I’ve always loved to read and I make an intentional effort to read books written from different perspectives than my own. To my disappointment, it seems that has not been the goal of many of my English teachers– men and women alike.  I’ve recently noticed there’s been a trend throughout my academic life where literature by and about women has been largely left out. In high school, I got marks docked for discussing the obvious feminist themes of Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour,” as my teacher claimed I had misunderstood the text.  I also recall my friend’s teacher refusing to teach a poem in the style of Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” which reimagines the poem from the perspective of a woman because it was “too gendered,” which was clearly the point. Another time we read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 147” and the guys in my class made sure to point out the object of Shakespeare’s affection was a “total bitch” while the teacher did nothing. Every year I was also required to read one novel and two plays for English class, all written by men with a mainly male perspective. My required novel for Grade 12, Jeffrey Archer’s A Matter of Honor, only featured two female characters who are both murdered in particularly gruesome ways in order to push the male character’s development and plotlines further. Unless you take a course that is specific to women’s literature, it’s unlikely the bulk of your material, or even half of the material will be written by women. My experience in high school and middle school is a symptom of a bigger historical problem where women have been erased from literature.Even when I took Queen’s Introduction to English Literature last year, the scope of female writers studied was very small. Include BIPOC women authors and works from a female perspective, and the scope gets even smaller.

In the world of literature, women who push thematic and stylistic boundaries in their writing are often discarded and demonized. Everytime a woman would try to do something academic or creative in their writing, they had every barrier in the world placed against them. This is especially of note for women who write science fiction, fantasy, and horror– genres known for their creativity and boundary pushing– as they are usually the ones who are most easily cast off and discredited. In the academic literary sphere, it is often accepted that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, male writers are credited as developers of  experimental literature that pushed the boundaries of certain genre confinements, with women writers following in their wake. This simply isn’t true. Women have always been present in these genres, but they’ve just been hidden– and they’ve been hidden well. Dark and weird stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Call of Cthulhu” are highly regarded and well-known stories but you’ll be hard-pressed to find the weirder works of authors like Violet Quirk, Edith Nesbit, and Marie Corelli in any anthology or classroom. 

Although the amount of women writers has increased dramatically in the past few decades, genres such as romance, young adult, thrillers and “chick lit”, which are dominated by women as both writers and readers, are highly criticized. They are often disregarded as “phony” literature and not taken seriously in the realm of literary criticism. Like many other things enjoyed by women and primarily young women, these genres are made fun of and attacked at a higher rate than other genres. 

Criticisms of literary fiction books written by women and enjoyed by women are also much harsher than books by their male counterparts. One author, Jennifer Weiner even coined the term “Goldfinching” to describe the phenomena.  Goldfinching is defined by “collective actions taken by book critics to devalue those runaway literary bestsellers that are written and read, largely, by women.” The term comes from the title of Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel “The Goldfinch” which received harsh reviews from predominantly male literary critics despite spending forty weeks as a New York Times bestseller’s list and winning the 2014 Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Many people are aware of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War, a book that was loosely based on Alcott’s own life. You may not know that she also wrote gothic thrillers under the pen name A. M. Barnard. These thrillers dealt with darker themes of murder, passion, lust, incest, aborton, and forbidden love, though she was forced into anonymity because these were not topics socially acceptable for women to write about at the time. Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of The Secret Garden also wrote paranormal and gothic stories such as “Christmas in the Fog” that have been widely forgotten. The Brontë sisters originally used male pen names for their poems and novels. The American author Mary Ann Evans penned the name George Elliot in order to be taken seriously and avoid scrutiny of her private life.  

Unfortunately, the phenomena of women using male or gender neutral names so their work is not devalued is not something from a bygone era before feminism existed. Authors like V. E. Schwab, N. K. Jemisin, R. F. Kuang, S. A. Chakraborty, and many more are all talented sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors who use their initials to not be judged by their gender. Authors who don’t use a pseudonym are often highly criticized in both their professional and personal lives.

Shirley Jackson is the perfect example of a creative female author who was not valued for her talented and influential work. The majority of Jackson’s work centres around ghost and demons rife with gothic symbolism. She openly admitted to placing hexes on popular publishers and submitted comical essays about the chaos of motherhood to prominent women’s magazines. All of these things made her a target for sexist critics who undermined her as a writer. In her time, Shirley was dubbed “Virginia Werewolf” by a popular critic, a name that stuck and continues to be used to this day. Although “The Lottery”, her short story about human sacrifice,  is a staple in many high school classrooms and her novel The Haunting of Hill House is highly regarded as one of the best ghost stories of all time, most of Jackson’s work remains unpopular. Even though her work has been reclaimed and a renewed interest in Jackson has appeared in recent years, these notions have been met with mixed reviews. In 2010, when the Library of America published a selection of Jackson’s work one critic from Newsweek opposed this writing “Shirley Jackson? A writer mostly famous for one short story, ‘The Lottery.’ Is LOA about to jump the shark?” Shirley Jackson was often cast off as being too kooky and too weird to be taken seriously. Even though her work was a major figure in the American Gothic tradition and a chronicler of mid-20th century women’s lives, she was still not respected. The criticism and barriers faced by Shirley Jackson, paired with the fact the majority of her work remains relatively unpopular illustrates the sexism and misogyny that runs rampant in the world of literature.

Sexism in the world of literature continues to affect the way we view and consume works by women. So many wonderful works by women have been demonized by critics and forgotten by the public. Any woman who tries to push the boundaries of literature is forced to overcome all kinds of barriers, and the women who do successfully get their work published are not free from the criticism and dismissal from which their male counterparts are wholly excluded. Literature is just another number on a long list of areas women have been excluded from and the continuation of demonizing women’s work allows another form of sexism to thrive in our society. We need to make an intentional effort to read books written by women about women. I hope that one day girls who love books can go to English class without getting docked marks for speaking about feminism or having to read about women being brutally murdered. My wish is that in the future we don’t need to look back and wonder where all the women authors are. 


No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.