Women write when their children sleep safely tucked in beds and kissed good night. Once meals are cooked and dishes put away. When husbands are at work or play. While waiting at the doctors’ rooms. At the beauty parlours. After laundry has been done. During the lunch breaks at work. In recovery from labour. After kids leave home for college. Once divorce is over. When lovers’ leave. Recovering from menopause. In between shopping’s and family gatherings. After grandkids are dropped off. Once their minds are free and their thoughts belong to them only. Because all other serious stuff of living has been attended too.
This is if they have a room of their own. And an income. As mighty Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. She lived in time when only boys went to school. Accordingly, as her own father; Sir Leslie Stephen, did not believe in investing in the education of his daughters, Virginia never experienced the formal schooling. Years later she will invent a fictional character, Judith, ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ to show that woman with the gift as large as Shakespeare’s would not have the same opportunity to develop it because they were simply not sent to school. Her character, Judith stayed at home while her brother William goes to school. Judith is trapped at home; ‘She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the worlds as he was. But she was not sent to school’ (‘A Room of One’s Own’).
Oh but that was then, I hear you saying; world has changed significantly since that time and all doors are now wide open to modern women writers. Besides, it no longer matters whether one is a man or a woman writer, the only thing that matters is the quality of prose, we are all just authors.
If this is so, let us examine it.
There is no doubt that the quality of prose, irrespective of the author’s gender, or any other descriptor such as race, religious affiliation, etc., is and must remain the only criterion. In other words; whoever wrote it, if it is a great work, it must be acknowledged and celebrated as such.
However, the fact also remains that any prose must first be written, and then published, before it can be read by anyone, or judged on its merits. Only those given the opportunity to learn how to read and write could produce written work.
The legions of women throughout the history, and millions living today in various parts of the world, either do not have access to education, or are actively prevented from learning.
They would never know either joy or sorrow of a written word. Magic of a story. Or write their own stories. We would never know whether they would have turned into good or bed writers. Because they cannot read or write.
Interestingly, according to many scholars, the first named author was a female. Her name was Enheduanna, (2285 to 2250 BCE), and she was the high priestess in ancient Sumeria, (today’s Iraq).
After the flourishing of art, innovation and literature throughout the Classical Period, time of long stagnation persisted during Middle or Dark Ages. It was not until a German nun Hrotsvitha, (935 to 1000 CE), who reportedly read such grand Romans as Virgil, Ovid and Horace, that the first literary work panned by a woman emerged. She wrote a playwrights ‘The Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim.’ Around the same time Lady Murasaki Shikibu, (973 to 1025), a maid of honour during the Heian period in imperial Japan, wrote ‘The Tale of Genji’, considered by many scholars to be the world’s first novel. It is said that Murasaki’s father, while admiring his daughter’s intelligence, wished she had not been born a woman.
Another six or seven hundred years passed before a first woman succeeded in making a living from her writings. Aphra Behn, (1640 – 1689 CE), who served as a spy for King Charles II after her husband’s death, panned some of the most saucy prose ever. She wrote 20 hugely popular novels, plays and short stories primarily to get herself out of debtor’s prison. Her ‘Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister’, described a painful affair between a brother and sister-in-law, with such a narrative of political intrigue, gender confusion and forbidden eroticism, that some of our contemporary authors may blush!
It was however not until the 1909 the first woman received the Nobel Prize for Literature; Swedish author Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagarlof (‘The Wonderful Adventure of Nils’).
It would be hard to argue with the fact that throughout the history women writers had limited opportunities to develop their craft, and even more limited opportunities to publish because of many cultural, social or even legal factors. Moreover, the critical reception of their literary efforts had been mixed at best. As a result there has been significant number of authoresses publishing their work either anonymously or under male pseudonyms.
The practice was widely used in 19th century as female writers start to make inroads into literature. We are now well familiar with the story of The Bronte Sisters who chose male pen names, or Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.), Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb), Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Ann Rule (Andy Stack), and Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard) to mention just the best known.
However, if there is a still any doubt left that it is indeed much harder for a woman to publish her work even today, (once she has found time and space to write it), case of Joanne Rowling is certain to dispel it. Her publishers feared that boys would not read books written by someone named Joanne! They decided to use set of initials to disguise her gender and J.K. Rowling was born, even though Rowling does not have a middle name so K was invented.
In December 2009, well-known blogger James Chartrand revealed that ‘he’ is actually ‘she’. After working under her own name for years and struggling to survive, she started submitting her work under a male pseudonym; just to see what will happen. And this is what happened; ‘Instantly, jobs became easier to get. There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all. Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.’
More recent onset of self-publishing and fan sites appears to be working in favour of female authors as reportedly more than half of the top 20 self-published authors (those whose titles have sold more than 200,000 copies), are women even when grandly successful author of ‘Shades’ E.L. James is not included.
However, those figures are primarily from genres female authors are traditionally attracted to either as readers or writers; romance, erotic fiction, young adult and fantasy fiction. When it comes to accolades and awards of general fiction the picture is somewhat different. The highly influential New York Book Review reported in 2010 that out of 364 books reviews only 71 were written by women. Almost all major book reviews in the USA and UK showed similar figures.
In conclusion I can only wish that those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy enormous privilege of education and access to any kind of publishing continue to produce outstanding written works. And in doing so make the same privileges available to those who are still unable to, or prevented from accessing them.