6.12 Wrapping Up the Ground-Breaking Novelists

Wrapping Up

In the years since Enheduanna wrote her first hymn, women have come a long way as writers and readers. This episode explains just how far and gives you a long potential reading list.

This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists

Full Transcript

On some series, I feel like I have covered pretty much everything I currently know about the topic, but this is not one of those series. There are thousands of other great female novelists. But since my attention span does not really stretch very far, I am calling the series done after today.

Since I began this series with a discussion of how we got to the point where women could write novels at all, I thought it would be fitting to wind it down with a discussion of how far we’ve come since Murasaki Shikibu and the world’s first (great) novel. I’ll also give you an explanation of how I chose the ones I chose and a long list of the women I didn’t cover, in case you’re in need of your next great read. And really, who isn’t?

But first, women as novelists have made a huge leap! The New York Times Bestseller list got going in the 1940s and women were (predictably) not very well represented, in some years writing as low as 14% of the bestsellers, but we reached a beautiful 50/50 ratio in 2001 and have hovered in that neighborhood ever since. If you break it down by genre, the news is more mixed. All genres were heavily male dominated in the 1950s, except for Domestic Fiction, which I confess is a term I had to look up because I didn’t know what it meant. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but it is sometimes called women’s fiction. It features heroines who grow up and learn what a woman needs to know to participate in the dominant culture’s view of what a woman should be. Many of the descriptions sound kind of derogatory, and I could get all kinds of irritated that we should have to create a separate genre because a book happens to be about women, but I’ll spare you that rant.

Anyway, back to the point, almost every genre is male dominated in the 1950s. Suspense, adventure, and spy novels still are. Fantasy and sci-fi also are still male-dominated and that one surprised me a bit, since if I’d had to name the major blockbusters of the past couple decades in those genres, I’d have said Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, which were written by JK (or Joanne) Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. But I believe these statistics are based on strict number of books, whether that book was on the list for one week or all year, and that means it’s still male-dominated, despite some huge successes by women. Historical, domestic, and romance novels are now strongly female dominated. Mystery had a brief moment of being female dominated, which was entirely due to Agatha Christie, but has now reached more or less parity. So has horror and paranormal. So has the literary or the so-called non-genre category. (All stats about bestsellers are from Pudding.)

Interestingly, most of the best-selling books overall are in that literary category, which was also a bit of a surprise to me. I was well aware that English departments, professional critics, and prize-giving associations tend to raise their aristocratic noses at genre fiction, but the bestseller list is only a measure of commercial success, and many genre novels are rollicking good stories. As regards the high brow folks, I was also able to find (without much looking) both some hand wringing that reviewers still tend to ignore new books by women, but also some hand wringing that literary fiction is now dominated by women editors and male authors are finding it harder to get their foot in the door than women are. I don’t know so much about getting the foot in the door, but I notice that the best-sellers in that category are still roughly equal between the genders.

So much for the authors. But how about the readers? First, women read more than men. In 2021, 78% of US women said they had read a book within the last 12 months. 73% of US men said the same (Statista). That’s just a single, solitary book in any format, any genre. The numbers from other surveys are sadly lower (NPR).

If we up the ante there a bit, 11% of US women read over 31 books. 5% of men could say the same (Statista).

And all that is just books. As in nonfiction included. Men buy only 20% of the fiction books in the US, Canadian, and British markets (NPR).

This discrepancy starts young. When the Pew Research Center asked 9-year-old girls if they read for fun almost every day, 46% said yes. 38% of 9-year-old boys said the same.

Since I consider a day without a book to be a day wasted, those numbers seem low, but the really tragic part is that something terrible happens between the age of 9 and the age of 13, and I am not talking about puberty. No, something else terrible happens because by age 13, it’s only 20% of girls and 14% of boys who read almost every day for fun (Pew).

It is therefore unsurprising that girls score better on reading tests than boys, and that’s true across multiple countries (Deloitte).

If that weren’t bad enough, men also appear to self-censor their reading. A recent study found that if you take the top 10 bestselling female authors and look at their readership, only 19% are male. Apparently the men assume that books written by women are not worth reading. Women do not return the bias because the top 10 bestselling male authors have a much more balanced readership: 45% of their readers are women (Guardian).

I was interested enough in this to run a Twitter poll on it. 21% of my respondents said that when they pick books they favor authors who are of their same gender. Now if I were a better statistician, I wouldn’t have used Twitter, or at the least I’d have figured out how to get Twitter to ask also what gender these people are, but I’m not sure Twitter actually does that, so no luck there.

This is not just a matter of whether women can sell books. That issue is easily solved by changing or gender-neutralizing your name, as everyone from George Eliot to JK Rowling can attest. The larger issue is whose perspectives a book can show you. Multiple studies have shown that fiction increases empathy and social acuity (Deloitte). In a world that is often sadly lacking in both those qualities, surely we want people to have the experience of being someone else through fiction? And some of those people should be women, especially if you aren’t already a woman yourself.

One interesting and easy-to-apply test for any kind of fiction is the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, the work has to include two women having a conversation with each other which is not about a man. That doesn’t sound like a high bar, and yet it is. Go ahead and try it. A lot of works fail. Even a lot of really good works fail, so remember this is not about whether this or that great piece of literature fails. It’s about the overall prevalence of portraying women only as they relate to men. Then when you pair that with the fact that men tend to read only male authors, who tend to have male protagonists. Well, the problem compounds. For example, I find that the Tacoma Public Library has a list of 71 novels that pass the Bechdel test. Guess how many are written by men? If you guessed 5, you are right on. Yes, 5 out of 71.

