Women writers Part 2

María Luisa Bombal - one of the many neglected women writers
María Luisa Bombal – one of the many neglected women writers

In my previous post on this topic, I said that I would say more in a subsequent post about my own failings in this area. However, I first want to look at other literary blogs. There are loads of wonderful literary blogs out there but I have picked a few favourite ones – you will find all but one on my list at the left and down a bit and the one not there has been mentioned in a previous blog post. However, I have decided to select only blogs written by women. (Quick mildly relevant aside. In my previous life, I worked for a large international organisation, which struggled with the issue of promoting and encouraging women and which had a large majority of men at the top. I was very much involved in this issue and my sad experience was that some women could be just as discriminatory against women as men (I had to make it to the top the hard way, why can’t they?)). This in no way implies that any of these women bloggers are the same. Choosing them is, of course, terribly unfair as they are often constrained by what is out there, I am almost certainly looking at a very limited and arbitrary subset of their output and they have no obligation whatsoever to promote women writers but, what the hell?, the blogosphere is unfair.

  • Blog of a Bookslut is one of the foremost literary blogs out there and is essential reading for all interested in things literary. It is edited by Jessa Crispin. I looked at the entries for the first eleven days of December and the score (depending how you count) was about 3-2 in favour of men.
  • A German (actually Austrian) writer you should not miss
  • Katy Derbyshire’s Love German Books is a superb blog on, well, German books. As she had only had four posts in December, I went back a little bit further and, limiting myself only to writers and not translators and others mentioned, the score was around 1.8-1 in favour of men, despite the fact that the first post started off mentioning seven women writers.
  • Lizzy Siddal’s blog is Lizzy’s Literary Life and, in the recent period, has focussed on German books. Even counting the Brothers Grimm as one, the men led the women 3-1, though she does link to 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss (of which, I am ashamed to say, I have only read three of the authors, though own a few of the others).
  • Liza Hayden Espenschade’s Lizok’s Bookshelf is the best blog on Russian literature (at least in English). Again, focusing only on the writers of books, the score is around 3-1 in favour of men.
  • Marcia Lynx Qualey has the best blog in English on Arabic literature. Her score for the period was about 3-1 in favour of men, though that presumably reflects the situation in the Arab world.
  • I mentioned Ann Morgan’s A Year of the Reading the World in a previous post . She has done an excellent job of trying to track down women authors and has partially succeeded. However, her entries at least for countries beginning with A & B, show a 1.8-1 ratio in favour of men.

So, just let me repeat. I am in no way criticising these bloggers but merely pointing out the probably sad reality that male writers of literary novels are more abundant/get more attention/are deemed to be more important – choose your own argument. Let me illustrate it further. Let us take the best-known literary novelists of France, Germany and Italy of the middle of the last century, i.e. around 1930-1970, when the Victorians had died off but who have been round long enough for critics and readers to decide whether they are worthy of being included in the canon or not. I am well aware that taking canonical writers presupposes that the selection of the canon is objective when it clearly is not and almost certainly has a bias towards male writers or, at least, writers writing in what may be deemed to be a more male style (and, yes, there is a difference). Nevertheless, many of us take note of the canon, even if to reject it. So here is what I consider the canonical novelists for this period and these countries:

Colette - a canonical French novelist
Colette – a canonical French novelist
  • France: Alain-Fournier, Bernanos, Camus, Céline, Cocteau, Colette, de Beauvoir, Duras, Gide, Giono, Malraux, Mauriac, Montherlant, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Saint-Exupéry, Sarraute, Sartre, Tournier, Yourcenar. Fifteen men and five women. No Aragon, du Gard, Duhamel, Romains or Sagan but to include them would not alter the ratio that much. You could argue that de Beauvoir should not be included as a novelist but more for her non-fiction. (Wikipedia’s article on the novel of the 1915-1945 has no women (no Colette!) and, in its article on the post-war novel mentions only Duras and Sarraute and eight men.)
  • Germany: Andersch, Bienek, Böll, Döblin, Graf, Grass, Jahnn, Johnson, Koeppen, Lenz, Thomas Mann, Arno Schmidt, Walser, Wolf. Thirteen men and just one woman. No Andres, Gaiser, Hesse, Heinrich Mann, Nossack, Remarque, Renn, Rinser, Seghers. Even if we added Rinser and Seghers to the total, the figures would still be grim. (Wikipedia has a far lower ratio of women writers.)
  • Italy: Bacchelli, Buzzati, Calvino, Fenoglio, Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Lampedusa, Levi, Manganelli, Maraini, Morante, Moravia, Ortese, Pavese, Pirandello, Pratolini, Sciascia, Silone, Svevo, Vittorini, Volponi. Seventeen men and four women. (Incidentally, see the Wikipedia suggestions if you consider that I am being biassed. Not a single woman.) No Cialente (almost entirely out of print in Italy), de Céspedes (only a collection of four of her novels in print in Italy; the individual novels have long been out of print), Manzini.

It is not a pretty picture and, even if you disagree with my estimate of who should and should not be in the canon, you can see that Wikipedia’s estimate is even worse. Yes, we know that Wikipedia has a strong male bias (see also here) and it is quite likely that these articles were written by men but I find it hard to believe that any but the most ardent feminist could substantially disagree with my estimate of the canon. Yes, there might be disagreement on who should and should not be in it but I would estimate that the male-female ratio would be unlikely to alter much. I am well aware that the canon has almost certainly been determined by mainly male critics and that there has been a lot of effort in recent years by critics such as Elaine Showalter and publishers such as Virago and The Feminist Press (for more publishers of women’s writing, see the Women page on my website (scroll down)) to help bring neglected women writers into the canon. While we can only welcome these efforts, as we can see above, male writers still tend to dominate in many areas.

I got too carried way on this post so the next post (really) will deal with my failings.

2 thoughts on “Women writers Part 2”

  1. Nice post. Thanks very much for mentioning A Year of Reading the World – glad you like it. I should just point out that I haven’t been trying to track down women writers specifically for it. I did a year of reading women in 2011 but this year I’ve just been reading what people recommend regardless of gender.

    My hunch tells me that the ratio you found in the As and Bs is probably fairly representative though – more men still make it into print them women in most parts of the world… except perhaps Lesotho, where the literacy rate is much higher among women than men because boys there are traditionally taken off to be trained in ‘manly’ things like hunting and farming while girls are sent to school.

    • Ann, Thanks for your comments. My comments on the women writers were based on the fact that, as regards the As and Bs, you did seem to have a few interesting women writers mentioned in your list. Interesting to hear about Lesotho, though the only writer I have from there is male. I very much enjoy your site and am very impressed with your assiduous research and, as you will see in my next blog post, have taken several ideas from you.


Leave a comment