It’s stating the obvious to say that listmaking has come to rule criticism. And I guess stories like “The 20th Century’s 100 Greatest Guitarists” and “Top 20 Underrated Writers of 2006” have their benefits, not least of which is their ability to inspire droves of indignant letters arguing with so-and-so’s inclusion or exclusion. Often these lists come with a spirit of generosity: Here, check this out, you might like this. More often, and increasingly so in the overinformation age, they read as pretentious, self-indulgent, hypercompetitive: Bow down, for we are the tastemakers for the tastemakers.
It’s not only the popular media that have exploited the snappy ranking system that is The List. In the world of Western literary criticism, The List has spawned decades of inter- and intrauniversity battles. Here of course, the list is the literary canon, or what works most deserve the distinction of being considered Great Art. Scholars have only relatively recently come to acknowledge and challenge the ideology upon which the traditional canon is based: an ideology that, like the society that originated it, is largely sexist, racist, and U.S. and Euro-centric. Now that so many scholars have worked to expose and dismantle the scaffolding of the traditional literary canon, any kind of new list generally comes with all kinds of disclaimers (“This list does not attempt to be complete,” “This guide, in being a reaction to the absence of women in Western art history, necessarily omits many notable non-Western women artists,” etc).
Women Who Write, a stately coffee-table book fronted by the famous photograph of Virginia Woolf in profile, is essentially a list without a list. The book, put out by British publisher Merrell, is a gallery of 40-odd women writers, each entry featuring a full-page portrait opposite a page-long commentary about the writer’s work and life. The gallery is broad and cosmopolitan, including many familiar and many less familiar names and faces. The entries are divided into categories that function as chapters—“Eccentric Orbits” and “Women of Courage,” for instance. The women included span literary history and the globe, and the commentaries range from biography to comparative criticism.
Curiously, never are the featured women collected into a list. The table of contents lists the categories, but not the names of the women featured in those categories. Nor is there an index for an easy check to see who’s here and who’s not. This absence of any list of the writers included forces the reader to actually browse the book, as opposed to the table of contents, thus preventing an easy dismissal: “So-and-so is left out! Who does this book think it is?” The reader must instead turn page by page to see who has been included. Author Stefan Bollmann seems to be saying that these writers can’t be summarized in a list; and besides, any kind of listmaking might imply a canonbuilding that is not his agenda.
The disadvantage of course is that I, in reviewing the book, can’t find the pages I want to return to. But in reading the book chronologically, as it was intended to be read, you begin to understand the reasoning behind the avoidance of a list. Bollmann has taken pains to organize the book such that both the individuality and the parallels of the lives and work included are emphasized. One of his tricks is to compare those who might be less familiar to the book’s audience with those who will be very familiar. For example, the entries on Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, whose name and work were unknown to me, at least, and everyone’s favorite suicide girl, Sylvia Plath, are adjacent, and each mentions the poet’s likeness to the other: “Many things may separate Bachmann and Plath,” Bollman writes in his biography of Bachmann, “but they share essential features, not least their view of themselves as writers.” Another example is the side-by-side layout of the Anne Frank and Sophie Scholl entries. (Scholl, the lesser-known young writer of the two, was executed for writing and distributing anti-Nazi literature as a member of the student resistance group the White Rose.)
What unites the selected writers is that they are, according to Bollmann, “inspirational”—and that loose qualification allows for a breadth few other anthologies or reference books of this kind manage. Of course, by choosing breadth, Bollmann loses comprehensiveness, and the obvious con is that hundreds of writers are left out: the most surprising of these being Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Emily Dickinson, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Elfriede Jelinek. The pro is that, in this case, breadth really does mean breadth. Bollman has included here not only writers of what we consider capital-L Literature, but also journalists (Erika Mann), diarists (Anne Frank, Anaïs Nin), essayists (Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Parker), and writers of children’s literature (Beatrix Potter, Astrid Lindgren), and mysteries (Agatha Christie). The category “women who write” has been interpreted in its broadest sense, to refreshing effect. As well, the gallery is remarkably cosmopolitan; Bollman has scattered the usual Anglo-American suspects among a much broader population of writers that includes Australian Miles Franklin, German Else Lasker-Schüler, Italian Elsa Morante, Algerian Assia Djebar, and Israeli Zeruya Shalev, among others.
