Why Read Women Writers? An Interview with Bill Wolfe

Bill Wolfe

While scrolling through my Facebook feed some years ago, I came across a link to Bill Wolfe’s website, Read Her Like an Open Book. Someone had posted a link to a book review he’d written, and I’d clicked on it, finding myself at a website dedicated to reviewing and showcasing books by women.

As a female writer, I admittedly find myself rolling my eyes when males express surprise if they’ve enjoyed a novel by a woman, or when they brazenly don’t accept that men and women (and everyone in between) are equally competent writers, so I naturally thought Bill Wolfe’s book review blog was a refreshing idea. Who better than a man to persuade other men that women’s books are worth their time? (After all, men who refuse to read women certainly aren’t likely to listen to any woman who tells them they should.)

When Bill recently appeared in my feed again—this time in the form of a link to his interview with author Kali Fajardo-Anstine about her short story collection Sabrina & Corina—I was suddenly curious about the “why” of his website. Why was he focused on women’s writing? Why put so much time into it? Why (from his perspective) impress upon men that they should read women?

He was gracious enough to answer those questions and more.

Bill Wolfe taught high school English for 19 years in the Bakersfield, California area. He was named District Teacher of the Year in 2005. He also taught Journalism and coached the Mock Trial team for a time. Before teaching, Bill practiced law in Los Angeles and Bakersfield. He earned a BA in English, magna cum laude, from California State University, Northridge and a Juris Doctor degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Bill began blogging in 2013 and started a photography business, Inner Light Photography, in 2015. Currently, he is a freelance editor and writer. He is married and the father of two sons (27 and 22). He lives in Shafter, California.

KRISTEN TSETSI: You explain the purpose of Read Her Like an Open Book on your “About” page like this:

It’s “common knowledge” that men don’t read books by women. But the truth is a little more complex; in fact, some men do read books by female authors. But in my experience, I seem to be a relatively rare creature: a man who not only reads many novels by women but often prefers them. […] Perhaps my perspective on literary fiction by women will be of interest to other readers, writers, and publishers. And maybe, just maybe, I will be able to convince some other men to pick up a novel with a woman’s name on the cover.

I shared a link to that “About” page on Facebook, and I received the following responses: “I don’t think I will ever truly understand this concern about the gender of an author,” wrote Person One, a male. Person Two, a female, wrote, “I’m annoyed anyone finds this relevant to blog about in 2019.”

You started the blog in 2013. Do you think it’s still necessary today to try to encourage men to read women, or to shine a targeted light on female writers, or have you seen any changes in men’s reading habits over the last five years?

BILL WOLFE: Yes, I think it’s still necessary and worthwhile to try to encourage men to broaden their reading to include more books by women, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Men claim they don’t pay attention to gender, and in a sense they’re right. But they tend to read in genres dominated by men, like history, biography, and genre fiction like sci-fi/fantasy and mystery/thriller. Ask most men who their favorite writers are, and you’ll hear few if any women’s names.

The comments your Facebook post received suggest a naiveté. It reminds me of people who can’t understand why people are “concerned” about things like racism, misogyny, and gender-related issues. I mean, it’s 2019! Aren’t we beyond that? As if 2019 is some kind of magical date beyond which all social ills are nonexistent.

I should add that there is a small percentage of men, who read a lot of literary fiction and might be considered “bookish” in that regard, who do read plenty of books by women. But I’m still convinced that the majority of men wouldn’t want to be caught dead reading a book with a woman’s name on the cover.

Sadly, publishers often don’t help this situation, because the cover design of much literary fiction by women is still directed at women readers. You know, the back of a woman looking out a window or standing on the beach looking out to sea, etc.

You further explain on your “About” page:

“I have always been more interested in realistic fiction that addresses the human condition and relationships than in the genre fiction most men read (thrillers, mysteries, military strategy, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). I’m sure being an English major had something to do with it.”

That’s interesting to me, because as an English major myself, and then a creative writing student in the early 2000s, although we certainly read those same women, we were probably introduced—at least in courses not titled “Women in Literature”—to a heavier load of male writers of realistic fiction that addresses the human condition: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding, Henry James, etc. (etc., etc.).

I know I, at least, spent my college years believing that outside of a handful of female authors, only men were the “real,” “serious” literary writers. (Movies would still have us believe this, by the way.)