But enough about that. I myself didn’t actually start choosing authors by gender until I started this particular series. I have covered eight novelists, but that is trivial compared to the number of women I could have included.

As this is a women’s history podcast, my initial requirements for inclusion were that she had to identify as female, be dead, and have written a novel that had a significant impact on the world or the history of the novel.

I consulted my own Have-Read List, my family (including my literature professor brother), and the lovely people on Twitter who answered my plea for suggestions. I also used The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt, Robert McCrum’s 100 Best Novels, and several snippy responses to Robert McCrum’s 100 Best Novels.

I was flooded with suggestions. So I had to do some trimming. I cut those who turned out not to be women (goodbye EM Forster) and those who aren’t actually dead (so no Margaret Atwood). I also cut those who are very recently dead (sorry Toni Morrison), since history generally benefits from a little settling time.

That still left a long list, but for full episodes I had to get rid of anyone for whom I could not lay my hands on enough sources to do a bio. And even in one case, whether I actually mislaid the biography (apologies Edith Wharton). Still too many to deal with, so I narrowed my requirement as to whether I could give a pithy statement about what exactly the woman achieved, such as started a war, or sold more novels than anyone else, or wrote the very first novel. Just writing one of my favorite books was not enough (alas for George Eliot).

From all that I narrowed to the eight women I actually covered. But since there are a whole lot of other women, today I’m giving you the full list of novelists who could have been included according to my original requirements (female, dead, and wrote a novel that someone thinks is important for some unspecified reason). No one else is cut, except for all the authors I just don’t know about yet. I’m quite certain that I’ll think of others, probably within five seconds of hitting publish, so on the website this will be an ongoing list. If there’s someone I should have included, put it in the comments! I’ll add her.

I freely admit, I haven’t read all these authors, so this is not a personal endorsement. I find to my dismay, that I’ve read only 25 out of 103, and some of them I confess I didn’t actually like.

If you are interested in women authors who aren’t necessarily dead writing books that aren’t necessarily novels, then I recommend following Read More Women on Twitter @WomenRead or visiting booksbywomen.org.

I’m also aware that the list may be boring to listen to, so if you are signing off now, thanks for listening this far. Follow me on Twitter, review me wherever, check out the website for sources, pictures, and a donation link. Come back in three weeks for series seven. In the meantime, read a book, okay?

For the one or two of you who are still listening, the alphabetical list begins now.

  1. Louisa May Alcott
  2. Jane Austen
  3. Mariama Bâ
  4. Djuna Barnes
  5. Aphra Behn
  6. Elizabeth Bowen
  7. BM Bower
  8. Anne Brontë
  9. Charlotte Brontë
  10. Emily Brontë
  11. Christine Brooke-Rose
  12. Fanny Burney
  13. Frances Hodgson Burnett
  14. Octavia E Butler
  15. Mary Butts
  16. Angela Carter
  17. Barbara Cartland
  18. Willa Cather
  19. Kate Chopin
  20. Agatha Christie
  21. Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette
  22. Ivy Compton-Burnett
  23. Catherine Cookson
  24. Marie Corelli
  25. Madame de Lafayette
  26. Simone de Beauvoir
  27. Aagje Deken
  28. EM Delafield
  29. Daphne du Maurier
  30. Maria Edgeworth
  31. George Eliot
  32. Elaine Feinstein
  33. Susan Ferrier
  34. Penelope Fitzgerald
  35. Marilyn French
  36. Elizabeth Gaskell
  37. Stella Gibbons
  38. Ellen Glasgow
  39. Nadine Gordimer
  40. Eliza Haywood
  41. Bessie Head
  42. Patricia Highsmith
  43. Keri Hulme
  44. Zora Neale Hurston
  45. Helen Hunt Jackson
  46. Sarah Orne Jewett
  47. Margaret Kennedy
  48. Selma Lagerlöf
  49. Ursula Le Guin
  50. Harper Lee
  51. Doris Lessing
  52. Janet Lewis
  53. Clarice Lispector
  54. Anita Loos
  55. Ethel Mannin
  56. Olivia Manning
  57. Clorinda Matto de Turner
  58. Mary McCarthy
  59. Carson McCullers
  60. Margaret Mitchell
  61. Nancy Mitford
  62. LM Montgomery
  63. Toni Morrison
  64. Iris Murdoch
  65. Anaïs Nin
  66. Flannery O’Connor
  67. Baroness Emma Orczy
  68. Ouida
  69. Mollie Panter-Downes
  70. GG Pendarves
  71. Sharon Kay Penman
  72. Sylvia Plath
  73. Katherine Anne Porter
  74. Ann Radcliffe
  75. Ayn Rand
  76. Jean Rhys
  77. Laura Riding
  78. George Sand
  79. Dorothy L Sayers
  80. Dorothea von Schlegel
  81. Olive Schreiner
  82. Mary Shelley
  83. Carol Shields
  84. Murasaki Shikibu
  85. Lillian Smith
  86. Muriel Spark
  87. Christina Stead
  88. Gertrude Stein
  89. Harriet Beecher Stowe
  90. Elizabeth Taylor
  91. Frances Trollope
  92. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
  93. Sophie von La Roche
  94. Bertha von Suttner
  95. Mrs. Humphrey Ward
  96. Sylvia Townsend Warner
  97. Eudora Welty
  98. Rebecca West
  99. Edith Wharton
  100. Antonia White
  101. Laura Ingalls Wilder
  102. Betje Wolff
  103. Virginia Woolf

Who did I miss? Put your answer in the comments, and I’ll add her in!

Feature Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

One comment

  1. Looks like I have only read about 16 but I am familiar with the work (or at least the names) of 14 more, one or two of them because of this series. Thanks for your good work!

    Like

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