Frequently, men write to Captain Awkward complaining that they can't get women to go out with them. One of her staple pieces of advice for them is 'consume art by women'. This might seem like a fairly strange bit of dating advice, but it serves two purposes. One, it's something they can do, themselves, that isn't dependent on other people. Two, it's about seeing women as people, and seeing things from their perspective.
Works by men, with male protagonists, dominate popular culture. We all grow up on stories and messages where men go out and do great deeds and they rescue and/or win the love of women. They pursue women. They acquire women as decorative objects. If you aren’t good at acquiring these objects you are a loser or a failure. These are the messages you are swimming in, and they are affecting your life.
Take love poetry. When written by men, women are the objects of men's desire. I mean 'objects' in the grammatical sense. So, "he sees her": 'he' is the subject of the verb, she is the object. Only subjects can do things, objects can only have things done to them. Women become passive. Christopher Marlowe wrote The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, a famous piece of male longing after an uncooperative woman. The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd was also written by a man, Sir Walter Raleigh. Even when women did get to speak, it was with men's voices.
"Hold on, Emma, that's a bit heteronormative, isn't it?" Good, I'm pleased you noticed, a lot of people didn't. And yeah, the broader message is, consume art by as many different kinds of people, listen to as many voices, as you can. Sometimes those voices can be hard to find. The thing about "read books by women" is that it's easy. It's actually easier than avoiding reading books by women, if you're a reader. I can't actually fathom how people do that. Every time you go into a bookshop or a library, there they are, hundreds of books by women. Yet I know there are men who only read books by men, because I've met them, spoken to them, been whined at by them.
Women have been writing novels since before novels really existed. They helped shape the form. There has never been a time when you couldn't find novels by women. It can be hard to find movies written or directed by women, or television under women's creative control, but it's never been hard to find novels by female authors. If you read, there really is no excuse for not reading women.
And yet. Some men get so upset. They're not sexist! The fact they hardly ever read books by women is just a matter of taste. Or accident. Or women don't write the kind of books they like to read.
I have read the odd book by woman authors(sic) but they have failed to inspire the loyalty I feel towards writers like Saul Bellow, Henry Millar and David Foster Wallace, some of whom have no doubt been criticised for being chauvanists of the highest order. I like Zadie Smith but she does not come close to a cigar.
No, I have no idea what that last sentence means either.
So, some common objections. Yes, J.K. Rowling 'counts'. She counts as 'a woman'. I said, books by women. Fortunately, no female author carries the burden of being required to speak for all women. Part of the point of the exercise is realising that women are all different, and have vastly different opinions and points of view.
No, the fact that I can't name a woman off the top of my head who writes exactly the sub-sub-genre that's apparently all you'll read does not invalidate any of this. That's not my job, it's yours. Like urban fantasy? Look for an anthology like this. Maybe you'll find a female writer in there. But it really, really isn't my job, or any woman's job, to find them for you.
Yes, there are men who write women very well. Yes, there are women who write women very badly. How is that relevant? I'm not saying women are better writers than men.
In fact, I'll let you in on a little secret. It's not really about whether you read women. I mean, you should, and I'm going to raise an eyebrow and probably not sleep with you if there are no books by women on your shelves. It's really about how you react when you're asked to read books by women. It's a very small thing. Try reading only female authors for a month, just a month. If that seems like a ridiculous, onerous task, an unreasonable request that should never be made, there may be a problem. If you find the implicit accusation of sexism to be the Worst Thing in the World, it's probably dead on the mark.