‘Goodreads’ readers #ReadWomen, and so should university English departments

The social network website Goodreads provides insight into what some women are reading.
(Flip Mishevski/Unsplash)

Karen Bourrier, University of Calgary

Even in the 21st century, women writers are often consigned to what American novelist Meg Wolitzer has called “the second shelf.” Women’s novels are designed and marketed with a female audience in mind and publishers still presume that novels about women won’t appeal to male readers. Unfortunately, even in 2021 there may be some truth to this presumption.

This sexism can be seen in the continued speculation that female-identifying novelist Elena Ferrante is actually a man.
Vanity Fair contributing editor and book columnist Elissa Schappell summarized the assumptions behind the speculation: the novelist’s prolific output of “serious” books that interweave history, politics, violence, sex and domestic life, while “unflinchingly showing women in an unflattering light.”

Books by female-identifying authors are also less likely to be reviewed in prestigious literary magazines. In 2019, more than 60 per cent of reviews in magazines including London Review of Books, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, were of books written by men. This is actually an improvement since 2010, when between 69 per cent and 80 per cent of reviews in these magazines were of male-authored books.

The popular #readwomen hashtag on Twitter has been one response to the marginalization of women authors or sexism about their work. The social network website Goodreads can also provide insight into what women are reading.

Reading women

My collaborative research with data science professor Mike Thelwall has explored the reading habits of a cohort of mostly female readers (76 per cent) on the popular social network site Goodreads. As a group, Goodreads users also skew younger, whiter and more educated than the general population.

We examined what books readers read on Goodreads compared to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project.

In past decades, researchers relied on handwritten diaries, letters and surveys of readers to find out how everyday readers responded to the books they read. Goodreads, which collects book reviews and ratings from 90 million members, offers one portal into reading habits.

On average, women Goodreads users read twice as much as male Goodreads users, and are more willing to read books by both male and female authors.

We scraped data from Goodreads and found that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.

These women authors fell into two categories: young adult authors (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth) and 19th- or early 20th-century authors (Jane Austen and Harper Lee). The popularity of young adult series by women, including the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, means that 13 of the 19 most popular titles are by women.

Cover of three books from the Hunger Games series
A study found that that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.

Compared to what professors teach

In a second study, we compared what books Goodreads users read to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project. The Open Syllabus Project originated at Columbia University. It amasses syllabi, or college reading lists, from openly accessible university websites. Open Syllabus currently has a corpus of over nine million syllabi from 140 countries.

Our study focused on Victorian literature, literature published during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), which is both commonly taught at the university level and still read by general readers.

For the most part, we found that Goodreads users read books — including classic works by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde — about as often as university professors taught them.

However, we also found that the books that Goodreads users read more often than they were assigned in university tended to be by women writers, to feature strong female protagonists and to be aimed at a young adult audience — or all three.

Taking women writers seriously

This research is important because it suggests that professors who want to connect to students should take women writers more seriously.

Women writers show up less often than male writers on university syllabi. A survey conducted at McGill University in 2018 showed that 73 per cent of writers assigned on the university’s English literature syllabi are men.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise: English Prof. John Guillory’s work on canon formation captures the state of college English classes 30 years ago (and sometimes even more recently) when it was not uncommon for English professors to teach only white men.

Works by women writers are formative for many readers. For example, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are often among the first “adult” novels that young English-language readers read. Their combination of romance and strong female protagonists continues to appeal to 21st-century readers outside the classroom.

Our study also showed that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — three works of young adult fiction featuring girls — were also read more on Goodreads than we would predict given how often they were assigned on syllabi.

Read more:
Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel

It is more than time that publishers, book reviewers and university professors give women writers the respect they deserve. In an era of declining English majors when most English majors are women, English departments can at least start by assigning more women writers.The Conversation

Karen Bourrier, Associate Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Carmen Laforet’s Nada captures longing and desire in post-war Spain

Nationaal Archief, CC0

Ruth McHugh-Dillon, Monash University

If you haven’t heard of Nada, one of the most important European novels of the 20th century, you’re not alone.

Written in a few short months by Carmen Laforet, it was originally published in Spain in 1944 to immediate acclaim. It won a wide readership and Spain’s inaugural Premio Nadal, now the country’s most prestigious literary prize. Yet Nada took more than 60 years to become widely available in English translation.

A classic in Spanish, it is still shamefully under-read in English.

In the 20th century, Spanish-language literature was dominated by groundbreaking international names from Latin America such as Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.

Several of these writers credit Nada with forcing them to reconsider writing from Spain. Until belatedly discovering Laforet’s novel, Vargas Llosa writes, he had believed “everything over there reeked of fustiness, sacristy and Francoism”.

The atmospheric and cruel Nada overturned this verdict. Laforet’s achievement is remarkable, given her age (just 23 when she wrote Nada) and the challenges she faced as a woman to overcome the sexist bias of her time and secure her place in the literary canon.

Even now, analysis frequently emphasises the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical elements of the novel, diminishing its feat of extraordinary imagination.

A family drama

Nada centres on Andrea, an orphan who arrives in Barcelona aged 18, to stay with relatives she hasn’t seen for years. Escaping to Barcelona to study literature has long been her dream. But the city Andrea encounters resembles nothing of her happy childhood memories.

Nada book cover

Once glorious, Barcelona is now defeated and dilapidated, “its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies”. Arriving at her grandparents’ crumbling apartment, Andrea enters “what seemed like a nightmare”: a ragged array of relatives teetering between madness and starvation.

