You don’t read women authors, do you?

The narrator of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highlands’, the rambling, meandering conclusion to his Time Out of Mind, 1996), faces this question during a strangely distracted encounter he’s having with a waitress. For all that her line of enquiry is unexpected – they’ve been discussing his order and sketches until then – the narrator’s response fits a standard, familiar pattern: How would you know, he asks, and what would it matter anyway?

It matters, of course, because the neglect of women writers and women’s writing continues to distort our sense of the critical landscape, and to impoverish our imaginations. (There’s a more pressing problem for women writers, too: it must be trickier for them to end up making money than it is for their male counterparts). Figures from VIDA, a US organisation for women in the literary arts, released in March make for depressing viewing. Pie chart after pie chart shows big slices of red (the blokes colour) across the ‘quality’ and intellectual presses: The Nation, the New Yorker, Atlantic, TLS and London Review of Books all printed far more articles by men – and articles about men’s writing – than they did articles by or about women. Parity isn’t the slogan these statistics suggest; getting women’s presence towards 40% would represent considerable progress.

What’s shocking about VIDA’s numbers, though, and about similar figures Alison Flood produced examining the books pages of the Observer and Guardian in the UK, is the fact I was shocked by them. I read or skim through most of these publications regularly, and hadn’t noticed the gaps until they were drawn up in colours stark enough they couldn’t decently be ignored.

How are we in this situation? The position of women in publishing must have something to do with it, and yet can’t account for the consistency of women’s under-representation. The London Review of Books ( ‘consistently radical’, according to Alan Bennett) has particularly galling sums: in the LRB in 2011, 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed were women (58 out of 221). Yet its editor is a woman, and Mary-Kay Wilmers commissions pieces from prominent UK feminists and authors, including Jenny Diski and Jenny Turner. The stuffier and politically more conservative TLS does rather better, with 30% of reviewers and 25% of books reviewed being by women. Women are as capable of neglecting women’s writing as men and, although my own experience suggests they’re not quite as neglectful, I don’t detect any noticeably different attitudes or research patters among my female students than with their male peers.

This is a case of neglected writing and not, as perhaps with earlier eras in publishing, of lost opportunities for women who wished to write but couldn’t get published: the Scotsman reports that half of all bestsellers in Britain since 1998 have been by women. So vehemence is unlikely to help us much here, and is, besides, of dubious value. (I’m reminded of a dreary and too-common situation in left-wing meetings, where a man will stand up and ask indignantly why there aren’t more women speaking, thus adding his own male voice to the chorus, and brow-beating the women present in the process).

What of the weight of tradition? Willy Maley, a puckish critic from Glasgow University I’m normally very fond of, is quoted in the same Scotsman article as describing Scottish literature as a ‘gendered landscape’, where writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman contribute to a ‘male-dominated liteary lineage’. His choice of examples is unfortunate, though: important women writers in Scotland, most obviously Janice Galloway, have cited Kelman as an influence, and both Gray and Kelman pay regular tribute to Agnes Owens, their fellow writer and occasional collaborator. Despite both Gray and Kelman championing her work, though, Owens – unaccountably, if my overwhelmed response to her superbly crafted prose is at all typical – remains a neglected and marginal figure, while her male comrades are internationally recognised and celebrated.

Denise Mina – a Scottish crime writer with talent, political seriousness and perfect sentences of a kind that means she ought to have eclipsed Ian Rankin in the popular mind – ascribes the situation to readerly prejudice. ‘Readers are prejudiced against woman writers,’ she told a session at Writers and Readers week in Wellington, ‘publishers will ask women to use a masculine version of their name or their initials.’

The value of Betty Friedan’s slogan of a ‘problem without a name’ is that it allows us to pay attention to situations like this, situations with no easy – or readily explicable – cause. Decades of feminist activism and scholarship; increasing numbers of women in publishing and editing; regular exposure of the neglect of women’s writing; and, still, the situation continues. It’s about all the things I’ve listed, to be sure, but isn’t a product of any one of them. We don’t read women authors, do we?

What is to be done?

Mina’s allegation of prejudice is an uncomfortable one; the prejudiced, as we usually prefer encountering them, are other people. I had my own ‘Highlands’ moment a few years’ back, and the encounter was painful. A friend accused me of literary chauvinism. I responded indignantly. The absence of women authors from my shelves settled the argument. I work in a job that ought to involve me keeping up with all sorts of literatures, and teach feminist literary theory in a few different settings – how was it, then, that my own choices were so blind, and so blokey?

