Stop for a moment and try and name all the female writers you read during High School. Think of the ones you read in College. Now switch it around and think about all the male writers that were taught to you during your education. I’m willing to bet that most of you, if not all, can come up with a great number of male writers and only so many female writers, perhaps so little that you could count them on your fingers. Personally, I only managed to count one female writer (Harper Lee) who stands in the shadows of seven male writers (John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, J. D. Salinger, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka). But why is it that most curriculums are dominated by male writers? For that we have to look at what defines “great literature.”
Perhaps the definition of “great literature” is too broad, but there are two terms that can be considered in relation to each other: “literary merit” vs. “classic.” In American education, there is a clear distinction between the two, the former being more aligned with storytelling, style and historical perspective and the latter being more associated with relevance and impact. What qualifies a novel as reading material for a course curriculum typically depends on the literary merit of said novel. Plot, character development, and theme as well as prose and narrative license literary merit. At times, some of these areas can be weaker than the others, however this does not disavow said title’s spot on the course’s reading list.
But seemingly, some works of literature are of higher merit, perhaps due to authorship. Course reading lists appear to be dictated by the subconscious belief that male authored literature carries more weight in this world. American writer of Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit, best explained the root of this phenomenon as such: “A book without women is often said to be about humanity but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book.” Oftentimes, books taught in school are devoid of female characters save for a few who exist as plot devices. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a prime example; only three women are mentioned of which only one speaks. Meanwhile, Jane Austen’s novels – which paint an exceptional portrait of Victorian society – have numerous speaking roles for women, all of which are diverse. Both Conrad and Austen are taught in classrooms, however, needless to say, one is clearly favoured more over the other.
Perhaps the greater danger, one that predominates the debate over whether female writers are on equal literary par as male writers, is that female students are not seeing themselves in the books they’re assigned to read. Classrooms contain both male and female readers and both are reading a majority of male perspectives on the human experience. For example, on the subject of sexuality, male sexual frustration is very often sympathised with in renowned male authored literature. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger illustrate male sexual frustration as a struggle to be sympathised with no matter who questionable it is. Meanwhile, female sexual frustration is portrayed as mere hysteria and a deeply rooted psychological problem. What is disregarded here is that the vast majority of the population do not realise the impact that literature carries, especially literature that is taught in schools. If we only see a male perspective, what will that teach female students? Or more urgently, what will that teach male students?
Female writers are deprived of recognition and female readers are deprived of representation. Moreover, men can stand to benefit from female literature. Both men and women can stand to benefit from women authored literature. It offers a new perspective of the world from a different viewpoint that is unique and enriching. Below is a list of suggestions that I would recommend or that have been recommended to me.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
During the 20s, literature was rich in new post-war themes that dealt with ground-breaking new concepts. The Harlem Renaissance, a subdivision of this cultural revolutions, propagated ideas of civil rights and spirituality. Zora Neale Hurston was among these pioneers and Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most notable work. It follows the story of a black woman in the south the U. S. and shows her struggle to establish an identity for herself as well as strive for independence from the men around her. The book also discusses a new interesting take on spirituality, one that involves nature.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
If you have read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, then you would definitely enjoy Rebecca. It possesses the same gothic undertones and mystery, as well as romance. A pre-world war ii English novel, Rebecca is told in the first-person singular and traces the footsteps of a newlywed young woman who walks in the shadow of her husband’s former deceased wife. What’s fascinating is that du Maurier never gives her protagonist a name.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Science fiction is often classified as a male dominated creative realm. However, there are a few notable female writers who can level with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Le Guin writes about an alien world in which its inhabitants can choose and change their gender. However, this is more than an eccentric tale with aliens in it, but an intellectual one that meditates on culture, society, and psychology.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
This is a comeback for Arundhati Roy, 20 years after publishing her literary one hit wonder, God of Small Things. The story takes place in India, where Roy is from, and surrounds the journey of an intersex woman and how she navigates violence of contemporary India.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was a significant literary figure in the American 60s who wrote prose and poetry. Plath struggled with depression her whole life, and sadly ended her life the same year The Bell Jar was published. The novel vividly describes the downward spiral that the protagonist descends into and somehow mirrors Plath’s life. Aspects of the protagonist’s life, such as sexuality, mental health, and parental relationships, are highlighted as major themes.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto (not her real name), is not very well-known outside of Japan, yet it is probably one of the most recognisable Japanese female writers to many. Kitchen tells the story of a woman marked by tragedy who finds solace with new improvised family and food. By food I mean making three-course meals that involve passion and expertise. Kitchen has received much appraisal in Japan as well as a nomination and an award.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I just had to add this one, seeing as I enjoyed reading it so much that I read it twice. Mitchell paints an image of the South during Civil War and post-Civil War times, and does it in minute detail as well. Mitchell’s protagonist Scarlett O’Hara is undoubtedly unorthodox for her time. She is assertive, independent, and at times obnoxious, yet feminine and unashamedly lusting over a man she cannot have. In addition, the novel is fascinating in relation to how it describes the changing South.
A final note
That is only a small portion of what I can recommend. There are so many more writers I could mention: Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julia Alvarez, etc. The list goes one, and yet very few of them are recognised in schools and by most people in general. Many men struggle to mention any female writers who they enjoyed reading partly due to not being able to relate to female-written narratives. Perhaps with the exception of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, men tend to disregard female writers in general. Perhaps, with more female writers in course reading lists, everyone can find something to appreciate in women authored literature.