Sarah LeFanu on Women’s Writing: A Small Bit of Recent History

 

In the last of our posts from Something Rhymed salon speakers, Sarah LeFanu, provides some recent historical background. She is particularly well-placed to do so, since she can draw on her experiences as a Senior Editor at The Women’s Press and the editor of several anthologies of new writing.

Throughout the 1980s I worked at the London publishing house The Women’s Press, where we published books by women, for women. The whole venture was informed by a specific political remit, as we explained in a note that was printed in the prelims of the early books. This is how it appears in one of our first books, Cicely Hamilton’s Marriage as a Trade, a reprint of her 1909 analysis of the politics and economics of the domestic, or private, life: The Women’s Press is a feminist publishing house. We aim to publish books which are lively and original and which reflect the goals of the women’s liberation movement.

There was very little space in publishing then for the voices of radical women, for women who wanted to challenge the status quo. We saw that what women had to say about marriage, about domesticity, about sex and sexuality, about the workplace, about anything – that is, what they had to say about being women in a patriarchal society – what they’d said in the past and what they were saying now – was not what the establishment – the publishing establishment and the media – wanted to hear.

Women had to clear a space in which to be heard – and once they’d done that they had to shout loudly. The Women’s Press, Virago, Onlywomen, Sheba, and the magazine Spare Rib provided that space. They were all explicitly feminist. They were all explicitly political.

One of our early titles, published in 1978, was Michèle Roberts’s debut novel A Piece of the Night. I remember a reader writing in to ask us to pass on to Michèle thanks for the richness and the generosity of her prose, for using language as if there were no tomorrow. We went on to publish many works of literary fiction, both contemporary and earlier, and we published literary criticism and theory; again, we were publishing work that explicitly laid claim to a tradition, a heritage of women’s writing that over the years had been distorted if not erased. We published books by feminist scholars, such as Ellen Moers and Carolyn Heilbrun, who wanted to honour our literary foremothers.

In 1984 we published How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – feminist science fiction writer, critic, and associate professor of literature at the University of Washington. It was a book that she had written for her students. The cover quotes snippets of what has been said over the years about women who dare to write serious, intelligent, challenging and beautiful books: She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed … She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. The bedroom, the kitchen, the family. Other women! She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever … She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi! She wrote it, but she had help. Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own ‘masculine side’. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. Woolf. With Leonard’s help … She wrote it BUT …

You can hear some at least of those sentiments still being spouted today.

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

In the mid-1980s we launched a feminist science fiction list. The thinking was twofold: one motive was pragmatic: I was teaching a course at the CityLit in London on feminist science fiction and there were almost no books available for the students. The writers from America – Joanna Russ, Sally Miller Gearhart, Marge Piercy and so on – weren’t published here, and there weren’t then that many homegrown ones. And the other reason was political, in line with the rest of our publishing. Again, in the first titles we included an explanatory note. From the first page of the prelims of The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ: This is one of the first titles in a new science fiction series from The Women’s Press. The list will feature new titles by contemporary writers and reprints of classic works by well known authors. Our aim is to publish science fiction by women and about women; to present exciting and provocative feminist images of the future that will offer an alternative vision of science and technology, and to challenge male domination of the science fiction tradition itself.

And challenge that tradition it did. It transformed and re-energised it.

At around about this time and throughout the 1990s, by which time I was no longer working at The Women’s Press, I was editing a series of anthologies of original short stories, some of them co-edited with my friend Stephen Hayward, three of which were published by Serpent’s Tail, and one by Lawrence & Wishart. Three of the ones I edited were women-only anthologies, but the rest were mixed. I recently took down copies of them from my shelves in order to check the ratio of women to men. Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa: 18 men, 16 women; Obsession: 7 men, 9 women; God: An Anthology of Fictions: 9 men, 10 women; Sex, Drugs, Rock’n’Roll: Stories to End the Century: 7 men, 9 women.

By contrast, last year’s Penguin anthology of modern British short stories, edited by novelist Philip Hensher, gives us almost twice as many men as women: 35 to 19.

I am constantly alert to the danger of women being crowded out by men. I check. I count. Why shouldn’t women writers be equally represented – in anthologies, or on publishing lists, or in review columns, or on shortlists for prizes? No-one believes (these days) that good writing is gender-specific, do they?

I suspect ­– and hope – that discrimination against women writers is not done deliberately. It’s more likely that it’s a symptom of an unconscious bias, an unconscious prejudice. What we need to do is to bring that unconscious prejudice into full consciousness, to name it as an expression of patriarchal culture, and to be unashamedly outfront and explicit about overturning it.

If you have any specific suggestions for ways we can overturn the forces that work to discriminate against women writers, please do share them by using the comments facility below. We will add them to the list we are compiling, which we will be posting up soon.

4 thoughts on “Sarah LeFanu on Women’s Writing: A Small Bit of Recent History

  1. I would like to comment on Sarah Le Fanu’s remarks about my Penguin Anthology of the British Short Story, which I think are misleading. She compares the second volume of my anthology, which covers the years 1920-2015, to anthologies of contemporary work edited and published by her in the 1990s. Of course, she was able to find work by equal numbers of men and women of equal quality in that period. I, too, selected equal numbers of stories by men and women in work after 1960. It is misleading to suggest that she achieved something that I was unwilling to achieve. She was working in completely different circumstances, and, it is fair to say, without the same constraints on necessary quality.

    Given the difficulties faced by women writers in earlier periods, it is not surprising that the anthologist who wants to give a full account of the short story at its best cannot always justify the inclusion of a story by May Sinclair or George Egerton, for instance, at the expense of one by Kipling. (I would have liked to have included both Sinclair and Egerton, but there just wasn’t room). There was also the point that other social groups beset by disadvantage found the short story a useful route into publication, and I wanted to give them some representation, too. Working class male writers, gay writers and writers from newly immigrant communities are always the ones most at risk of deselection in anthologies of this sort. I was determined that a great working class writer like Jack Common would not be dropped from my anthology in favour of a fashionable but second-rate writer of privilege of either sex.

    I am glad to see that Sarah Le Fanu has corrected an error she originally made, in stating the number of women authors in this volume as 18 rather than 19. (Perhaps she did not know that Malachi Whitaker was a woman). This was as a result of my correspondence with her. I would be very interested to hear her answer to a question I posed her in the same correspondence: could she name the women writers of short stories from before 1950 who I omitted, and which male writers I included that she believes ought to have been omitted to make way for her suggestions? I am asking this in a spirit of open curiosity, as a long-term proponent and supporter of women’s writing.

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