The great joy of Taylor’s book is the light it shines on communities of women readers, something that helped me recognise my own. My mother is responsible for my parallel addictions to detective fiction, Nancy Mitford, and anything set in Cornwall about A Family And What Happens To Them (what happens is usually The War). My godson’s mother and I exchange books marked ‘you’ll like this’ with a psychological perspicacity that borders on the offensive. My wife prefers George Eliot to the Brontës, but marriage has made us experts in buying each other books (‘awful things in postwar Germany’ for her; ‘did you know this terrible Victorian fact?’ for me). Reading Taylor’s book has also made me join a book club. I did not like the January book; I did enjoy drinking gin while saying why. I would like to be in a book club with Taylor’s correspondents, having so much enjoyed the warmth, intelligence and insight of their conversations with her throughout the book.
Fiction offers the possibility of other imagined lives. That’s terrific. Yet in women’s real lives, they are still, by and large, paid less than men for doing the same jobs. Women MPs are standing down from parliament, citing the abuse they have received, or the pressures on their family life. It is wonderful that women – myself included – gain so much from reading fiction. Yet the ways in which women are encouraged, or permitted, to engage with the world beyond the page are still often limited. I am energised by Bidisha’s daring interrogation of literary culture. In asking why women read fiction, Taylor’s book makes a start: but there are deeper, bolder questions still to be asked.
So why do women — who after all make up the bulk of the fiction-reading public, as well as most of the editors, and a good proportion of the commercially successful authors — feel guilty about something that is cheap, calorie-free and enjoyable, and has no unwanted side effects? Taylor suggests that the idea of women reading fiction has always produced unease in a patriarchal world, and to prove her point she includes an illustration of The Reader, by the 18th-century painter Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, which appears to show a woman who is masturbating while reading a novel. One of her interviewees sums it up: “Having an affair is dangerous, masturbation requires privacy, reading a book offers both without anyone noticing. I can live a different life through books.”