Feminist Books and Individual Experience
It’s hard to decide what a ‘feminist’ book is and isn’t, partly because the notion of ‘feminism’ hasn’t been around for that long (at least not by that name). But also, labelling some books ‘feminist’ and some books ‘not feminist’ suggests that books contain objective truths, put in there by the author and just aching to be teased out by a spunky intellectual.
I’m fairly convinced that it’s basically impossible to decide what books are meant to mean, because meaning, value and emotional responses to literature are incredibly subjective. I say that within some level of reason; if you turn around and try to convince me that Romeo and Juliet is about Indian Runner ducks I might be slightly sceptical. As someone who writes, I can only vouch for what my stories mean to me. Someone else could read something that I thought I wrote about love and decide that it’s actually about death, and they aren’t necessarily wrong.
The idea that the reader determines the meaning of a text is called Reader Response Theory, and while it can raise some tricky questions regarding whether we should cull problematic artists (looking at you, Woody Allen), it’s also very exciting. I might think Wuthering Heights is a warning against following the first man you fall in love with, because he’ll probably just get weirder with age. You might think it’s a story about the transcendent and unstoppable nature of human emotion. Your response to literature is incredibly reliant on your experience and your own little library of events and symbols that tug at your heartstrings and remind you of the big, life altering moments of your own narrative.
Stories about Canada make me think about little me, peeping out through her bowl cut and dragging me head first into a landscape of fir trees and air that smells like gorse and salt water. Anything with really available dads makes the space behind my breastbone hurt. Did the author know that? Did Alice Munro write her stories with me in mind? Probably not, but without my emotional response, or anyone’s for that matter, the stories would be shouts into a disinterested void. Things gain meaning when we read them.
There are loads of books that I’ve read that feel like feminist books, because I’m a feminist and I see myself and my experience in them. But, the point I’m trying to make is that one woman’s feminist manifesto is another woman’s boring airplane read.
So, if the books I recommend over the next few weeks don’t sound very feminist, bear with me. Just as we build our own personal realities, we fill our own bookshelves in a similar way. Dipping into the imagined lives of other people can work wonders for our ability to empathise and diversify our championing of the myriad facets of feminine experience.