By Alison Balaskovits
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter recently, you’ve ideally seen #readwomen2014. Started by Joanna Walsh, it is both a pointed critique of the male dominated publishing scene, drawing attention to how fewer women receive the same attention as their male counterparts, as well as a good ice-breaker: which women have you read and enjoyed recently? While twitter, by its nature, condenses all conversation to a smattering of words, it’s so cool to see so many people speaking up about the words they value.
Why is this happening now? We’ve known that women are getting the short end of the literary stick: less publications, less reviews, less notice. The VIDA numbers have been steadily reporting this trend for years, and a cursory glance at any given Norton anthology will say the same. I recorded the American Literature shorter seventh edition Volume 1 and found 45 entries for men and 20 for women. I gave up before I finished Volume 2, because you know exactly what it looks like. It’s not, necessarily, that we chose sexist reading habits, but that those reading habits are designed by the curriculum. In other words, while not really impossible, it’s more difficult to find a woman, though that depends where you’re looking.
If you want to find a woman on the printed page your best bet is to pick up an issue of InTouch or UsWeekly where, depending on the slant, you can see our bodies increasingly photoshopped or in our “natural” state on the beach, and damn, doesn’t she look a little heavy these days? The horror. The horror.
To find her beyond her body is a little trickier, and I’ve often wondered why. Perhaps it is because defining what makes a woman is rather difficult, especially as gender and sex are further understood, or if not understood than at least argued, to be social constructs. The old definition-joke that you can find a woman by what is missing between her legs falls a bit flat; actually, plenty of women have penises. And some men have vaginas. So really, when we say woman, what we really mean is someone with less access to having her story heard, that is, unless she’s exactly what we think a woman ought to be: young and pretty.
Recently the New York Times had an article by Fay Weldon about how even though the bulk of readers are older women, the typical story that isn’t about a young or middle aged man who is angry about something but whose anger benefits his narrative, revolves around the lives of young women, that moment when they are socially desirable, precocious, beautiful. We see this on television as well. For all the instances of the brilliant Jessica Walters, there are a handful of carbon copies of what we think a woman looks like; young, pretty, white, thin. That’s not to say that some women don’t look like that (they do!) or that there’s anything wrong with looking like that (there isn’t!). The problem becomes when this is the only woman who is allowed to be seen. It feeds into our cultural belief that men age gracefully, and when a woman somehow manages to do it it’s something of an achievement, rather than the expectation. Women must earn the position to be seen and heard, whereas for men, they just naturally get better. Perhaps this is partially because writers are expected to get their work published as quickly as they can – for those of us in academia, if you want that teaching job, you better have that brilliant book in hand and it certainly won’t hurt if you’re on a 30 under 30 list. If you do get published after hitting the “old” streak, and your book does well, it might even be a news story with the implied tagline: look, old people still contribute to our community! Yay, team!
I am cautiously thrilled about this: partially, I am wary of labeling anything the token group that we’re going to pay attention to this season because they won’t shut up if we don’t, goodness!, and because it risks falling into stereotypes of what we think a woman is – Vice with their candid assurance that women like clothing so much they’ll be willing to buy and gawk at the stocking of a famous suicide – while entirely ignoring her lived and written reality.
So let’s not ignore her. If you’re a little hesitant about where to start, I’ve gathered a entirely too small list of women writers with strong and complex voices:
Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Roxane Gay, Alissa Nutting, Angela Carter, Mary Karr, Anita Desai, Taiye Selasi, Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore Edith Wharton, Leslie Marmon Silko, Octavia Butler, Susanna Clarke, Anne Carson, Lydia Millet, Laura Van Den Berg, Edwidge Danticat, Chiya Fujino, Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ruth Ozeki, Deborah Eisenberg, Claire Messud, Katherine Dunn, Anne Sexton, Sarah Waters, Sylvia Plath, A. M. Holmes, Sara Maitland, Tea Obreht, Mary Shelley, Jeannette Winterson, Diana Wynn Jones, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kate Chopin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Helen DeWitt, A. S. Byatt, Audre Lorde, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Catton, Jane Austen, Heather Fowler, Erin Morgenstern, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Amy Lowell, Flannery O’ Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, Joy Harjo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Jane Austen, Joy Leftow, Doris Lessing, Gig Ryan, Stevie Smith, Anne McCaffrey …