Harper Lee, the girlie author of To Kill a Mockingbird
If you’re one of the sexist boors in my life (and I do keep a few around) you’ll probably argue that it’s not fair of me to still be feeling peevish about this article by Robert McCrum, a Guardian book columnist and blogger. All he did was compile a list of fifty literary “turning points.” In other words, he set out to define the most influential books ever written in English. But out of his fifty selections, a mere seven were authored by women. These seven are good, obvious entries like Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft – people we don’t need much experience or education to have heard about if we’ve lived and read for long enough in an English-speaking country. We could call them no-brainers. But when it comes to finding traces of women in any kind of history, no-brainers are seldom sufficient.
Upon posting the list, poor McCrum was promptly smacked around by women not unlike me for making a list of influential books that’s light on writers who were also women. His answer to this criticism was another no-brainer. He made another list – a list of fifty influential books authored by women.
And I hate it.
Go ahead, Boor-Boys, tell me I’m deliberately creating a situation where it’s impossible for me to be satisfied. Tell me I enjoy complaining and I should accept this man’s goodwill toward women. Tell me I’m “hiding behind” the myth of female oppression just to maneuver into a position of strength. And then, keep reading.
I do appreciate McCrum’s attempt to correct the oversights of the original list. Some of them, like the omission of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a novel just about every grade ten student in my country has read), are downright embarrassing. In McCrum’s own words, “My previous list reflected patriarchal values and a male-dominated literary culture.”
That’s a fine admission – and an accurate one. But does making a list exclusively for women remedy the overbearance of patriarchal values in the original list? Or does a separate list push women writers further into the margins of literary history? This is the question nagging at me when I read the list. Relegating women to a separate list buttresses the idea that writing done by women flows through a different stream than the one dominated by men. Oh, we can write. We can write really well. Men will admit that. But that this is not the same thing as admitting us into the real list.
A list made up only of women writers abets a version of literary history that’s too much like public washroom facilities. If we designate one bathroom (or list) as being for girls and a separate one as being for boys, we might wind up with a whole lot of elementary school shame and freakiness for people prone to indiscriminately wander through either door. We risk creating a system where male readers might avoid female writers for fear of getting a bad case of literary cooties.
One of the commenters on McCrum’s online article had the same reaction I have. He or she remarked that the implication is that the second list isn’t equal to the first one – to the real one. This commenter was quickly warned by a fellow commenter that artificially including women on the real list just because we’d be more comfortable if they appeared there naturally would be “tokenism.” That term, of course, is a negative one meant to remind us that, before the twentieth century, women played a minor role in literary history. We were anomalies and curiosities and we called ourselves George.
I don’t accept avoiding tokenism as an excuse for making separate lists for men and women. The fact that it was so very difficult for women to write and to have their work published and read throughout literary history means the achievements of women writers are profoundly influential simply by virtue of the fact that they exist at all.
So what do I want from people like McCrum who have access to a forum powerful enough to turn a quick list into a lively, public discussion of the gender politics of literary history? Do I want him to commit some kind of intellectual dishonesty and jam a bunch of women writers he may not care for into his first list just to make things look fair?
No,that’s not it.
What I want is an acknowledgement of bias. McCrum admits that his list “makes no claim to be comprehensive” but he doesn’t tell us why. He doesn’t identify the margins his opinions could be pushed behind. Instead of speaking for the entire English-reading world, it’d be nice if he’d just speak for himself. When we read his list, I want it to have a long, difficult title like “The Fifty Most Influential Books for White British Men.” The same way he identified my demographic when he wrote the pink list, he should identify his own when he writes the blue list instead of assuming we all agree that his male perspective is the most valid perspective.