A chance to make history: women’s writing and the selective tradition

penguin classics

Thinking about reception (which is what I do for a living) means thinking about all the ways in which books are received: read, rewritten, remixed, reused, returned to in times of trouble. Books can provide powerful resources for survival: they can provide what Walter Benjamin calls ‘counsel’; we can find friends in them, or people who are like us, or people who are nothing like us. We can find worlds like our own, or worlds which are nothing like our own. We can find beauty: the exactly right word or phrase or image for something absolutely commonplace, or something we hadn’t known anyone else had ever felt, or something we hadn’t even known existed.

So one of the things I think about a lot is how we read: how we make meanings out of books, and how we put them to use in our lives. But there’s a first step that sometimes gets overlooked. Because we can only read books that are, well, there.

Literary history is full of lost books, forgotten authors, and some pretty scary near-misses. Here are a few:

Susan Warner, author of The Wide, Wide World (1850).
Warner was immensely popular in her lifetime, and was seen as a writer of much the same type, and in the same rank, as Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter). Hawthorne went on to become a classic, and Warner was dismissed as a second-rate writer of sentimental women’s fiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, her work was re-evaluated by the feminist literary critics Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, and The Wide, Wide World was republished by The Feminist Press in 1987 (it’s still in print, but not a Penguin Classic).

Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Rhys wrote three amazing novels in the 1930s (Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight): they fell out of print quickly, Rhys moved to Cornwall where she lived in poverty, in an out-of-season holiday cottage, and everyone thought she was dead. In the late 1950s, two brilliant women (Selma Van Dias, who adapted her work for stage and radio, and Diana Athill, the editor and publisher) tracked her down, and with their support she was able to finish Wide Sargasso Sea, the book for which she is remembered (although all her work is currently back in print).

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Hurston has been called (here) ‘the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century’. She published her last novel in 1948 and died in poverty twelve years later, with none of her books in print: Alice Walker paid for a headstone for her (previously unmarked) grave in 1973.

We often talk about good books ‘passing the test of time’: in fact, that’s sometimes how people define a classic. And all those gorgeous, covetable Penguin Classic editions in the header image up there are fantastic books, which pass the test of time in the sense that they can still reach us across a historical gap: they can still speak to us, jolt us out of our everyday way of seeing the world, provide us with counsel and beauty, friends and phrases. But in order to be able to do that, they have to pass a different kind of test of time: they have to survive. And that doesn’t happen simply because books are good; it happens because people keep reprinting them, keep reviewing them, keep writing critical works on them, invest time and money and energy on maintaining the presence of these books so that they are there, so that the kind of readers who need this kind of book can keep on finding them, reading them, making use of them.

Raymond Williams, who invented cultural studies, calls this the ‘selective tradition’; Jane Tompkins, who helped rediscover The Wide, Wide World, writes:

Works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position… The literary works that now make up the canon do so because the groups that have an investment in them are culturally the most influential (1985: 618)

So the works that don’t get selected – which very nearly included The Wide, Wide, World, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Wide Sargasso Sea – aren’t necessarily those that aren’t good enough: they’re the works whose readers are culturally less influential, whose readers are not the people doing the selecting of the selective tradition. They’re often works by women; they’re very often works by non-Anglo women.

And there are reasons for that, too. Many feminist historians of literature and visual art have noticed that although women have produced art in all forms and media at all historical periods, their art tends not to survive. This is partly because women are less likely to have a good network of connections to professional critics, editors, and publishers who will keep their work alive after their death (Tompkins’ article on Warner and Hawthorne provides a really good example of this). But it’s also partly because women get written out of the selective tradition, out of the story that we tell about art and literature. Even when women’s art is published, recognized and appreciated – which is already much harder for women than for men (see Vida’s statistics for 2011 here) – it tends to be seen as exceptional, as standing outside the mainstream. Which means that when histories are written, lists of ‘influential books’ are compiled, and traditions are selected, works by women tend to drop out. So women can (exceptionally) make it as writers, but they are almost never cited as influences on the next generation of writers (unless as influences on a subsidiary ‘women’s tradition’).

