January 24, 2014

2014: the year of reading women?


Women writers: they've been around for a while now.

Women writers: they’ve been around for a while now.

Sometime last year, I pinned a sheet of paper above my desk with the title “Women Writers” and began forming a list of names of female writers that I had read whose novels I enjoyed, admired or found important. I did this because I had too often found myself reading literary criticism or having conversations about books in which every author mentioned was male. A communal, easy forgetfulness seemed to spread over the article’s writer and his reader, or over those taking part in the conversation, a coercive amnesia where we forgot that women had ever written books, that they might even be good, and that they could be discussed alongside books by men —and would hold their own— rather than in separate fenced-off conversations.

Last year was a bad year for women in literature. As we covered on MobyLives, figures were revealed that showed how male reviewers and authors vastly outnumbered their female counterparts across UK publications; only 8.7% of books reviewed in the LRB were by women. In the US, the New York Review of Books flaunted a boy’s-only bumper summer issue when, out of twenty seven contributors, only one was a woman (April Bernard reviewed Frank Bernard, and we mustn’t forget an archive piece from Joan Didion).

2014, the Guardian reports, is being declared the “Year of Reading Women”, owing to a few small but important examples of how readers and critics are considering their next read. Earlier this week we wrote about Daniel Pritchard, the editor of the American journal, Critical Flame has just announced that the “Critical Flame will dedicate one year of its review coverage wholly to women writers and writers of color.” As he explains on the journal’s website:

It is vital that we uncover the mechanisms that produce this disparity. You can’t fight what you cannot see, as the adage goes.

What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit… white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers—women, African Americans, latinos, etc.—are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality.

It’s an interesting idea, and worthwhile for underlining the point that people other than “white male figures” write, and are worth reading. But is this the best method for inclusion and the easiest way to achieve equality? By separating women and writers of colour from the dominant voice of “white male universality”, could a new kind of marginalization occur, just as some argue that instead of celebrating women writers, the women’s only Orange Prize in the UK serves to undermine them, putting writers in a category of “female and/but great” rather than just “great”?

The n+1 publication, No Regrets, which was published at the end of last year, and featured only women contributors, seemed to strike the right balance, even while acknowledging the difficulty of its endeavour:

The challenge posed by a book containing only women was well put by Susan Sontag…in her introduction to Annie Leibovitz’s monograph Women. “A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women—there is no equivalent ‘question of men.’

It can sometimes be a real pain to focus on women. Because by consciously focusing on women you draw attention to a difference from the norm rather than gesturing towards a universality. Despite this, the No Regrets contributors are committed to discussing the books they’ve read and loved, and those they regretted reading (no surprises where Philip Roth fits in). In doing so, they seek to confront the issue which started this blog by talking about books by both women and men, and addressing, as the Salon writer Amanda Hess put it:

“[their] disillusionment with manly canonical works…[and] their discovery of books that speak to a female experience and toward a complicated understanding of how both sexist and feminist works have influenced their view of the world”

Through the discussions in the book, the writers build a new canon, throwing out the books that didn’t work or undermined their identities, and adding the ones that did. The author and artist Joanna Walsh has done something similar in her #readwomen2014 project in which she created bookmarks featuring sketches of women authors, and populated the backs of the bookmarks with the names of 250 other great female writers. In doing so she has tapped into an important part of the reading process: one writer leads you to another. This often means; one male authors leads the reader to another male author, a cycle that is hard to break. With 250+ female names, other options present themselves.

2014 shouldn’t be the “Year of Reading Women” because every year should be that. But last year showed us that the literary establishment is presenting us with a very skewed view of human experience, critical opinion and artistic achievement. And whether you’re building your own personal canon with a list of “Women Writers” you can bring into a male-dominated conversation, or you’re vowing to read only women authors for a while, you contribute to altering an outdated landscape that should have changed long ago.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.