Caitlin Moran explains how reading women writers as a teenager built her confidence and made her 'battle-ready'
In The Guardian last week, Gloria Steinem - brilliant, bad-ass, pioneering, pack-mother feminist Gloria Steinem - was asked which book changed her life.
“Little Women,” she replied. “Because it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world.”
Oh man, she’s right - so right I yelped when I read it. Because if I had one piece of advice for young girls, and women, it would be this: girls, don’t read any books by men. Don’t read them. Stay away from them. Or, at least, don’t read them until you’re older, and fully-formed, and battle-ready, and are able to counter someone being rude to you, in conversation, not with silent embarrassment, or internalised, mute fury, but a calm, “Fuck you very much, and goodbye.”
Because if there’s one thing that has made me, perhaps, happier in myself, and more confident about writing the truth, and less apt to run myself down for my appearance, weight, loudness and unusualness than many, many other women, it’s that I never read books by men when I was younger.
Home-educated, we were simply left to choose what books we read - no reading lists for us, no GSCE English demands to read Catcher In The Rye. Instead, I was free to read whichever books I chose - and, without thinking about it, all I wished to read were female authors.
The Railway Children, Jane Eyre, Ballet Shoes, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, Gone With The Wind, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird, I Capture The Castle and, of course, Little Women - what I instinctively gravitated towards was stories about girls, and women. Stories about their lives - struggling with money, wondering what their careers would be, reading books, learning skills, finding clothes that made them happy, learning how to have relationships with siblings, friends and parents, chafing against societal restrictions, getting angry about the injustices of a wider world. Grieving. Hoping. Carrying on.
If I had one piece of advice for young girls, and women, it would be this: girls, don’t read any books by men. Stay away from them.
My world, in short. My life. Everything I thought and felt was reflected in these books - I felt befriended by these imaginary girls, spread across the centuries. I felt like we were all in this together. I felt normal. I felt like my life was a story, too - something to rejoice in; to share without fear, or embarrassment, or stumbling to find the right words. I felt - as you should, at that age - that me, and girls like me, were the centre of the world, and that we were important.
It was only years later - quite recently, really - that I started reading all the books you’re supposed to read: the books by the Great White Males. Faulkner, Chandler, Hemingway, Roth. The canonically brilliant. The men in them are brilliant, clever, awkward, compelling, complex - their stories drag you in, their voices are unstoppable. The dazzle and flair is undeniable. As both a writer, and a reader, I bow down to them.
But as a woman? What I noticed, straight away, was how unwelcome these books made me feel. How uncomfortable. As someone reading a book with my heart open, waiting to find out how the author would see me; talk to me; evaluate me, as a girl who might be in these books - as I was in the others I read - my heart was broken in the first few pages. Or else, slowly, creepingly chilled, until I had to stop, two chapters in: all love quietly crushed.
For as soon as a female character enters a story written by these dazzling, confident, 20th century men, the author is apt to look a her with a cold, cold eye. Describing how she looks in a way that I - raised on female authors, with their gentleness, pride and respect for female bodies - was wholly unused to. That famous Raymond Chandler line - a line which, in isolation, I thought so brilliant? “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
When you read that, in Farewell, My Lovely, it makes you think, in quick succession, “Man, that is a beautiful line,” and then, “Christ, what an exhausting thing to be.” A woman who makes bishops want to kick holes in stained glass windows. How’s her day going? What’s her story? How is she navigating this difficult life - of driving bishops insane, and violent, just by walking into a room?
As a girl, like her, I feel like putting my arm around her, and saying, “Dude - shall we go for a drink somewhere - somewhere away from cathedrals - and sigh over how difficult life is?” I think any grown, adult, confident woman reading it would.
And yet, in Chandler’s world - and for Chandler’s male readers - that’s the best thing a woman can be. This woman - surrounded by crazy men - is supreme.
Now I know, if I’d read that when was I was a teenage girl – 13 or 14 - those words would have gone into me in a bone-deep way. I would have thought, “Raymond Chandler is a by-word for cool, so I must, clearly, become the kind of woman who makes bishops want to kick in windows, also. I don’t know how I will do this - I must lose weight, and wear heels, and put on lipstick, and find some manner of intoxicating walk, and look sultry at all times, and never run into the room screaming ‘OH MY GOD HAVE YOU SEEN THE NEW MUPPET MOVIE? KERMIT RIDES A BICYCLE WITH HIS TINY FROG LEGS!’ That is what I must do, now. Because everyone knows the best people are made by books - and so I will be made by this book, too. Because it is a classic. Because it is written by a genius. Because these are the books you are supposed to love.”
No. They are not the right books to read, if you are a young girl. They are not the voices you should allow in your head. Until you are grown - until you can argue, with confidence, with a narrator; with a genius; with a world-view - girls, do not read books by old men. They live in another century, and you are the future. You, and all those brilliant, beautiful girls, writing in the past.
More about the author
‘I’ve lived through ten iOS upgrades on my Mac – and that’s just something I use to muck about on Twitter. Surely capitalism is due an upgrade or two?’
When Caitlin Moran sat down to choose her favourite pieces for her new book she realised that they all seemed to join up. Turns out, it’s the same old problems and the same old ass-hats.
Then she thought of the word ‘Moranifesto’, and she knew what she had to do…
This is Caitlin’s engaging and amusing rallying call for our times. Combining the best of her recent columns with lots of new writing unique to this book, Caitlin deals with topics as pressing and diverse as 1980s swearing, benefits, boarding schools, and why the internet is like a drunken toddler.
And whilst never afraid to address the big issues of the day – such as Benedict Cumberbatch and duffel coats – Caitlin also makes a passionate effort to understand our 21st century society and presents us with her ‘Moranifesto’ for making the world a better place.
The polite revolution starts here! Please.