I’ve no idea how to answer that question but propose a banal, but, I think, important solution: quotas. Not institutional quotas, necessarily, but personal reading lists. For the last four of five years I’ve kept an order in my bedside pile that forces half the books there to end up being by women. There’s no logic to this beyond a gendered sequence in the piling. If there’s a new John Tranter collection waiting to be read it needs to be followed by an old Judith Wright. The Stranger’s Child gets followed by There But For The, and so on.

A few months into this plan, two things became obvious. The first was that friends started getting irritated at how long it took for borrowed books to be returned. (The pile needs pursued in the order it’s laid out, otherwise older gendered reading patterns re-emerge). More interestingly was the fact that finding the next book by a woman to read required more reflection. Three-quarters of the reviews I’m reading are about books by men, after all; finding women’s writing takes more effort. This has a pleasure of its own, though: I’ve discovered books in the last years I never would have read had I not been looking to plug a gap in my sequence and, having discovered them in order to fill the quota, their literary merits mean I want to get them circulating among other readers.

The method’s crude, artificial and all the rest no doubt. What does it matter anyway, Dylan’s narrator asked. A few lines later, though, the only author he could list was Erica Jong. We can do better than that. To start you on your quota-filled book piles, I want to end by listing five loved works I’ve found through my method, and that I hope might start you on yours:


Yoko Tawada, The Bridegroom Was a Dog (1993)

Tawada won the Akutagawa Prize – Japan’s equivalent of the Booker – for this tale, a strange and unsettling variation on the fantasy. Now based in Germany, and fluent in German, Tawada is a poet as well as a prose writer, and her work manages to be ‘poetic’ without dragging in all the irritating mannerisms that adjective suggests. (She’s also lucky to have her works presented for English-language readers in superb translations by Margaret Mitstani). The Bridgegroom was a Dog involves a narrative within a narrative, at once creepily whimsical and jarringly scatological.

Miyuki Miyabe, All She Was Worth (1992)

Miyabe’s thriller was published in the early years of Japan’s post-Bubble confusion (I was looking for something to follow the quota after finishing David Peace’s Occupied City). The centrality for the plot of pieces of paper, posted files and the detritus of pre-Web 2.0 make this a curiously retro page-turner, and yet her characters’ primary fears – debt and identity theft – give All She Was Worth a Global Financial Crisis resonance.

Fumiko Enchi, Masks (1958)

I’d avoided Enchi’s The Waiting Years for a long time, for the stupid and ignorant reason that it was boring, but, having finished A L McCann’s Subtopia and needing to meet my quotas, I was lucky enough to discover one of the great novels of post-war Japan, Masks. This is a novel that smashes two conceits in one go: it’s a novel of ideas that has actual, complex ideas in it, mostly to do with aesthetics and art history, and it is a piece from the 1950s that reminds us everything we know about that decade is wrong. This particular reminder involves a conspiracy masquerading as a love triangle of painfully vague dimensions, and engineered by a widow’s mother-in-law. How many critiques of the nuclear family manage that level of intensity?

Wan-Suh Park, Who ate up all the shinga? (1992)

Park was one of the south of Korea’s best-loved novelists (I read this work in Yu Young-Nan and Stephen J. Epstein’s 2009 translation), and Who ate up all the shinga? is a fictionalised memoir of her early life, through the colonial period and into the Korean War. The shinga of the title is left untranslated by Yu and Epstein as an estranging device – it’s a herb unlikely to be familiar to Korean readers now and stands as a sort of forlorn detail, an indicator of the social and natural worlds the war and occupation destroyed. Park’s understated, offhand style attempts representations of an historical catastrophe –one Australia and New Zealand took part in – that remains our ‘forgotten’ war.

Pip Adam, Everything We Hoped For (2010)

Adam’s stories combine the political and representational ambition and seriousness journals like Overland used to praise as ‘realism’ with the formal experimentalism and innovative style of the modernist greats. There’s so much in this collection that is normally neglected in prose fiction – from the ambience of Dili under ANZAC occupation to women’s jails to the underwhelmingly overwhelming senses in maternity wards after birth –and a carefulness and deliberative reticence from sentence to sentence that demands re-reading.


