Forgotten womens writing

This Woman’s Work: Forgotten women’s writing and why we need to keep talking about it

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It was just an off-hand conversation that sparked the idea for the ‘Forgotten Women’ box.

“When did you first realise that most of what you read and learned about was by white men?”

For me, it was studying English Literature at university. Before then, I hadn’t really given a second thought to who was writing the books that I loved. Looking back, I can see that what I read was mostly by men – or at least, most of the books that I considered to be ‘good’ books. As a teenager, I read a lot of the classics. Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, E.M. Forster and other such bastions of the canon. Before going to university, I was still of the naive opinion that to show the world that I truly appreciated literature, I had to be firmly stuck in the past. A past, as it turns out, that was overwhelmingly white and male. Of course, I had read the handful of books by women that were deemed ‘classic’ – Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, for instance – but the main difference in the other books I had read by women when I was growing up was that they were very much outside this realm of esteem. What’s more, they were books that were overtly ‘for girls’; Jacqueline Wilson, or Meg Cabot, for instance. These were books that I adored and read greedily, but that were enough to generate disdain if glanced upon by – heaven forbid! – a boy. And for this reason, they became embarrassing – something to be concealed on the bookshelf, not displayed with a manner of pride in the same way my ‘classics’ would be. The obvious example of a female writer that transcended being tarred by the ‘girly’ brush would of course have to be J. K. Rowling – although perhaps helped along by her publisher’s suggestion of using initials rather than her full name so as not to put off young male readers.

The lack of representation in literature has its roots hundreds of years ago. Writing was seen as men’s work, leading many female writers to use male pseudonyms in order to get a chance at being published. Charlotte Brontë was told that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life” when she submitted a volume of poetry under her own name, but had immediate success with Jane Eyre when published as Currer Bell. When J. K. Rowling revealed to her editor that she was actually Robert Galbraith, he said “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” Rowling has explained that she wanted to use a pseudonym so that she could focus on the writing and let the books be judged on their own merit, but the response of her publisher sends a different message: that ‘women’s writing’ occupies a very distinct space, separate to that of what we should technically call ‘men’s writing.’ Although of course, no one does – men’s writing is just writing. The lack of representation and inherent assumption throughout history that male writers are more accomplished can be seen with a quick Google of ‘English Literary Canon.’ I counted the names listed; 143 male writers compose the canon, while only 24 female writers make the cut. A list which supposedly encapsulates the very best of literature, representing only a handful of female voices (and all white, at that). It’s certainly not that the literature wasn’t there. In the section of the page devoted to 20th century writing, only two female writers are noted – Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie. The independent publishing house Persephone Books specialise in publishing forgotten work by women in that time period. They currently stock 130 novels. So a few more than two female writers were working throughout the 20th century, it would seem.

While we are undeniably in a much better position than previously when it comes to women’s work being recognised in the publishing industry, there is still much to be done. For instance, in the 49 years that the Man Booker Prize has been running, 35 men have won while only 18 women have won. That’s before we begin to approach the issue of other kinds of representation within literature. I used the same approach to look at the representation of white versus BAME winners. Even more depressing a tally, there have been 44 white winners against just 9 BAME winners.

The debate around gender bias and diversity within publishing – in terms of both those who work in the industry and those who are published by it – is not a new one. Feminist scholars in the 1970s and 1980s were concerned with rediscovering forgotten female writers, and it is still a topic of discussion today. If you’re brave enough to delve into the comments following articles about gender bias, you’ll see some common responses. That this is not a problem any more, and that we should stop banging on about it. Didn’t you see how many women were nominated for the Booker Prize last year? Sounds like the real problem is #MisandryInPublishing#MisandryInPublishing. You want to spend a year only publishing works by women? Reverse sexism, plain and simple. The same goes for debates around diversity. Attempts to level the playing field are often accused of giving people an unfair advantage; awarding them for ‘ticking the diversity box’ rather than awarding the best writer. Penguin’s recent commitment to make their hiring and publishing output reflect UK society by 2025 is a brilliant step in the right direction, but it was not without indignation. As the publisher rightly said in their response to Lionel Shriver’s criticism, “books shape our culture, and this should not be driven only by people who come from a narrow section of society”.

When we publish books mainly by white men, we skew the world in their favour. All the complexities and beauty of the diverse experiences that coexist on our planet are further marginalised. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The Danger Of A Single Story,’ she talks about how she grew up reading British and American books. As a result, all the stories she wrote as a child featured characters who were “white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples.” When she began to read novels by African writers, she “went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognised.”

Having access to literature from all over the world, encompassing diverse ways of thinking and living, is a wonderful and valuable thing. But when all you see are the experiences of another, you miss out on much of what is so unique about reading. That feeling of understanding exactly what a character is thinking; being able to see yourself in the narrative and feel connected to the story. That’s not to say it is impossible to relate to a book that features someone from a different background to our own, but representation matters. Our bookshelves and bestseller lists have been dominated by a single story for long enough, and it is time to make more room for the stories of women, BAME, LGTBQ+, disabled, and working class writers.

Unless publishing becomes more diverse, we risk losing more great novelists to the ranks of the forgotten. If it weren’t for Alice Walker, it’s likely that we wouldn’t be discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God today, for instance. When the novel came out in 1937 it was poorly received, and despite being one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston fell into obscurity. Following an essay written by Walker, Their Eyes Were Watching God was reissued, and today is one of the thirteen books in the Virago Press Modern Classics editions chosen to commemorate forty years of the publishing house. While Hurston may no longer be ‘forgotten,’ she still occupies a somewhat hidden space in our reading consciousness. For a writer with such a distinct voice, who influenced some of the most celebrated contemporary female writers – Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou – she is still relatively unknown. I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in an African American Literature class at university, and was completely blown away by her writing. It was like nothing else I had ever read. As Zadie Smith puts it so beautifully in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought; but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece of prose, as emotionally satisfying as it is impressive.”

It is unthinkable to think of this book not being accessible; that Hurston’s masterpiece could so easily have been lost. With these ‘forgotten’ books, there is also the consideration of who gets to access them. Alice Walker was an influential writer, with the platform to change the public perception of Zora Neale Hurston and get people to begin reading her again. Many of the discoveries of forgotten writers will be by academics, with archival access and the tools to conduct the necessary research. You may learn about these books if you have the option to study them as part of higher education, but they won’t always reach the public – making it harder for them to be recognised outside of academia. The fact that the work of female and other marginalised writers can be forgotten forever because of the cultural structures and attitudes that shape the publishing industry is something that needs to be addressed.

So what can we do to ensure that more writers like Zora Neale Hurston and the countless writers that came before (and after) her aren’t forgotten in favour of their male contemporaries? Read more diversely. Take the time to look at your bookshelves and consider how they’re swayed. Support independent publishers that are doing everything they can to make the literature that we read more diverse and inclusive. Our reading appetites can only be enhanced by allowing more voices to come through and be recognised. When we make a commitment to keep talking about and fighting to eliminate gender and diversity bias – not just in literature, but all parts of our society – everyone will win.

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