A year ago, I made a public pledge to devote 2015 to covering the works of neglected women writers. I was reacting to Phyllis Rose’s comments in her 2014 book, The Shelf, who was, in turn, reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”
Although I have covered the works of numerous women writers on this site, the fact was that, prior to 2015, men and their writings accounted for over 75% of my material. At a minimum, I felt that a year devoted to women would help correct that imbalance, but I also suspected that the experience might pry open my own blinders a little. I grew up in a household where my mom was the only female, and she was the only daughter in a family with ten sons. Living with my wife continues to be a daily learning process, and having my own daughter has been delight, even if it’s occasionally put me in situations for which I’ve had no point of reference as a male … like the day when, as the only parent home, I had help her shop for her first feminine hygiene product. But if I step back and take a look at my studies, my work, and my interests, the fact is that they’ve been dominated by male voices and perspectives.
I didn’t think that respect for women writers was a problem for me, but I would have to say that it’s largely been something I’ve tended to keep from a distance. And spending this last year reading nothing but the words of women has given me respect for something I don’t think I ever really appreciated before. For some weeks, I’ve been mulling over how to express this, and the right words still elude me, but to put it simply, throughout all the books I’ve read this year, the one absolutely consistent difference in perspective I’ve found between the writings of women and those of men is that women never assume that they–or someone like them–is running their world. They may run the household or make their own decisions about where they live, what they do, who they love, but there is always sense of a culture, government, economy, society, and geography controlled by others … meaning men.
Of course, there are many male writers who write from a position of dis-empowerment, whether it’s political, economic, class, or cultural, so that’s not quite the differentiating factor. But Solzhenitsyn, Frederick Douglass, Franz Fanon, or Victor Klemperer were writing against oppression organized and carried out by other men, and implicit in each of their messages was the assumption that a world free of the oppression they opposed would still be a world run by men.
Now, just from observing the informal organizational abilities of my wife and daughter and comparing them to mine or those of my sons, I often wonder why women aren’t running the world. Take, for example, this viral video of a college women’s swimming team goofing around at an airport or, closer home, this music video made a few years ago by some of the girls on our local high school volleyball team during a long bus ride back from the U.K.: how many boys’ teams would have the level of creative inspiration, motivational spirit, and organizational ability to put something like these together? OK, it does happen–but it’s more likely that most of them are just hunkering down, focused in on their iPhones, and killing time. So I support Sheryl Sandberg’s message that more women should “lean in” and take leadership roles, and I hope our first woman President follows our first black President without too many more years’ delay. But this isn’t the world we’re living in yet, and it certainly wasn’t the world in which any of the women I’ve read in the last year lived.
The other significant different in perspective I’ve come to appreciate is that of women’s grasp of the particular. When any of these women imagines a utopia, it is a small world, centered on their own lives, often just involving the freedom to make simple choices or be free of certain narrow social conventions. It’s not a vast, abstract concept peopled by generic bodies with no distinguishing identity. When E. F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful, it was received as something of a revolutionary message, but women writers have always understood this. And, in truth, attention to the particular almost always makes for more interesting writing.
The final observation I draw from this last year is that there is a wealth of fascinating but forgotten books written by women, and even one year’s exclusive study wasn’t enough to make a serious dent in this trove. I had been planning for some months to focus on the short story in 2016, since short story collections are, more often than not, sales dogs in the publishing world, and, unless included in some anthology, short stories tend to be far more perishable than novels. But as I reviewed the long list of titles I collected a year ago, I realize that I really don’t have a good reason to stop mining this particular vein. I recently bought a fine copy of the four volume edition of Dorothy Richardson’s pioneering novel sequence, Pilgrimage, from John Schulman’s excellent Caliban Book Shop, and the quality of Richardson’s writing captured me with the very first page, and convinced me that I would have to keep going and finish the nearly two thousand that followed it. That no one has made a connection between Richardson’s fictionalized autobiographical sequence and Karl Ove Knausgård’s much-discussed My Struggle series just demonstrated how much the world have forgotten her work.
And so, instead of bringing this experiment to a close with the end of 2015, I’ve decided to extend it for a second year, and to continue devoting these posts to bringing the neglected works of fine women writers to light. Although evidence such as the recent list of the top 200 most-used texts in college curricula published by the Open Syllabus project demonstrates that the work of women writers commands a larger share of the canon that ever before, one only has to look at counterexamples, such as Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay for Tin House, “On Pandering,” to see that the balance is still in need of some shifting.
And, of course, I can’t help but feel tremendous empathy for her call for readers to create their own canons:
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
I’d like to think that Watkins’ ending manifesto speaks not just to the need to judge the work of women writers without recourse to comparisons with that of males or that of an arbitrary list of books but only based on “what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up.” I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider. And that is reason enough to keep going.