So, how did you come to be more interested in the literary writing women are currently publishing than in the literary writing men are currently producing?

I read most of those authors in college, as well. I came to contemporary women writers in the ’90s, when Jane Smiley, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Munro seemed to be much more visible. There was something in their sensibility that was different from that of the male authors, even if the subjects were similar (say, divorce or parenthood or the lifespan of a relationship).

I think the main appeal was simply getting the female perspective for a change. I’m a man, and I think I know how men generally feel about a lot of things. (Maybe that’s my fundamental problem right there; I’m arrogant in believing that.) And then, as something of a feminist (depending on how one defines that word), I became interested in promoting the women writers I liked.

As an English teacher, were you permitted to select the stories/novels your students studied? If so, what did you select? If not, what were they assigned, what was the male/female ratio, and if mostly male, how did you feel about that? Did you find a way to incorporate more female writers?

We were permitted to choose a book occasionally, usually from among a group of 3-5 books the department had approved. (For example, in 12th grade English, we had a Cultural Perspectives Unit in which students could choose one of five books for an outside project. The choices included The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, among others.)

I didn’t object to this because I thought the required reading choices were very good, if a bit traditional. We were trying to introduce students to works that stood out for their literary value but that had also become part of the culture.

Those two criteria did result in a male-heavy reading list, but I worked in a lot of women through our free reading program. We were given $300 each year to buy books at the local Barnes & Noble (with the Educator discount of 20%, of course) to add to our classroom library, and most of the books I bought were by women (lots of mature YA, contemporary literary fiction with a high-interest level for teens, and a few classics).

As I was compiling these questions, I happened upon a link to a New Republic article about David O. Dowling’s A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maggie Doherty writes in the article, “The experiences compiled in A Delicate Aggression help us better understand not just the history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but more generally a literary history in which women’s voices have been discouraged, ignored, or suppressed.”

I thought, “Well, surely the publishing industry has since improved in that respect.” But then I came across The Male Glance: How We Fail to Take Women’s Stories Seriously, published just last year in The Guardian, in which Lili Loofbourow observes, “Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say.”

You write on your website, “Perhaps my perspective on literary fiction by women will be of interest to other readers, writers, and publishers.” You also specify that you don’t consider self-published fiction for review.

But if publishers traditionally show less interest in literature by women, thereby leading more women to self-publish, isn’t there a chance that drawing publishers’ attention to quality self-published literature by women might help publishers look at literary manuscripts not written by men with a more interested eye?

Yes, I think writing about self-published fiction could help attract the attention of a publisher.

But my concern with self-published books is that the lack of a gatekeeper, whether it’s an agent or an editor, largely eliminates quality control. Anyone can self-publish anything. It means something when someone with experience and a discerning mind believes that a book is worthwhile. The few self-published works I’ve read needed that kind of mind to guide the writer through revisions and improvements. It was a little like listening to demo versions of songs. You can tell there is potential, but it’s still pretty rough and needs a lot of polishing.

I’m a little selfish with my reading time in the sense that I want to read books that have been cultivated to the point that they’ve reached their full potential.

Two comments left by a single reader after your “About” page explanation of why you read women include the following: “I suppose to be an active participant within the current societies of the human race, one would read women writers as well as male. [Next comment, same author] I, unfortunately, fall into the category of men who read men but [my wife] is more likely to follow your site about women.”

What would you say to men who will say they agree that the voices of men and women are equally important but, in the same breath, admit to not being interested in the voices of women?

I would say that they’re not as interested in women’s voices as they say they are.

How can you be interested in someone’s perspective but not read or listen to them? I would ask this man why he reads only/mostly men. What is he seeking that he finds in books by men and that he assumes he won’t find in books by women?

The answer should be revealing. Part of the “problem” is that most people read primarily for entertainment and take the path of least resistance: a beach book, an airplane read, something fast and fun. That shows a misunderstanding of literary or serious fiction—thinking that it must be difficult, a slow read, work.

That’s why in my reviews I emphasize the reading experience, rather than focusing on the female perspective, why the issues in the book should interest men, etc. I take a reader’s approach, not a scholarly or theoretical approach.

I think the best way to get men to read more books by women is by emphasizing that they are simply terrific books, worth anyone’s time. Then, when they read the book, they’ll find the other things that give it both a distinctly female perspective and universal value. Infiltrate and double-cross!

Thank you, Bill.

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