Over the years, I have read article after article about the balance, or lack there of, on our bookshelves of male and female writers. Especially when it comes to literary fiction. For this reason, I decided to put my bookshelves to the test. Just how big of a disparity is there on my bookshelves? I was depressingly shocked by my results.
Of the total 170 different authors I have on my bookshelves that are categorized as literature (both fiction and non-fiction) 118 of them were male, and 52 of them were female. 52! That’s roughly 30% female. This may be better than some personal libraries, but I was absolutely shocked at this figure. Why isn’t it closer to 50%? Why is it that someone who puts Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood on their list of favorite authors way before any male author have such a huge disparity on their bookshelves?
One reason could be my education. In high school, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book by a female author taught in all four years of English. An entire sex was basically wiped out of my high school curriculum! And I’m just now realizing this! With all of the amazing work done by female writers over the years—Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf—how is it that only one female made the cut?
College was a little better. My literature curriculum was decently balanced, and many of my professors made an effort to include female authors in the mix. This could be that most of my professors were women, and the men were openly feminist. We eventually had a class available (two if you the count the sociology class) on Jane Austen and a class focused on Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. My Studies in Fiction class had Virginia Woolf and Marge Piercy beside Charles Johnson and Daniel Defoe.
Yet despite these classes, there were times when I thought to myself, “Hey, where are all the women?”. My Victorian Literature class focused on Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Lewis Carroll. We did some Christina Rossetti and were planning on reading George Eliot but never got to her. Where were the Bronte’s and Elizabeth Gaskell?
Sometimes it wasn’t even an issue of the content not being present. The depressing reality was that many of the classes that had a focus on female authors were made up of solely women. Granted, the literature and creative writing departments were mostly made up of female students, however, classes on Shakespeare and my Victorian Literature class would see a relatively even ratio of men and women. In comparison, my Jane Austen class had one guy. A fact that disturbed not just us students, but my professor as well. (And for the record, he highly enjoyed the class and ended up really enjoying Jane Austen.)
It’s possible that this lack of interest in female authors from men, and sometimes women, begins at a young age when our schools fail to include women in their curriculum. Gradually we begin to fill our book cases with the great men who have pioneered literary movements and exposed the horrors of society to the masses, because we are told that this is the what is good. This is the literature worth reading. Meanwhile, great female authors are lost in shadow, deemed lesser than their male counterparts because they don’t discuss what is like to be a man, and thus a human being.
Anyone is susceptible to this thinking, including myself. So this is what I urge anyone reading this blog to do. Look at your bookshelves and examine where they are lacking. Be that gender, race or ethnic diversity, and own up to it. Admit that it is lacking and aim to make it better. Make a point of seeking out female authors, authors of color, or LGBTQ authors. Fill the gaps, and maybe then we can start to change how literature is taught and viewed within our society. Maybe we can make this world a better place simply by expanding our horizons, and walking in someone else’s shoes.