Caitlin Moran is one of those journalists incapable of writing a dull sentence. I used to read her columns in The Times before they went behind a pay-wall and always found them hugely entertaining and very witty. How To Be A Woman, which has won numerous accolades including Book of the Year at the Galaxy Book Awards, is exactly what I expected: a wise and humorous read told in Moran's not-so-underrated style.
Part memoir, part rant
The title might suggest that How To Be A Woman is a self-help guide to feminism but that's not really what this book is about. Instead — as the blurb helpfully points out — it is part memoir, part rant. It is essentially a comic look at what it is like to be female in the 21st century. But underpinning the humour is a quite serious agenda which suggests many women are still not free to be themselves — mainly because they are too busy keeping up appearances.
But this is no dry text book. Moran might structure her feminist topics into thematic chapters — fashion, sex, work, marriage, motherhood, abortion and so on — but she uses her own life as the narrative thread which weaves them together.
She is incredibly frank, forthright and self-deprecating throughout as she details her childhood growing up on a council estate in Wolverhampton, the eldest of eight children, in which she was fat, frumpy and friendless. She then charts her premature adulthood, when as a precocious 16-year-old she moved to London to take up a job on weekly music magazine Melody Maker, before love, marriage, children and journalistic stardom followed.
Views on motherhood
I was particularly delighted to read her chapter on women who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance, because this is a subject that is rarely discussed. And when it is, the women who can't have children are painted as pathetic victims and those who choose not to have them are branded as selfish cows.
Men and women alike have convinced themselves of a dragging belief: that somehow women are incomplete without children. Not the simple biological 'fact' that all living things are supposed to reproduce, and that your legacy on earth is the continuation of your DNA — but something more personal, insidious and demeaning. As if a woman somehow remains a child herself until she has her own children — that she can only achieve 'elder' status by dint of having produced someone younger. That there are lessons that motherhood can teach you that simply can't be replicated elsewhere — and every other attempt at this wisdom and self-realisation is a poor and shoddy second. Like mothers can get a first in PPE at Oxford, whilst the best the childless can manage is a 2:1 from Leicester de Montford University.
And I really loved her one-liners — although, if truth be told, every sentence is a one-liner. For example, how I chuckled when I read her views on women getting older, particularly this sentence, which refers to the BBC's female newsreaders being sacked:
Sorry to mention this again — we strident feminists do go on about this — but Moira Stewart and Anna Ford got fired when they hit 55, whilst 75-year-old Jonathan Dimbleby slowly turns into a fucking wizard behind his desk.
Like an intimate chat
Much of what Moran outlines in How To Be A Woman is not new to me, but I found it incredibly refreshing — and somewhat surprising — to find someone whose views on so many different topics chimes exactly with mine. In many ways reading this book was like having an intimate chat in a pub over a pint or two — minus the hangover and the cost! I reckon Caitlin Moran and I could be great buddies, although her constant need to make every single thing she says funny might wear thin after awhile.
But I expect there will be many people far younger than me who will read it and learn something about themselves and perhaps question why they're expected to behave in a certain manner. And for that reason I'd urge everyone — men and women alike — under the age of 40 to read this book. Yes, it's occasionally crude; yes, there is swearing in it and yes, sometimes she is agonisingly, wincingly honest. But even if you don't agree with all Moran's views, I doubt you'll read a funnier non-fiction book this year.
As an aside, the editing of this book was patchy in places — rogue commas, missing commas and a real clunker of a spelling mistake on page 306 of my edition in which the word "root" was used instead of "route". I hope subsequent smaller-format paperback editions might have put this right.