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Commentary: High school student questions male-dominated reading list

under creative commons liscense by flickr user Gayle Nicholson

High school students are looking for material that they can relate to. In this commentary, student Frances Saux from the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco realizes she's not connecting with her work as much as she could and that there's a specific reason why.

FRANCES SAUX: Lately, I’ve been thinking about English class. I’m a junior in high school, which means that by now I’ve been assigned a lot of books to read, a diverse collection of books, books by English speakers, and translated books, and biographical books, and fictional books, and books about oppression, and the human condition. But a few months ago, I realized I hadn’t ever been assigned a single book written by a woman, at least not since high school had started and I was over halfway through. How come all the books I was reading were written by men?

At first, I was just angry. Whoever was choosing these books seemed to have put effort into creating a diverse collection of stories and authors, but hadn’t thought that it was important at all to include women.

What worried me even more, though, was this: how come I hadn’t noticed earlier? I’d like to think I’m pretty aware of the world around me, especially when things concern me directly. How come I’d never noticed that teachers weren’t assigning female writers? And how come nobody else seemed to have noticed? When I told my English teacher about this, he seemed surprised, too. That’s crazy! He said. He said he hadn’t noticed it, either. It just hadn’t occurred to anyone.

I started thinking about the books I like to read for fun, the books I buy after checking them out from the library because I can’t get them out of my head, the books that stay in piles by the side of my bed since I read them too often to put them back on the bookshelf. I thought of David Foster Wallace, and of Haruki Murakami. But I realized that I couldn’t think of very many women. I thought of all the books I had read recently, and came to the same conclusion: I just wasn’t reading female authors.

Coming to terms with this was hard. It meant that I couldn’t just blame the school for this lack of exposure. I was guilty, too. Still, it didn’t make sense to me. Why wasn’t I reading these writers? I know they exist. In my creative writing class at school, and in every creative writing workshop I’ve been a part of, most of the students are female. I know a lot of young female writers, but very few young male writers. And yet, when it comes to the publishing world, everything switches. Women are much less frequently published than men. Most of the big American publishing houses publish very few women, and, in comparison, an overwhelmingly large amount of men. In 2011, For example, the magazine The New Republic found that only 37 percent of the books published by Random House were written by women.

I don’t think that this is a conscious choice on the publishers’ part, just like it wasn’t a conscious choice for my school, for my teachers, or for me. I think it’s the culture’s choice. The roots of our world are patriarchal. We come from a history that marginalizes women. These days, people are working towards creating a more equal society, which gives voices to women, as well as other underrepresented groups. If we want to be a part of this effort, we need to notice the areas that are still shrouded by biases, like the literary world. Recently, I’ve been more aware of what I’m reading, who it’s by, and why. I’ve been consciously searching for women writers. My bookshelf, I think, deserves their voices.

Frances Saux is a student at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. Her commentary was edited by Maia Ipp and produced by Alyssa Kapnik and Casey Miner.

What women-authored books have been significant for you? Share your literary suggestions on our feedback line at 415-264-7106.