The book contains few if any superlatives and betrays no pretense of definitiveness or superiority to any other list. It does not attempt to compete against the mostly male-represented canon of English literature, nor does it attempt to compete against any preexisting canon of women writers. While Bollmann does mark certain women writers as subversives, his agenda is neither to declare all women writers subversive, nor to erect some kind of reactionary anti-canon. Women Who Write seems to be offered in the spirit that listmaking first enjoyed: one of generosity. That said, it is a feminist book, and it will likely inspire readers of all genders, but especially women, through its celebration of women who did what they weren’t supposed to: believe they had something to say, and write that shit down.
P.S. Although Women Who Write is more informational than it is activist, Francine Prose provides a stirring foreword that brings the gallery to follow into perspective. In her conclusion, she describes the furious reactions she received when she wrote an essay for Harper’s in 1998 suggesting that the playing field was “still far from level for most (if not all) contemporary women writers.” While writing the essay, she figured she’d be “helpfully pointing out what everyone else must have noticed but, for some reason, never bothered to say.” Not so much—she quickly became the center of a “furious controversy.” While the situation for women writers did improve in the fallout of the essay, the improvement was brief, and she soon witnessed the situation slipping backward again, “to some default position where everything goes on, the same as it has always gone for women—that is to say, their task is simply harder—and everyone politely agrees not to notice.”
In that Harper’s essay from 1998, which is available here, Prose points to the comparative scarcity of short stories written by women published in prestigious literary journals, of reviews of work written by women published in literary journals, and of books written by women included on short lists and year-end lists. In 1988, for instance, the New York Times Book Review‘s usual list of the 10 best books of the year included zero penned by a woman. And from 1992 to 1998, Prose points out, the book review’s Editor’s Choice lists included 22 works of fiction by men versus just eight by women, a ratio of approximately 3:1.
I’d like to update that. From 1999 to 2006, the Editor’s Choice lists included 25 works of fiction by men versus 11 by women, with eight of those written by women coming from the ‘04, ‘05, and ‘06 lists. Things looking up? Just last year, the New York Times Book Review published a list compiled from notable writers’ responses to the question, “What is the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?” Out of the 22 that were nominated multiple times, exactly two were written by women (11:2).
In a study of gender disparity in writers published in five prominent U.S. general-interest magazines between September 2005 and September 2006, Ruth Davis Konigsberg of WomenTK.com came out with an average ratio of 3:1, male to female. Discussing her results, Konigsberg cited a hypothesis from Ursula K. Le Guin: “There is solid evidence for the fact that when women speak more than 30 percent of the time, men perceive them as dominating the conversation.”
On the topic of women who write, we need all the lists we can get*.
*Kathy Acker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Jeanette Winterson, Joanna Russ, Julia Kristeva, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Lorrie Moore, Michelle Tea, Shelley Jackson, Fay Weldon, Diane Williams, Mary Gaitskill, Cintra Wilson, Helen Fielding, Lorraine Hansberry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Karen Finley, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Clarice Lispector, Ntozake Shange, Suzan-Lori Parks, Rita Dove, Mina Loy, Mary Shelley, Scheherazade, Mahasweta Devi, Nadine Gordimer, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Nathalie Sarraute, Susan Sontag, Jessica Hagedorn, Edith Hamilton, Zora Neale Hurston, Caryl Churchill, Erica Jong, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Camille Paglia, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Banana Yoshimoto, Janice Galloway, Brigid Brophy, Eileen Myles, Dorothy Allison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helene Cixous, George Eliot, Octavia Butler, Ayn Rand, Aimee Bender, Chris Kraus, Carole Maso, Gail Scott, Sandra Newman, Jena Osman, H.D., Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ann Carson, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Gillian Flynn, Anne Rice, Ann Radcliffe, Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, Leslie Marmon Silko, Adrienne Rich, Alice B. Sheldon, Jhumpa Lahiri, A. M. Homes, Mary Caponegro, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Maya Angelou, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Aphra Behn, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Francine Pascal, Ann M. Martin, Carolyn Keene, Angela Davis, Angela Carter, Christine Brooke-Rose, Radclyffe Hall, Louise Erdrich, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, M. F. K. Fisher, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, Z. Z. Packer, Zadie Smith, Harper Lee, Madeleine L’Engle, J. K. Rowling…