a female writing books, and who have been formed as a reader by a veritable battalion of writing females, suddenly subjecting to greater scrutiny books by females, and asking friends “is she okay?” before starting a new female author.
Why? Oh, not because of what is between the author’s legs. No, that never interested me, before or since. What makes me hesitate is the mush that younger females have had their heads filled with, often from primary education.
One of the first warnings of this was when a young college student joined our writers’ group. (She is now a bestselling author.) Her education had been exquisite and expensive, and yet…
And yet she believed things like that there had been great women fighters in the middle ages, and the men had suppressed all memory of them. Or that my best friend and I didn’t have college degrees (both of us had Masters) because we were stay at home moms.
I don’t judge her too harshly on these beliefs. It’s really hard to examine the things that adults told us when we were very young. Note how until recently I believed my cousin Dulce had died because I refused to share my bread and butter with her. (I suspect being rebuked, then hearing she’d died got conflated in my mind.) And that wasn’t even an intentional guilt trip.
But I find myself reading about women as they never were, women without agency oppressed by a far more coordinated patriarchy than any male I know could manage, let alone a group of males. I find myself reading about men as they never were, too, men who are all plotting and evil and powerful or else cringing ball-less cowards. And then there is the Marxism that afflicts the younger, “well educated” ones. And the preaching. Oh, my LORD, I never took well to preaching, even in religious books.
So, I hesitate before picking up new women writers. Though I do pick them up. I even tolerate a fair amount of feminism and left wing ideology if it’s so well wrapped in the story it doesn’t pop me out of it. Most of the women and some of the men above are/were definitely on the left, but they can tell a story, and that’s all I care about.
Which brings us to this push to “read mo’e women” and the idea that people don’t read women out of some kind of sexism.
We were reading women just fine before. We got our message across just before these advocates started helping us before.
All the screams to “read women” and about the inequity of men being read do is make people pause and think “If I buy this woman, is she going to spend most of the book preaching instead of telling a story.”
And this affects the sales of those who preach as well as the sales of people like me, and Sabrina, and Amanda, and Kate, and and and…
Yeah, there are reasons more men reach the top of the profession than women. One of them is legacy. The crawl through the profession is slow, and if more men were published before the seventies, more men will be luminaries now.
There are others, the same reasons that form the “glass ceiling.” From myself I can tell you any number of us spend ten to twenty years in our most productive time, mostly looking after the kiddies and/or the house. This is because at that time and that place this is the best economic strategy since our husbands make more than an uncertain artistic career. (And some men — I could name them — were stay at home husbands and paid the same price. It’s just it’s easier due to society expectations, for women to make that choice than for men. That’s changing, though.) Most women don’t even start trying to be published until after the kids leave, which necessarily curtails that slow crawl. Me? I’m crazy so I started earlier, but it did affect how much attention I gave to the work and therefore the quality.
There are inequities. Sure. Life is inequities. “All men are created equal” before the law, but thank heavens we’re not a population of clones. So, even had I been a little richer and able to afford a nanny 10 hours a week, life would be very different.
However the way to compensate for that is not to scream at readers for reading the male authors they enjoy. The way to do it is in fact, if you have money or can start a foundation, to give promising women writers scholarships for child care. Or not. Perhaps striving refines us.
Perhaps we just need to read the people we enjoy and stop posturing as defenders of the under-read.
Because in the end, all the activists are managing is to make it harder for women to become established professionals.
Which might, very well, be what they want. A permanent injustice is permanent fodder for activists after all.
As for me, I’ll continue writing as a writer, and hoping you read me as a writer, and not for what is between my legs. I don’t write with that. I’m not that talented. And though my books will sometimes be very feminine in the way Agatha Christie’s are, Agatha had millions of male fans and still does.
What is fiction for, but allowing you to spend time in that permanent solitary lock up behind someone else’s eyes? And isn’t the more different the better in that case?
I will continue to read as widely as I can and give all authors a fair chance.