…Aeschylus, Ovid, Cicero, the Pearl-Poet, Dante, Thomas More, Shakespeare, John Donne.

There, the reference points that I’ve got a good two thousand years of European literature and rhetori: Aeschylus died in 456 BC, John Donne in 1631 AD. They and the big names that crop up between them are the groundrock of the degree I did, a degree just called ‘English’ but about a very specific definition of that term.

Each wrote things that I find beautiful and valuable. All these reference points on that mental timeline I have are dudes, though, and that’s not something I can take lightly. I’m a feminist and I’ve spent years and committed to reading and writing; I can’t ignore the massive sex inequality in this tradition I care deeply for.

I’m aware of Sappho, but I haven’t been taught her works and I haven’t yet fancied hunting down a good translation on my own to read them myself. I can’t think of many other women I seen as literary landmarks in those time periods. What I know of women across those years makes them objects, not subjects. Female characters are shown to us as anything from deeply subtle to utterly idealised to misogynistic stereotypes, but they’re all characters: the writing I know from those times was something men did that was sometimes about women.

Despite the huge change in global literacy rates since Donne died, the things the English-speaking world calls literary haven’t moved nearly as far as I’d like from that long-term status quo. There are huge gaps in what I know about the subject, and what I do know is Eurocentric and embarrassingly full of white privilege, so I’m gonna talk about the books I know and love. With them I’ll draw a bit of a map of my reading habits.

In the interest of experimentation, I organised the books I have with me where I live right now. Only one overflowing bookshelf, mind. I reorganised them into favourited by sex to see how that plays out in my favourite writers. I’ll admit, I did this with a sense of dread. If all the favourite writing of mine was by dudes, what did that say about me as a person? And (because I’m reflexively arrogant about my own judgment) what does it say about women if I don’t like what any women have done in this field I love?

I mean, logically I’m aware that it’d say women aren’t often given rooms of their own, that they haven’t often been given them across the whole of history, that they haven’t been permitted or encouraged to live inside their own heads and find what they found there worth sharing with an audience. But it’d worry me anyway even as I blamed the patriarchy.

Here’s what I found. This is a snapshot and situational and transient, but I think it says a fair bit about me which books I’ve chosen to buy my own copies of and which I brought to this house, even if those aren’t reliable indicators. They’re pretty far from definitive – for the last few years most things I buy have been found second-hand and locally, and far more things have been borrowed than bought – but letting me pick my own favourites would be less reliable still, because then I’d be trying to sort by gender. Even if this is a skewed snapshot, it’s still an interesting image, seeing what I’ve kept with me.

With that said, here goes:

– the Laundry series (Charles Stross)
On Friendship (Michel Montaigne)
The Divine Comedy (Dante)
Selected Poems (T. S. Eliot)
Zero History (William Gibson) (standing in for its prequel, Pattern Recognition)
If this is a Man (Primo Levi)
The Rediscovery of Man (Cordwainer Smith)
Mortal Engines (Phillip Reeve)

8 male authors, and a collected works of John Donne would be on the shelf beside them if I hadn’t just been looking something up in it. They represent a huge time period and range of genres, from Dante’s exacting and ardent religious verse to Cordwainer Smith’s weird and atmospheric and imaginative but decidedly unpolished fifties science fiction. Four of that list plus Donne are writers I came across while learning literature formally – and they’re relevant to me outside it, or they wouldn’t have come with me now I’ve left education.

The women, by contrast:

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Selling Out (Justina Robson)
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)
Thoughts on Peace in an Air-Raid (Virginia Woolf)
Deadline (Mira Grant) (although Feed is nearer my heart)
The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay) (ditto The World my Wilderness)
Collected Stories (Elizabeth Bowen)
Zoo City (Lauren Beukes)

I found eight female authors. I looked for my copy of A Purple Sea, but it’s on loan for now. The subsequent absence of Ambai from my top list of books makes me notice how uniformly white this collection of writers is: most are British, and all those of them I know biographical details for were rich middle class ladies.

Far fewer of them than the men were taught to me in school – actually, I think Virginia Woolf is the only one I found there without having to ask for women to write about, where the four male ‘literary’ authors are seen as canonical and were all offered to me unprompted. My mum leant me two of the books, and they were both important enough to me that now I’ve left home I picked them up for myself when I found them second-hand (Bel Canto and We Need To Talk About Kevin). The choices of Bowen and Macaulay and Woolf come from my fascination with women and London and writing and World War Two, and they brought during the dissertation I wrote about the topic. They all wrote perceptive and beautiful and strange things, some things about women that I sometimes identify with and some that I just admire from afar.

But as much as I love them, they’re not as capital-l Literary as the men. Bowen is seen as a competent novelist despite innovating with as much verve as Phillip Green or anyone else writing during the time; Woolf is acknowledged and admired but wasn’t taught to me as a central part of writing during her time; Macaulay is completely marginal, despite her wonderfully complicated intertextual writing. Perhaps it’s because her novels are accessible and engaging despite all their jigsaw details, but I think mostly it’s because she writes about mostly about gloriously complicated women trying to be self-sufficient.

Mira Grant writes about bloggers and zombies and Justina Robson about an angry cyborg woman and Lauren Beukes about Pullman-like daemons (if their existence was freighted with stigma). They’re all excellent stories, largely with stronger writing than most more mainstream fiction, and at least two out of three of them make for some nicely pointed social commentary. Those are not even most of the reasons I care for the stories. Only one of these authors was recommended to me, and that at a request for sci-fi by women. I remain unconvinced that Charles Stross and William Gibson are consistently better authors, although I must admit that Pattern Recognition is my current favourite contemporary novel.

Anyway, where the dudes range from the 1300s to the twenty-first century, from teenage fantasy-fiction to humanist philosophy, the women’s writing I’ve been keeping close to my heart this year all comes from after the start of the Second World War. All of it is prose, all except the Woolf essays is adult fiction. Admittedly, my book of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays essays would be there if it’d fit on the shelf, but then so would a volume of Qu Lei Lei’s art, or Mervyn Peake’s sketches and commentary on draughtmanship. Less diversity of form and of subject matter by a long way. Much, much less diversity in time period.

None of my favourite pieces of writing by women here are recognised as classics. That’s not to say that there aren’t classics by women. But there are fewer, and almost all of those that I was taught about are stories about loving men. Until there’s a broader range, I want to keep noticing that shortfall. I’ll keep recommending books by women and asking for recommendations – and I reckon the next few things I buy online are definitely not going to be by white dudes, thanks, there are enough of those in the libraries I visit.

 

ps. Amongst the many things I love are book recommendations. Social dystopian fiction and pre-1800s verse by women most especially welcome.

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