Wednesday, August 6, 2014

WITMonth Day 6 - Women write classics

Classic literature is a fairly odd genre - it doesn't just mean anything old (hardly anyone would call the early 20th century pulp pieces that Somerset Maugham disparages in Of Human Bondage classic simply because it's old), nor does it necessarily mean the very best. The classics serve as a constant reminder of what the Powers That Be have determined is Important for Literature. And sadly, these lists are often very short on women, and for Anglo-American lists almost always completely lacking in women writers in translation.

But our point this month is not to bemoan, rather to champion. So here are a few truly classic books by women writers in translation (according to both meanings of the word), some of which I have read and some of which I have yet to:
  1. The Tale of Genji! If a list of classics fails to include this - the first novel - you can probably rest assured that the remainder will be unimaginative and stilted in its perception of quality literature. While I have yet to actually read this doorstopper, there is no doubt that as a concept, The Tale of Genji is critical in a broader understanding of literature. It furthermore provides modern readers and historians with unequaled insight to the lives of 11th century Japanese gentry, as well as simply being a novel. The Tale of Genji is without a doubt classic literature, and if the rumors are to be believed, fairly good classic literature at that. Written not in English (which hardly factored as a language at the time), nor by a man, Murasaki Shikubi deserves her place in literary history, no question about it. 
  2. The Heptameron - Marguerite de Navarre is perhaps better known as a princess (not a sentence I ever thought I'd write on this blog, but there you go!), but by all accounts (again one I haven't yet read myself, though I did just buy it) The Heptameron is an important piece of literary history, as well as in interesting aspect of feminist literature. These short stories cover different manners of female sexuality, as well as simply serving as a conversation between a group of women telling each other stories (which as a concept remains woefully underused today, while similar stories with all men are prevalent just about everywhere).
  3. Mercè Rodoreda's In the Time of the Doves - well-written, intelligent, painful and ultimately sharply on-point regarding war, love and peace, this novel deserves a spot on any modern classics list.
  4. Isabel Allende is a writer of several books that have legitimately made their way to the canon - namely The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna (as well as City of the Beasts, which holds a curious status in young adult literature). Allende's books overall defy neat genre definitions (she has literally written a book about Zorro. Which I read many years ago. Because it's literally a book about Zorro.) and she is rarely marketed as a "serious" literary writer, yet there is no denying that she is one of the most prolific, influential and ultimately classic women writers in the world today. 
These are just a few samples - obviously. There are many, many other women writers whose books I have not read, many writers who truly deserve to be on any list of classic literature (Tove Jansson, anyone? Juana Inés de la Cruz? Sigrid Undset?). Pretending like these writers do not exist - like non-Anglo women writers only sprouted up in the 20th century, and even then - is just an outright rewriting of history. These are just a handful of women I've been introduced to (many, I should note, through this project rather than an independent literary exposure!). Who are your favorite classic women writers in translation? Who do you think deserves a spot in our coveted Western canon?


  1. I realize that this post is designed to champion women writers whom you feel have been largely overlooked, but I'm a little hazy about your definitions. "Classic literature" isn't really a genre at all, for example; a novel is a genre, a short story is a genre, a poem is a genre, but "classic literature" is just a descriptor of worth much like the dreaded "literary fiction" label (neither is actually a definable genre). As far as what constitutes "classic" status, this is often a matter where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sor Juana is amazing in my opinion and would definitely constitute a "classic" for me in terms of being a great stylist; but by the same token, Sigrid Undset--at least as measured by her soap opera Kristin Lavransdatter--is a hack writer prone to melodrama. A few female writers I'd be more likely to include on my personal WIT translation canon alongside Sor Juana for one or more works: Marguerite Duras, Carmen Laforet, Alejandra Pizarnik, Elena Poniatowska, Carme Riera, Mercé Rodoreda, Marguerite Yourcenar. This list only includes authors I've read in the last several years and is a "personal canon" rather than a defense of or attack on somebody else's idea of a canon. P.S. Still not sure who you're referring to by the vague accusations about "pretending like these writers do not just an outright rewriting of history." Who's pretending that they don't exist? Is it somebody's job to publicize them? And if somebody else believes that Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf is a "better," more important writer than say an Isabel Allende, does that mean that they're pretending that Isabel Allende doesn't exist or isn't "important"? I don't understand that part of your argument.

    1. I'm not going to argue taste (particularly about books that I haven't necessarily read), but all of these thoughts are just my personal interpretation of things. I see readers whose tastes I trust pointing to women I have heard very little of, when I constantly hear about seemingly equivalent men.

      The whole pretending like writers don't exist idea is something that requires a huge canvas to see. I've been looking at stats on women in translation (and in general stats on women writers) for over nine months now... Seven months ago I would not have argued that point because I didn't believe it. But Russ's book and my own extensive observations have led me to conclude that yes, there is a fundamental difference in the way the bigger literary community treats its women than the way it treats its men.