Andrea’s grandfather is dead and the household is under the command of her authoritarian aunt, Angustias, who promises to “mould” Andrea into obedience. Every day, the same violent dramas recur. Andrea’s arrogant artistic uncle Román goads his hot-headed brother, Juan, usually about his “piece of trash” wife, Gloria, who Román claims is obsessed with him.

If Gloria gets involved, Juan turns on her. Juan can be found either beating Gloria or painting bad nudes of her to sell for a pittance. Andrea’s tiny, tremulous grandmother tries to keep the peace, recalling how “there were never two brothers who loved each other […] like Román and Juanito”. The scowling maid, Antonia, lurks in the shadows with her dog, relishing the violence.

Censorship and stagnation after the Civil War

Nada, which in Spanish means “nothing”, emerged in one of the darkest and most stagnant periods of Spanish history.

For many Spaniards — already exhausted from the brutal Civil War that ripped the country apart between 1936 and 1939 — their worst nightmare had become a crushing, everyday reality. The dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, whose rebel armies had ultimately vanquished the left-wing Republicans, would drag on until his death in 1975.

Francoist demonstration in Salamanca (1937) with the paraders carrying the portrait of Franco in banners and the populace pulling the Roman salute.
Nada was written in the early days of the Franco regime.
Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

While the rest of Europe was beginning to emerge from the nightmare of the second world war, by the mid-1940s Spain was settling into one of its bleakest periods. These early years of Franco’s regime are known in Spain as “the hunger years”.

It was in these hunger years Laforet wrote Nada. Andrea recalls how “[the] hunger I almost didn’t feel because it was chronic” weakens her will, making her irritable and unfocused. Sniffing around the kitchen, she drinks cold, leftover vegetable stock.

Bedbugs infest the rooms and characters have discoloured teeth; Gloria’s baby almost dies from pneumonia, a sickness of the undernourished. These are up-close glimpses of the severe deprivations that, as historian Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco argues, Franco used to consolidate his power.

Under Franco, literary works were subject to strict censorship enforcing conservative values and the fascist narrative of the Civil War. As sometimes happens to art made in restricted circumstances, the social and political critiques embedded within Laforet’s novel are all the more remarkable given her creative play with what can and cannot be said directly.

Read more:
Franco’s invisible legacy: books across the hispanic world are still scarred by his censorship

Apart from scattered references to the war, the political situation is rarely named. Yet the atmosphere is oppressive: walls ooze with damp, blinds are drawn against the daylight. Even the air itself is heavy. Family life is a gothic nightmare, replicated behind a thousand “darkened balconies” in Barcelona and beyond.

This apartment and the others like it, are haunted houses inhabited by the ghosts of past violence — but also by its survivors. Civil wars turn neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother. As they attempt to live side-by-side, the apparently intractable conflict between Juan and Román shows how violence can be subdued or domesticated, yet still bubbles beneath the surface.

A streetscape
Family life is oppressive, repeated again and again beyond darkened balconies.
Nationaal Archief, CC0

Gloria now views her joy at the end of the war as naïve:

How could I imagine what came afterwards? It was like the end of the novel. Like the end of all sadness.

With Nada, Laforet wrote the novel of what happens after: when the conflict ends but life continues.

A transcendent story of longing and desire

As a work of art, one of Nada’s triumphs is how it transcends this bleak and repressive atmosphere without ignoring it. Laforet’s novel offers compelling testimony of Spain’s post-war hunger years. But it is not a documentary. The novel’s compassionate portrayal of Andrea and its black humour draw the reader into a story that is unsentimental but deeply human: an impatient young woman, learning how to be in the world.

For Andrea, the only reprieve from the suffocating apartment is university. There, she makes friends with people her own age, who provide comfort away from the “ghostly world of older people”.

A crowded street
Andrea searches for respite from the suffocating apartment.
Nationaal Archief, CC0

The divide begins to blur, however, when her wealthy and magnetic friend, Ena, becomes drawn to Andrea’s uncle Román. Having already bewitched Gloria and the maid Antonia, Román’s predatory circling of Ena penetrates Andrea’s private world and threatens her most meaningful relationship.

Andrea’s relationship with Ena is charged with intense desire. She is drawn to Ena’s “pleasant, sensual face” and “terrible eyes” glittering with intelligence. Embraced by her friend’s family, Andrea must also endure the pain of watching Ena entertain her many male admirers. This, along with Andrea’s fascinated descriptions of Gloria’s naked body, has led to queer readings of the novel and its protagonist.

Named or unnamed, straight or queer, there is no doubt a deep sexuality surges beneath the novel’s surface. Angustias’s obsession with modesty, and her warnings Andrea stay away from Gloria, “an inappropriate woman”, represent the anxiety around sexual agency and transgression in Franco’s Spain.

Spanish culture before, during and after the dictatorship has challenged Franco’s repressive ideology. Written before the Civil War, Federico García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba (1936) also uses an authoritarian matriarch in the family home to explore repression and sexual freedom.

After Franco’s death, the Movida movement exploded in a riotous celebration of sexuality and transgression, on display in Pedro Almódovar’s many films.

Nada sits in between, passionate but understated, escaping the censors with a story of human longing, frustration and hope. Like all classics, it will be read, reread and given new context. Today, Andrea’s anguish at being trapped inside, waiting for life to begin, will speak to many.

Read more:
Pain and Glory: Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie is as much self-therapy as it is self-portrait

Correction: this article originally misstated the date of Nada’s English translation. It was first translated in 1958, but not widely available until 2007.The Conversation

Ruth McHugh-Dillon, Lecturer in European Languages (Spanish and Latin American Studies), Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.