These five I’ve taken from my shelf more-or-less at random. The only way to manage any sort of balance in reviewing pages is for us to read and write about fiction by women. It’s a simple conclusion, but it isn’t happening nearly enough.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thanks Dougal for some interesting sounding recommendations. Yes, but what about the reading of women’s authors across those whole modern period? Yes, indeed, what about the old issue specifically about the inherited canon and the attempt to create some kind of alternative canon, which was happening first in the 80s with the establishment of women’s presses, evident in university courses and so on? There is obviously a strong signal around literary legitimacy coming from how received literary preferences are formed. Where are we now with that?

    As one kind of litmus test to that project there was that moment I think in the early 90s where women’s bookshops that were supporting this began to go out of business and close down. I remember it as a kind of depressing moment because I would often haunt some of those shops in search of interesting and unknown authors. But then there was also the way Edward Said or Raymond Williams took a different approach in basically accepting the canon and opting instead to read the canon against the grain – in their case to highlight the gaps and exclusions in those novels and notice the determining force of those references to the colonial margins or the exclusion of ordinary working life. Interestingly, they both noticed this in Austen’s novels.

    I must admit I don’t feel sympathetic to the idea of quotas and prefer following my literary interests wherever they lead me. But there might be a way of opening those literary interests to all kinds of writing if we develop interesting discussions about what counts as important and powerful in the interface between things like literature, history and politics more generally?

  2. I really appreciated your post, it was thoughtful. If crude, your method appears to get the job done. You may also find some incredible gems amongst the speculative fiction genre, both older texts and new. I’m always interested by men taking on challenges similar to yours and how their view shifts in a way that it is similar to the way it was before, but with an additional depth that means when I say x or y about a subject based on my experiences as a woman, they can respond with genuine appreciation and understanding, whereas before in many cases it would have necessitated a long (and for me boring) conversation to set up the ability to have the more interesting conversation. I wonder if you have found similar for yourself?

  3. How very good to see a post like this. And even better to see some suggested reading material. One of my favourite books ever I think I’ve had since I was like 20. It is a 1980’s edition of the Penguin Book of Women Poets and it is in all ways awesome, not least because it includes many poets writing in languages other than English.
    I would add as writers, off the top of my head as I’m some distance from my library, Herta Muller, Grace Paley, Kathy Acker, Maria Edgeworth. But I’d guess these would all be familiar to Overland readers. Which reminds me that I haven’t yet purchased the new OL ebook of women’s writing. Which I will do right now, this very instant.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Gary’s question about the canon I dodged quite deliberately due to its difficulties. It would be perfectly possible to construct a course that left a student reasonably well read in the nineteenth century novel without them ever having encountered a male writer, but that same operation gets much trickier in other periods. A course on Modernism which subsituted Richardson for Joyce, say, would distort its field. Now battles over the canon matter enormously, to be sure, but they raise so many other questions – and, for me, questions of pedagogy – that spilled beyond what I felt I had the space to deal with here.

    The decay of, or assault on, courses in women’s writing and women’s publishing is symptomatic no doubt, but this approach isn’t without its difficulties either – think here of the arrangement of those Field Day anthologies of Irish writing, in which it took some years for it to become clear there ever had been a woman writing in Ireland.

    I’m not in sympathy with quotas either — this post is as much a confession as anything else. Why are my unconscious selections so gendered? I’m still not quite sure. The solution that works for me is following those literary interests, but then piling them up in an order. What starts out as an artifical exercise ends up stimulating new reading adventures.

  5. Just out of interest, why not quotas? I mean, essentially, your personal reading list is a quota, isn’t it? Or is the distinction between something that’s institutionally enforced compared to a voluntary effort?
    And what does the argument mean for the production of texts, rather than their reception? Should, say, (to take a wild example) a magazine operate according to a quota? It’s an issue that’s been raised (or at least implied) by the VIDA lists, as well as the debates around the Stella Prize, but I don’t know how many publications or editors have explicitly made their position clear. Would be interested in ideas, because it’s a live issue for us — for example, see the gender balance in the current edition.

  6. Thanks for this, Dougal. The VIDA statistics are fantastic for starting these conversations and for making us aware of our own reading prejudices.
    I’m appalled that in the 21st century women are asked to use a masculine version of their name or initials. This came up in a talk at Shearer’s Bookshop for International Women’s Day two weeks ago, especially relating to women crime writers, who are asked to use their initials because, apparently, men don’t want to be seen reading a book by a woman! Surely we have to stop this ridiculous cycle now, by owning our names.
    The canon is an interesting one, Gary, especially now we’ve smashed it. Yes, women writers were left off the traditional literary canon, including writers like Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Kate Chopin. And it would have been good to have learnt at high school (or at my mother’s knee) that the very first authored work of literature was by a woman, the Mesopotamian priestess Enheduanna.
    Getting people to read, review, publish women writers is an attempt to turn the tide of millennia. It is happening, slowly and surely. And reading initiatives like yours help. As do the VIDA stats, the Stella Prize, etc.
    And yes, Jeff, I did note the male bias in the latest Overland. Thank goodness for the ebook!

