While I’ve been doing my “Every Dead Author” challenge – my attempt to read a small piece by every author ever published – I came across a glaring omission from the “Great Canon of Literature” – women. In fact, as soon as I started and drew up my list, I noticed the list was seriously lacking any female names. There were the usual suspects, of course – the Brontes, Jane Austen – but their scarcity of number merely highlighted their absence. There were others such as Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they would hardly be regarded in the same breath as Joyce or Dickens.
Now, one of the reasons often given for this is that – in those days – women simply didn’t write, or if they did, they kept it private. It’s known, for instance, that both the Brontes and Jane Austen published their books under pseudonyms because a woman writing just wasn’t socially acceptable. And this is fair enough as an explanation but the fact of the matter is, as I found out, women did publish.
For instance, a number of women were suggested to me: Katherine Mansfield, who I had already heard of, although hers wasn’t a name that wouldn’t have featured heavily in “The Canon”, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman who I had never heard of. Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was probably one of the best that I have read for the “Every Dead Author” challenge. So why is she not considered suitable for inclusion in “The Canon”? Is it because she’s a woman? Because these lists are compiled by men? Perhaps it’s naïve and oversimplification of things but I can’t help but feel that has to be an element in it. I have been told that Gilman’s story is often studied in “feminist” literature classes. If that story had been written by Kafka or Joyce, it would be regarded as a modern classic and would be read and studied everywhere.
Also, going back to the reason given, “in those days” is an awful broad term. If those days means the time of Queen Elizabeth or even of the Brontes, then yes, it’s true, many women simply didn’t write, or if they did, they were rarely taken seriously. But the books contained in “The Canon” date all the way up to present-day. For the purposes of my little experiment, I’m concentrating on “dead authors” but even these would include a lot of women. The hotbed of activity that was the modernist period dates from 1922 and there were certainly women writing and being taken very seriously prior to and subsequent to that date. So, again, where are they?
Having studied a degree in English Lit, I know these women exist and are covered on literature courses. But how many people who DON’T study literature could tell you who Marianne Moore or Kate Chopin or Virginia Wolff were? Certainly a lot less than could tell you who Jane Austen was. On the flip side, how many of those people will have heard of Joyce, or Hemingway or Kafka, these women’s contemporaries? Quite a lot more, I would imagine.
So, is there a gender bias in “The Canon”? Or is it that these women simply weren’t good enough writers? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.
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