So I’m really pleased that initiatives like the Australian Women Writers Challenge exist, to raise awareness of writing by Australian women. The AWW website’s ‘About’ section says:

Male authors [are] more likely to have their books reviewed in influential newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors… Part of the problem [is] one of awareness. When [Elizabeth Lhuede] went to find books at her local library, the weekend staff couldn’t name one living Australian female author. So, if books by Australian women aren’t being reviewed, how do readers know what they’ve published? How do they know to ask for them at libraries and book shops? How would they know to recommend them to friends?

But – again – there’s a first step missing here. Because readers, libraries, and book shops can only provide these books if they’re there; if they haven’t fallen out of print, as women’s books tend to do.

So now let’s talk about the Hungarian-Australian writer Inez Baranay, who I’m honoured to be able to call a friend, and who is the author of seven novels, as well as novellas, shorter prose works, screenplays, and memoirs. Inez’s first novel, Between Careers, set in Sydney in the late 1970s, waited until 1989 for publication, but is very much part of the explosion of Australian women’s writing which started with Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip in 1977, and which produced a huge, diverse range of books by a huge, diverse range of women, telling stories about their experience in contemporary Australia, and examining the society which gave rise to those experiences. Monkey Grip survives (as a Penguin Modern Classic!), but Between Careers is out of print, as are Inez’s other two Sydney novels, Pagan and Sheila Power.

I wonder whether one of the reasons that Inez hasn’t been taken up into the tradition as definitively as, say, Helen Garner, is that her work stands at a particular kind of angle to Australia. For twenty years, her work has been informed by her travel (she has lived in a number of countries including Papua New Guinea, India, and the Netherlands; she now lives in Istanbul). She’s written a memoir of her year in Papua New Guinea, and novels set in Bali, India, and Amsterdam: she writes about the places where people and cultures meet and interact, and that’s not always easily recognizable as ‘Australian’ literature. (In fact, her two Indian novels, Neem Dreams and With the Tiger, couldn’t find publishers in Australia at first, and were both first published in India; critics are beginning to describe her as a ‘transnational’ writer.)

But, precisely because of that particular angle, her books are an important part of the tradition of Australian women’s writing, of transnational/global writing, of travel writing. (We might, for example, come to a different understanding of this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, if we read it against Inez’s With the Tiger and The Edge of Bali). Her books mess with national boundaries. They play with genre – Sheila Power is a very smart and funny take on the sex-and-shopping novel; Always Hungry is a kind of vampire novel. They expand what we think ‘Australian women’s writing’ is.

And they’re out of print.

Which means not only that readers don’t have the opportunity to connect with them – to discover their worlds, their characters, their beauties – but also that literary history is being written, and Inez Baranay is being written out of it.

But we can change that history. New technologies and networks – social media, crowdfunding, print-on-demand – are closing the gap between selectors and readers, making it possible for anyone with even a few euro to spare to help keep Inez’s books alive and available for the readers who need them, and for the scholars and historians who might not otherwise be able to tell the whole story of women’s writing in Australia and beyond.

Inez’s crowdfunding campaign to produce print-on-demand editions of ten of her books is here. At the time of posting this, she has one week to raise 932 euro. That’s just 93 people giving 10 euro each (that’s about AU$15). Please think about donating: Inez, and I, and history, will be grateful.


References and further reading (I did say I do this for a living!):

On the ‘selective tradition’: Raymond Williams, ‘The Analysis of Culture’ in The Long Revolution (1961), and ‘Tradition’ in Marxism and Literature (1977).

On The Wide, Wide World:

Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction (1978)

Jane Tompkins, ‘Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation’, American Quarterly 36.5 (1984). (available here at JSTOR with university login)

Catharine O’Connell, ‘ “We Must Sorrow”: silence, suffering and sentimentality in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World‘, Studies in American Fiction 25.1 (1997).

On transnational literature (the Sharrad essay mentions Inez’s Indian novels in particular):

Michael Jacklin, ‘The Transnational Turn in Australian Literary Studies’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Special Issue: Australian Literature in a Global World (2009), available here

Paul Sharrad, ‘Seen Through Other Eyes: Reconstructing Australian Literature in India’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 10 (2020), available here

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