In my recent post on Phyllis Rose’s latest book, The Shelf, I mentioned that Rose’s comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers was making me think that I should set aside 2015 as a year to focus on the neglected works of women writers. Rose was reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson recounts a conversation he had with a fellow editor:
I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, “When was the last time you read fiction by a woman?” And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment … because I’ve spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world … and apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.
To make amends, 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.”
Reading this passage in The Shelf caused me to take a look at my own track record. Over the 8+ years I’ve maintained this site, I’ve written about 240 pieces on individual books. I’ve certainly tried to highlight the work of a number of women writers–Isabel Paterson was an early discovery, I featured Katharine Brush’s This is On Me as a unique illustration of the craft of writing for a living, and devoted considerable space to such forgotten woman writers as Thyra Samter Winslow, I. A. R. Wylie, and the diamond-in-the-rough Ada Blom. Helen Bevington was my favorite discovery of 2013 and Anne Goodwin Winslow the best of 2014. And my article on Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine led, indirectly, to that novel being reissued in 2009 and her unpublished novel, Clair de Lune, being issued by Harper Perennial in 2012.
Still, the numbers don’t lie. Less than a quarter of all the pieces are on works by women. And perhaps more tellingly, a small fraction of my Amazon Wish List items are by women. That puts me ahead of Rose’s “Joe Pubgoer,” who doesn’t even try to read writing by women, but in the ranks of her “Really Good Guys”: “The Really Good Guys know they should respect women writers, but it doesn’t come naturally.”
As any good music teacher knows, some of the best habits in the world are those that don’t come naturally. What comes naturally, as William James pointed out in his classic piece on Habit, is often what takes the least effort and attention. What becomes second nature becomes the rut in which we roll back and forth without variation. “It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice.”
Replacing a nurtured habit with good one takes more effort, particularly at the start. As James advised, “We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.” “Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way,” he wrote: “Take a public pledge, if the case allows.”
Well, this case certainly allows. So let this be my public pledge to devote this site to the coverage of the work of women writers in 2015, in hopes that they will continue to have a prominent place in 2016 and beyond.
I’ve already had some help to this end. D. H. Sayer wrote recently to recommend the work of Carol DeChellis Hill, whose life and work he covered in remarkable detail in this post on his own blog from 2013, and Tom Frick pointed me toward this article from the Poetry Foundation on Rosemary Tonks, an English poet and novelist whose collected poems were released as Bedouin of the London Evening by Bloodaxe Books just before Christmas. And as I do my research for this year’s reading, I observe the same kind of domino effect I’ve noticed ever since creating this site–namely, that finding out about a book or writer I’ve never heard of leads more often to another and another and another than it leads to a dead end. Already I have a stack building: Helen Bevington’s journals from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; more novels by Isa Glenn and Anne Goodwin Winslow, both previously covered; several each by the fashionable radicals Elizabeth Hawes and Marya Mannes; short story collections by Katinka Loesser, Ivy Litvinov and Cora Jarrett; memoirs by Mina Curtiss and Joan Colebrook; and science fiction by Rosel George Brown and Naomi Mitchison. I also hope to dip into the vast number (70+) of “silver fork” novels by Catherine Gore, whom the Times once called “the best novel writer of her class and the wittiest woman of her age.”
Feel free to offer your own recommendations, which are always welcome. And if the list grows too long to finish this year, I guess we can keep going into 2016 and beyond.