In her illuminating new book, Why Women Read Fiction, Helen Taylor – Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Exeter – brings together her lifelong love of reading fiction, her decades of teaching and studying English and American literature, plus the reading experiences of more than 500 women readers, to form a comprehensive examination of why women are the main readers of fiction and what impact it has on their lives.
Ahead of the book’s official launch at Waterstones in the Galleries, Bristol-based Taylor, who has taught at the city’s two Universities, talks about how reading fiction has shaped her life, what she learnt from researching the book, and her thoughts on the publishing industry’s relationship with readers.
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What is the most rewarding reading experience you have ever had, and which work of fiction do you return to the most?
Impossible to answer either question. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were revelations, but I return to many writers whose style delights me e.g. James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel. As I get older, I rarely reread as there’s so much I want to read and (as many women feel) a sense of less and less time.
Why Women Read Fiction is full of fascinating, invaluable information and insights, and involved a huge amount of research. How long has it taken to complete the book from the initial idea to publication?
I’ve wanted to write this book for over 30 years, after I researched and wrote my book about Gone with the Wind, called Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and its Female Fans. I began in a scholarly way to write a book explaining the historical, cultural, gender and racial contexts of this bestseller (which I also loved!) but I was besieged by many women wanting to tell me their personal story of the love, passion and sadness involved in reading the book and seeing the film.
Because I’d always been fascinated, as a teacher, by students’ different and often idiosyncratic responses to novels, I felt that I wanted to give space to personal testimonies about that one work. As soon as I’d finished writing it, I knew I knew I wanted to write about why women read and love fiction, but I had an academic career to get through first before I could indulge myself. Once I had my book contract, the book flowed and it was finished in three years – but in a sense I’ve been writing it in my head all my working life.
You corresponded with more than 500 women readers for the book. How much did you learn from their responses to your questions, and have you been genuinely surprised by anything that came out of the responses?
The book wouldn’t exist without the personal anecdotes, memories and thoughts of all those women. I think I was surprised by the sheer passion of women’s fiction reading – the fact that they called it ‘my best friend’, ‘love of my life’, and described being ‘bereft’ without a novel on the go. I am in awe of the seriousness with which women approach fiction – in book clubs, visiting literary festivals and heritage sites, and engaging with writers on Twitter, websites, in bookshop and library readings. Plus, the way they recalled when and where they read particular books, and often described the impact those readings had on their own life narratives and self-definition.
Early on in the book you write: “no one to my knowledge has tried to describe how fiction matters to contemporary women of different ages, classes, and ethnic groups, and how we use it in our lives to create and sustain life narratives.” Why do you think this has not been looked at in any depth before?
I think critics and journalists talk of ‘readers’ as if they were homogenous (rather as theatre people talk of audiences). I never feel I am an ‘audience’ and I know readers differ hugely among themselves – with large variations in class, education, age, race, ethnicity and life experience.
It’s hard indeed to generalise about women readers, and I was aware the task was too huge for one writer… but I wanted to share my unique life’s experience as a teacher, writer, critic and literary festival director, giving my thoughts substance from individual women’s voices.
You often refer to the influence of women’s ‘reading lives’ on their ‘real lives’ and vice versa. What influence have your reading life and your real life had on each other?
When I was young, I learned a great deal about adult relationships, work, politics and social issues from my fiction reading – not to mention sexuality, about which I tried to read as much as possible (hiding novels from my parents and friends). As I grew older, my reading was determined by teaching – and the joy of rereading great works in order to share them with students. When I left education to write full time, I had the pleasure of being able to read writers I’d never considered before. As my friends have become ill or died, I have sought out fiction dealing with those difficult issues of life and death, and I am fascinated by novels about older people.
How aware do you think the publishing industry is of readers’ preferences, women readers in particular, and why women are the main readers of fiction?
Publishers claim to follow trends very closely, and to know who exactly is reading their novels, but I doubt any publisher can explain why over two thirds* of fiction is read by women (*Nielsen Book Research UK, 2017). Publishers like Mills and Boon nurture a close relationship with their mainly women readers because they know how central those stories are in their readers’ lives.
No-one really knows how, when or why a woman buys, borrows or steals a particular novel, and what impact it has on her life. Statistics tell you a certain amount, but not the quality of reading, the personal associations of a novel, or the names of all the books on a woman’s bedside table. Publishers recognise reading groups – they often provide questions for discussion at the end of a book – but to my mind there’s too little celebration of the loyalty to, and collegial engagement with, fiction by generations of girls and women.
Why Women Read Fiction by Professor Helen Taylor is out now. A launch event for the book will be held at Waterstones, Bristol Galleries on January 28. For more information, visit https://www.waterstones.com/events/helen-taylor-why-women-read-fiction/bristol-galleries