  7. Personally I can’t see the problem with a quota. What a quota does is bring into consciousness that which was comfortably UNconscious. Which is one reason people resist it. Changing any kind of habit feels artificial and hard at first. And yet we hear the same thing over and over, from both men and women – they’re astonished that when they actually look at their reading habits they’re far more monochromatic and single-gendered than they ever thought.

  8. Thanks Dougal – all this quite interesting and excuse me rambling about it a bit longer. Yes, there is no arguing against voluntary or personal efforts to find interesting and new things to read and, fair enough, questions of the canon are beyond the scope of your post. I guess none of this need be an either/or but I’m just putting in a word for ‘how we read’ in addition to ‘what we read’ which takes us more directly from the confessional perhaps into areas where the political stakes are more clearly defined.

    That’s right, the canon of English literature at least in the nineteenth century is dominated by those great women writers and yet so much more to say about how they are positioned and read. The largely male modernist canon in its institutional readings is made safe and tame and yet read differently in its active engagement with questions of revolution, its upturning of tradition, more subtle understandings of its engagement with bourgeois relations opens up new debates and discussions about questions of gender, empire and so on. That none of this is an either/or is evident in the way anthologies such as ‘Women of the Left Bank’ onwards helps us to understand all this.

    Thanks too for reminding me about The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing’ , which I think adds to this picture – a really necessary attempt to reintroduce a largely invisible tradition of Irish writing, edited and introduced by some excellent contemporary critics who understood that it wasn’t enough to bring new writing but also necessary to shift assumptions about literature, politics, history if there was going to be room for this work.

    But yes, no radical project like this need get too overconfident as it became quickly and embarrassingly evident that there were a new set of exclusions and invisibility around Irish women’s writing and this mattered enormously. The editors tried to make good the omission with two more fine volumes produced by feminist academics and writers but of course they were still positioned as somehow separate to the other volumes, an afterthought.

  9. Personaly, I find Overland’s issuing of an ebook of women’s writing deeply problematic, unless an attempt is made on a continuing and systemic basis to have more women published in the journal itself. The ebook (which I have not read) may contain wonderful work, but it smacks of tokenism to have a special ebook of women’s writing, given the name Overland is still primarily associated with the print journal. Print is generally still regarded as more authoritative.

    Jane GW, as a poet, I like using neutral initials rather than my first name, as Penelope was such an all time champion virtuous suck, and it makes it easier to write with a male voice, which can be loads of fun and indicative of the frailty of gender distinctions. Which is a different kettle of fruits de mer from the question of women not being published as much as men.

      1. Hi Penelope,
        The ebook wasn’t intended to be a solution to the problem — or, rather, it was supposed to be, at least in part, a response to a different problem, the disparity between the large quantity of good fiction we receive and the small amount we’re able to publish.
        As for the print journal, yes, it is something we’re conscious of and seeking to do something about. Hence the question above. The unbalance in the current issue is partly a result of some last minute cancellations. But we’re aware it’s an ongoing problem for us.

        1. That’s good, Jeff. The disparity between men and women in journals generally is so obvious, I can’t believe the jaw-dropped amazement some people are expressing. I held off subscribing to Overland for a long time because of this obvious disparity. (I’ve seen the light now, you’ll be pleased to hear.) But other Australian publications are just as atrocious on this ‘issue’, which is really the silencing of more than half the population. (Or half of the population who like journals, anyway.)

    1. Interesting point Penelope. Yes, think there are all sorts of valid (esp artistic and political) reasons for changing our names (eg my surname is my father’s not my mother’s), using initials, etc. But when we’re advised to change our names or use initials for commercial reasons – because otherwise we won’t be read – my jaw drops. It’s the 21 century. We are not the Brontes or Mary Anne Evans.

  10. Great post, and sorry to pick up on so slight a point, but in the interests of another possible take (I would hope I am wrong?) on this discussion of women writers …

    Technically, it is incorrect to state that “the only author he (the narrator of “Highlands”) could list was Erica Jong”.
    The single author’s name supplies a chiming rhyme with ‘wrong’, in the sense that the narrator suggests he may have misheard the waitresses question. The train of thought in respect of both the conversation and women authors continue nonetheless, in a ballad where most things are misprision, and nothing is as it seems, regardless of the narrator stating initially that “everything was exactly the way that it seems”. (In the next verse the narrator admits he “wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake”.)

