I spent my four years of college delving deep into the foundations of Western civilization in a 60-credit major called the Program of Liberal Studies—one of the greatest decisions of my life. The program is based around six Great Books seminars, in which you read 87 classic texts that have shaped our world, from The Iliad through The Invisible Man. Of the texts in those six seminars, 81 were written by a man. The remaining six were penned by female authors: the poet Sappho, Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, Jane Austen, and my dearly beloved Virginia Woolf. Granted, there were a good many texts by Plato and Aristotle that inflate that number a bit, but you get the point.
This is not a fault of the program so much as it is simply the nature of our history. It’s a problem Virginia Woolf addresses in A Room of One’s Own (a text that is far more nuanced and profound than it is ever given credit for): “For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” She puts forth the fictional tale of Judith Shakespeare, William’s sister—”her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways.” Of course Judith was not taught to read or write, she was saddled with household chores from a young age, her desire to create was ridiculed, and she ultimately kills herself.
“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems,” Woolf writes. As far as I’m concerned, that statement is as true in 2015 as it was in 1929.
Novelist Nicola Griffith recently analyzed the last 15 years of book-length fiction awards, and her findings were troubling, if not all that surprising. From 2000 to 2015 the most prestigious book award, the Pulitzer was awarded to a man eight times and a woman six. Cool. The more salient point is that of those 14 books, not one tells the story of a woman. All eight male-penned protagonists were male, along with three of the female-penned protagonists. The remaining three focus on men and women equally. “For the prize that recognizes “the most distinguished fiction by an American author,” not a single book-length work from a woman’s perspective or about a woman was considered worthy,” Griffith writes. “Women aren’t interesting, this result says. Women don’t count.”
It’s not a new problem. The lives of men have long been considered the rightful subject of great literature—Virginia Woolf knew it in 1929. What’s remarkable is that we’re having the same conversation 86 years later. “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war,” Woolf writes. “This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
I recently came to the realization that for a feminist writer who is (particularly online) constantly surrounded by brilliant female writers, my book list does not adequately reflect my passion for women telling their stories. I started off last summer by reading three highly-praised literary novels by men, about men which I found mediocre and forgettable. It was around that time I started asking myself what exactly I was doing—why was my bookshelf so heavily skewed toward male authors?
It turns out that I too had fallen prey to the “great, important literature is usually written by a man” mentality that I despise. I was picking up far more works with male authors and male protagonists than I was books by women about women, because somewhere in a dark corner of my mind I was thinking they might be frivolous or lesser in some way, “chick lit” as it were.
To give myself a little bit of credit here, gendered covers don’t help. Book categorizations like “Women’s Fiction” don’t help. Meg Wolitzer addressed this in an important 2012 New York Times piece, “On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” (This is a brilliant article and you should read it, along with her most recent adult novel, The Interestings.)
“Look at some of the jackets of novels by women,” Wolitzer writes. “Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house. Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, or the jumbo lettering on The Corrections. Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.”” As a serious reader and a graphic designer, it’s not surprising that those are the types of novels I’m inclined toward. One look at the three novels I mentioned above makes it pretty damn obvious—these books look fucking important. These books are events. They contain thoughts that are big and witty and profound. Female literary fiction simply does not get the same treatment.
Obviously this is a complex problem with no single solution, but at least for my part, I refuse to fall victim to this mentality any longer. I desperately want to read stories by women, about women. Diverse women in every sense of the word—racially, culturally, socioeconomically, in terms of writing style, subject, fiction or non, YA or adult. I want to spend the summer filling my mind with female stories and female voices.
Over the past few months I’ve warmed up with Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, (speaking of covers, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen) The Wrong Man by Kate White (my mentor), I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (because throughout high school and college I was never required to read it—distressing in itself), and Happily Ali After by Ali Wentworth. And that is only the beginning.
I want to read great, important books, well-written prose, moving stories, insightful stories, funny stories. It’s just time I looked to women to provide them.