It was the first thing I read today. Bleary-eyed, I’d sat in my office and logged onto Facebook. Agnes Owens was at the top of my feed: ‘After a long illness, which she fought with courage and dignity, Agnes Owens, Writer, peacefully passed away today Monday 13th of October at the Fruin Ward, Vale of Leven Hospital. Her family were at her bedside.’ My sympathies are with her family, and my gratitude with her and her work.
Her significance is no secret: Alasdair Gray and James Kelman have championed her work; Glasgow University’s Douglas Gifford has said that Owens ‘can claim to have done more than most in the redefinition of women in fiction’. She is amongst Scotland’s great writers. I expect the coming days will see tributes from those who’ve also delighted in Owens’ biting, dark comedy, and what Ali Smith has called her ‘good, blunt-weaponed clarity’.
Much of Owens’ work is characterised by a bleak focus on unstable or ostracised members of Glasgow society, shot through with a deadpan streak of knowing gallows humour. Her writing is striking, startling. This morning I reread ‘Arabella’, the first story featured alongside Gray and Kelman in the 1985 collection Lean Tales.
Arabella pushed the pram up the steep path to her cottage. It was hard going since the four dogs inside were a considerable weight.
It’s a wonderful opening. It’s no wonder Liz Lochhead took notice of Owens, who she describes in the introduction to The Collected Short Stories as ‘that middle-aged lady in the neat coat and wooly hat with the fringe of dark blonde hair sticking out and the full mouth that turned so decisively down at the corners’. She had been attending a creative writing course in Alexandria tutored by Lochhead, Gray and Kelman, when she submitted the ‘terrifying, terribly funny story, so anarchic and atypical’ about a woman who spends her days pushing her ‘children’ (remember: dogs) around in a pram, visiting her cruel mother and bedridden father (who likely dies during her visit) and providing a thick, ‘evil-smelling’ potion to a wealthy, male clientele who pay her to treat their ill-defined ailments.
Despite the support Owens has received from contemporaries and critics, she is largely absent from Scottish literary studies. Celebrations of Scottish literature in the last decades of the twentieth century have neglected one of Scotland’s most important writers.
Owens’ work and its influence is far more complex, and far greater in reach, than most accounts acknowledge, something which motivated Gray to dedicate The Ends of our Tethers to Owens, calling her ‘the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors’. This seems particularly poignant now, as a Google search reveals little has been made of her passing outside of the original post on her Facebook fanpage. More readers and writers should be celebrating the life and work of an original and significant Scottish literary artist.
In considering Owens’ neglect, I think back to a question posed by Dougal McNeill: ‘You don’t read women authors, do you?’ As he stated in 2012, the figures from VIDA (a research-driven organisation for the increase of critical attention to contemporary women’s writing) showed that ‘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’. It was disgraceful, and as McNeil said at the time, ‘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.’
As Amy King points out on their website, while the 2013 numbers show a notable increase in women’s presence, the figures are still weighted in favour of male writers. There is movement here to be sure, particularly in the pages of The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review, but as King states:
various oppressions don’t magically die out with a little effort. People raise a fuss, things change a bit, and then the next generation enacts a lot of the old sentiments […] we are still learning the power of our voices and the necessity of sustained practice. We hear that old habits die-hard. So does the perpetuation of ‘boy’s club’ editorial practices, presumably made palatable with a dash of tokenism thrown in to appease.
Certainly, this entrenched and institutionalised sexism has contributed to Owens’ absence from Scottish literary studies. But there’s another reason, too. When trying to have Gentlemen of the West published, Owens recalls one publisher telling her that ‘people didn’t want that kind of writing … about poor people’. Gray has expressed similar thoughts, claiming Owens has also been overlooked ‘because her novels are short[…] because she is elderly, lives in a rural housing scheme’ – and is, therefore, excluded from the celebrity class.
In recent years, writing by women in Scotland has flourished. In her talk ‘No Wealth To Leave Us: Towards a matrilineal heritage in Scottish literature’, Lesley McDowell observes that ‘the volume, range and quality of writing produced by Scottish women today suggests a massive change has taken place, a much bigger break with the past than ever before’. She argues that despite the ‘Scottish Tradition in Literature’ remaining male-fixated and male-dominated (seen in the continued celebrations of Owens’ male contemporaries), the importance for Scotland’s matrilineal heritage is compelling and important.
‘How much more could [Owens’ work] have been’, Kelman asked, inadvertently suggesting there is something lacking in the volume of her output. And it’s as true as it is for any writer: had Owens received more support critically and financially, she may have been granted ‘a proper chance to write’. Yet even without that support, Owens produced a terrific body of work. You should read her, because her stories are well worth spending time with. Like Liz Lochead said, she’ll crack you up.
RIP Agnes Owens, 1926–2014.