Let’s Start a Conversation: Women in Literature

In 2011, Nava Atlas wrote a blog post, Based Upon the Book: An Interview with Charlotte Bronte, where she “interviewed” Charlotte Bronte. In order to accomplish this literary feat, Atlas utilized Charlotte Bronte’s letters and essays to posit her own questions. The most interesting aspect of Atlas’ post was learning about the difficulties the Bronte sisters had getting published.

Back in 1846, anything considered “feminine,” which typically meant anything written by women, was not considered valid or taken seriously. As a result, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Bronte decided to use pseudonyms; thus becoming Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell respectively. In an essay, Charlotte Bronte observed:

“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell … we did not like to declare ourselves women, because— without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine”—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, flattery, which is not true praise.”

When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it was an immediate bestseller. But when some critics learned that Curer Bell was actually Charlotte Bronte—a woman, a governess—they quickly disparaged the novel on the grounds of Charlotte Bronte’s gender, instead of Jane Eyre’s literary merit.

This leads me to question the lack of gender parity in literature. Here are my findings:

  • In March 2017, a bookstore in Cleveland decided to turn all the books by male authors backwards, shelving them spine-in. The resulting experiment, “Illustrating the Gender Gap in Fiction,” produced staggering, but not altogether surprising, results. Almost all of the shelved books had needed to be flipped.
  • Ben Blatt’s Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, examines how male and female writers write their characters differently. He does this by counting the number of verbs used to describe both male and female characters. A male character “grins,” “shouts,” chuckles,” and “kills”. While a female character “weeps,” “screams,” “murmurs” and “marries”. This pattern illustrates how authors tend to view characters through a prism based on gender. Men are portrayed as being suave, debonair, and, when push comes to shove, killers. On the other hand, women are often portrayed as dainty—the typical “shrinking violet”.
  • VIDA, a non-profit organization, publishes the “VIDA Count” which highlights gender imbalances in the literary arts. Their 2017 Count show that the literary arts are predominantly male-dominated.
  • Three Percent, a resource for translated texts hosted by the University of Rochester in New York, has compiled a database of fiction and poetry in translation. Their data shows that the total percentage of female authors whose works have been translated is 29.03%.

How can we support women in literature? It is as simple as reading their works and spreading the word. There are also groups, which are open to everyone, that celebrate the work of female authors. For instance, August is Women in Translation Month (WITMonth). The purpose being to encourage readers to explore translated literature written by women and to shed light on other books that have not yet been translated. Let’s bring that 29.03% up to 50%.

Being a part-time book blogger, I’m seeing a lot of online conversations about the lack of gender parity in literature. Looking at The New York Times Book Review’s Top 10 Best Books of 2017, female writers dominate the list. Authors include Ali Smith, Min Jin Lee, Naomi Alderman, Jesmyn Ward, Caroline Fraser, and Patricia Lockwood. The Guardian’s Top 100 Bestselling Books includes 41 women and 22 men. According to an article in The Bookseller by Tom Tivnan, female authors have dominated the literary fiction bestseller lists in 2017.

It’s amazing what conversations can do.

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