In 1837, Charlotte Brontë wrote a letter and enthusiastic submission to then Poet Laureate Robert Southey, including some of her poetry. While Southey acknowledged the skill and talent within the writing, he was dismissive and discouraging of her efforts, and advised her not to bother attempting to write professionally, as the literary world belonged to men, and was no place for a woman. Rather than giving up, Brontë and her two sisters Emily and Anne continued to write, and were published - under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Men’s names. That story should be of little surprise, given the politics of the 19th century.
What about a full century-and-a-half later, in 1995? When J.K. Rowling published the first of her record-obliterating Harry Potter books, she was not “J.K.”, but simply Joanne. It was her publisher, fearing that young boys, whose interests they hoped to catch, might be put off by a female author, who requested she switch to the gender neutral “J.K’. As Rowling has no middle name, the “K” in J.K. Rowling is an invention, taken from her paternal grandmother’s name, Kathleen. Forbes Magazine estimated Rowling’s net worth at $1 billion in March 2010. Would Joanne Rowling have become the billionaire J.K. did?
Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, has been the word on all the literary lips since its publication in August. While not all the critics loved it – the Washington Post was fairly scathing, for instance – the novel enjoyed countless congratulations, mentions of approval and favorable reviews, including an overwhelmingly positive review from the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani (notorious for not pulling punches) and a coveted endorsement from Oprah Winfrey in the form of a book club pick.
But amid the countless huzzahs was some disgruntled grumbling, most notably from bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, whose discontent stemmed from the perspective that the New York Times and other mainstream media display obvious bias toward white male authors, and male writers in general. While both Picoult and Weiner recognise they fit into the genre many would call “chick lit”, their complaint is that men who publish the same level and tone of commercial fiction – one example mentioned was Nick Hornby – enjoy more reviews, acclaim and respect than female counterparts.
Even if the sentiment came from jealousy, as some have opined, legions of supporters on Twitter and across the web in various op-ed pieces and blog entries chimed in to support the claims -including men. Including Franzen himself, who at a September Q&A answered a question about the debate by agreeing the industry does tend to critically skew in favor of men.
It’s disappointing to recognise, just as it’s disappointing to know that a budding author in 1995 was advised by the industry to hide her femaleness in the exact fashion as a budding author in 1837. It all led to thoughts about the female authors who have enriched and influenced my life since I began reading. Even before that, since the time my mother read to me.
I started a list in my head, a timeline of the female authors I’ve enjoyed. I was discouraged at first that so many male writers immediately filled my mind, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to think of many female writers. Did even I subconsciously gravitate toward male authors, and somehow associate them more with serious, respectable writing?
But then I thought a little harder. It started with the children’s books, of course. My mother read me Am I a Bunny?, my absolute favourite book of childhood, about a brown rabbit who is confused about his identity, and wonders if he might be a frog, a rat, a squirrel. It was by Ida DeLage and has long been out-of-print. I found Mum a copy for Mother’s Day on the site five years ago. She cried. It was great.
Beatrix Potter brought the already-cute animal world to exquisite life. Enid Blyton made me hungry for strange British foods like kippers, and expanded my vocabulary (she didn’t dumb it down). Laura Ingalls Wilder made me wish I lived in a different time and in a log cabin. Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume made me be a better kid, and answered some embarrassing questions with dignity and humour. Margery Williams helped teach patience and kindness and the grace of growing up with The Velveteen Rabbit.
When Matthew died in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, I cried like my heart would break. Same when Beth died in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Around that time, age 10 or so, I remember rummaging through my mother’s bookshelf and coming across Erma Bombeck. The book was colourful, with cherries on the cover, and I thought it might be entertaining, for an adult book. I was right. In retrospect, I didn’t understand all of the humour, but much of it was universally funny.
As I got older, my tastes broadened, and I became voracious, reading everything I could get my grubby mitts on. I went through a lengthy phase of devouring mysteries and thrillers. Forensic murder stories, whodunit murder stories, romantic murder stories – nothing was off-limits, and the grislier the better. I found what I was looking for in the works of Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie, Patricia Cornwell, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. Each different in her own way, they nevertheless all whetted my appetite for suspense and foreshadowing while I read feverishly, long after I should have been asleep.
When I became interested in fictional worlds, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley were there to fulfill my science fiction and fantasy needs with all the dragons, time travel, other planets, magical wars and fictional languages I could wish for.
As an adult, I’ve discovered and enjoyed classic authors like Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters (as Anne, Charlotte and Emily), as well as more contemporary authors like Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Kathryn Stockett, Kiran Desai, Elizabeth Kostova, Marilynne Robinson, and yes, generous helpings of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. I even tried Doris Lessing.
It seems to me that the world is teeming with talented female writers and that readers everywhere recognise and enjoy their work. The names I mention in this article are the small tip of an iceberg.
Sadly, I do recall as an adolescent noting the dearth of female authors on the high school curriculum. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders was a revelation – but she was almost buried beneath the men. And again – there are those telling initials in place of a first name. Susan Eloise might not have been as successful. We did a feature once called Required Reading Worldwide about the books assigned to high school students in various countries around the world. After revisiting that article, I was shocked to realise what I missed – of the 66 books, only nine are by women.
I don’t think the problem is the readers. I hope, perhaps naively, that people who love books and words and stories love them for their content, and recognise talent where talent lies, and that the packaging is indifferent. I hope the industry leaders like the New York Times and their contemporaries can shift the balance from exclusive to inclusive, at least slightly, and focus on variety over elitism.
I hope the publishers stop telling young women to hide behind initials to be successful. And I hope they stop needing to.