      It's not a big deal if one literary critic prefers Proust to Allende - that's a matter of taste. It's a bigger deal if almost all literary critics and bigwigs only talk about Proust, or Nabokov, or Garcia Marquez, or a dozen other extremely high profile men without ever mentioning a woman. This happens... often. It's pretty easy to miss, to be honest, because we're so used to these sorts of imbalances. I wasn't aware of so many brilliant women writers until I didn't start actively hunting them down. That's the rewriting. Why is it obvious that I'd know about Neruda but not about Ingrid Christensen? Maybe that's a bad comparison because Neruda won a Nobel, but goodness, look at the imbalance there! Not really a coincidence...

      Thanks for your comments (as usual), and especially for your own personal canon - I'm really looking forward to checking out many of the women there (again, many of them completely unknown to me until the start of this project!).

    2. Thanks for the response. I appreciate that it makes little sense to argue taste in regard to books one hasn't read, but isn't that kind of what you're doing in this post and your reply anyway? Suggesting that certain female writers aren't getting the attention that they deserve when "seemingly equivalent men" are getting plenty of attention in comparison--and as part of some conscious or unconscious effort (by people unknown) to promote male writers in place of female writers? I guess we'll have to disagree on this point if I'm characterizing your "personal interpretation of things" accurately.

      From my perspective, you have solid empirical evidence that women writers get the short end of the stick in translation into English. Why this is happening is another matter (& I don't claim to have the answer), but suggesting that this is due to somebody or many people "pretending [women] writers don't exist" is a flawed hypothesis to me because other explanations are much more plausible than the victimization or conspiracy narrative that you seem to be suggesting.

      As a concrete example of an "ignored" women writer, let's take a look at the specific case of Angélica Gorodischer, whom you have eloquently championed on your blog. To the "average (i.e. non-Argentinean) reader," I'd probably agree with you that Gorodischer is a fairly unknown quantity. However, that doesn't prove that she's being undeservedly ignored on your "huge canvas" just because she's a woman. First, she is well-known and well-regarded in her native Argentina. I've only read one short story or so by her so I can't comment on her body of work from personal experience, but I can say that you would be hard pressed even in Argentina to find people who think she's a more "canonical" writer than any number of other writers from the country: Roberto Arlt, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Silvina Ocampo, Ricardo Piglia, Manuel Puig, Juan José Saer, Domingo Sarmiento, the author of the gaucho poem Martín Fierro, etc. For you to say that Gorodischer is undervalued seems perfectly valid; for you to say that she's being ignored because of a pattern of "suppression of women" is to ignore the critical consensus (accurate or not) that male and female critics in Argentina have arrived at (so to speak) over time. I don't buy the explanation you propose; there are better explanations for why somebody like Gorodischer isn't well known in translation compared to better known authors who are, I agree, mostly male both in my example and otherwise. Why am I debating your interpretation of things? I think your empirical numbers point to a clear disparity in translation along gender lines--a matter of importance. However, I also believe that you're taking the easy way out in terms of looking for an answer to why this state of affairs exists--I'm not convinced that writers who are being ignored are being ignored along gender lines. It's more complex than that. P.S. I left Carmen Martín Gaite out of my personal canon above. My bad! P.P.S. It's too bad that others aren't joining in on the discussion here more often. I'd be interested in hearing what others thought about many of the things we've been batting around.

    3. I'll put it this way: if I didn't know Hebrew, didn't read in Hebrew, and didn't follow the contemporary Israeli literary culture, I would be entirely unaware of the acclaim many women writers have received over the years. So when I look at a language that I distinctly have never spoken/read, I don't think it's unreasonable for me to judge it (in English) based on what I see in English. Does it miss a larger picture? Obviously. And it's super Anglo-centric. But it's all I know, and it's telling in itself.

      It's hard for me to explain a lot of my thought process on why I do think there's a lot of "ignoring" at play here in comments without constantly referencing Russ's book. She does a very good job of presenting the necessary context for the problem. There's a lot of history (feminist and otherwise) when it comes to women writers being brushed aside. Russ's primary example is that of Charlotte Brontë, who was largely ignored in the academia until the mid-20th century (and for a long time was treated as a one-hit wonder, which is just... absurd). My own examples would be an extremely prolific Israeli woman like Gail Hareven who has had only one book translated, while Meir Shalev (who is a wonderful author, but certainly not better) is translated at every turn. It stops being a coincidence when it happens across all languages, in all genres, in every form. And so explicitly with women writers. It's not exclusive, of course - you see similar attitudes towards non-white writers as well (though this distinction obviously blurs a bit in translation, where the American notion of race becomes a little less relevant).

      Thanks as always for the comments. I'd also love to hear more people's thoughts on the issues (I think there's a lot of diversity of opinion in the field, which is awesome), but I think it's fallen somewhat out of fashion to leave comments these days... Alas.

  2. Marguerite Yourcenar


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