    So it is with Erica Jong, known mostly for her “Fear of Flying” (or the title at least), yet she was also a poet and essayist of note. Whether you accord with her views is not the point, as the following poem makes clear:

    Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit
    (In Memoriam Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Wickham, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare¹s sister, etc., etc.)

    The best slave
    does not need to be beaten.
    She beats herself.

    Not with a leather whip,
    or with stick or twigs,
    not with a blackjack
    or a billyclub,
    but with the fine whip
    of her own tongue
    & the subtle beating
    of her mind
    against her mind.

    For who can hate her half so well
    as she hates herself?
    & who can match the finesse
    of her self-abuse?

    Years of training
    are required for this.
    Twenty years
    of subtle self-indulgence,
    until the subject
    thinks herself a queen
    & yet a beggar —
    both at the same time.
    She must doubt herself
    in everything but love.

    She must choose passionately
    & badly.
    She must feel lost as a dog
    without her master.
    She must refer all moral questions
    to her mirror.
    She must fall in love with a cossack
    or a poet.

    She must never go out of the house
    unless veiled in paint.
    She must wear tight shoes
    so she always remembers her bondage.
    She must never forget
    she is rooted in the ground.

    Though she is quick to learn
    & admittedly clever,
    her natural doubt of herself
    should make her so weak
    that she dabbles brilliantly
    in half a dozen talents
    & thus embellishes
    but does not change
    our life.

    If she’s an artist
    & comes close to genius,
    the very fact of her gift
    should cause her such pain
    that she will take her own life
    rather than best us.

    & after she dies, we will cry
    & make her a saint.

    © Erica Mann Jong

    Simply quoting selected women authors and titles is yet another form of mishearing, misprision; another state of current affairs where things are not as they seem, and will remain as such, until women writers are heard and read and published and reviewed and taught and quoted and discussed with the same variations and modifications of equality as that of men writers.

  11. It’s good to read a post like this. Of course, then there are the obvious hierarchies within the female writing world…women of colour, queer women etc, female-only publications, well-intentioned and well-written as they often are, are also sometimes disturbingly monocultural.

    1. Too true. Actually, the list of books in the post made me realise how few Japanese and Korean texts I’ve read. It also made me think about translated texts more generally. I read so few and, presumably, they’re popular or classic texts, in order to justify the translation.

  12. Thanks for all of these comments. They’ve given me plenty to think about. Dennis is quite right that I twist the ballad to my own end, although I think I can claim some precedents from Dylan himself to do that. (“O, if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now!”)

    Maxine’s point about there being further hierarchies within women’s writing is very important to me too, which is I suppose why I choose some texts to recommend I felt might have some other factors blocking their reception too, translation most obviously. The advantage if, like me, you’re wanting to re-orient unconscious reading habits is that tackling one hierarchy prompts you to think about others.

    To be clear, I wrote this as a piece of what we might have once called self-criticism. It’s about consumption of literature, not its production.

    Being neither a woman nor a creative writer I don’t have much to say on what women writers ought to do or not do (although of course agree with Jane that being pressured to change your name shows there are problems afoot). But, as a teacher, my reading choices, whether I like to admit it or not, have wider institutional implications and assist in the suppression or rediscovery of women’s writing. So I hope this post has stirred that discussion along in its own wee way.

  13. You’re too kind, Dougall; however, I believe your post has stirred some sort of discussion on inequalities in respect of writing by women. Like you, I am neither a woman nor a creative writer, but I will say something on what women ought do or not do, in relation to a previous point.

    Maxine, being hypercritical of writing by women at a time when there is a clear disparity of numbers in respect of women getting published at all is a position too far in my view. Particularly as monoculturalism and similar hierarchies exist in the male writing world, yet go unmentioned or uncriticised, mostly.

  14. Maxine, being hypercritical of writing by women at a time when there is a clear disparity of numbers in respect of women getting published at all is a position too far in my view.

    I disagree. Holding marginalized voices at the margins and essentially telling us* to just wait, to hang in there, to be patient, to not criticize the movement, etc. is part of what got us here. Maxine’s point about the monocultural nature of the female writing world is a critically important one that must be addressed as we go along, not deferred until some undefined point in the future when things are better for white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied women.

    * I am a white woman with a disability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *