Nine, just 9, books by female authors at the top of a 20th century list?

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1902

Woolf, 1902, by George Charles Beresford (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

The Reading Ape, in his February Literary Fact of the Day compilation, included the following tidbit:

There are only 6 female authors on The Modern Library‘s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century.

In fact, in the Modern Library’s Board’s list (over 10 years old now), a woman doesn’t appear until slot 15, and it’s Virginia Woolf‘s To the lighthouse. By contrast, a woman – Ayn Rand no less – occupies the first two slots of the Modern Library’s Readers’ List. Granted, this list is old news now as it was published at the end of the 20th century and was well raked over at the time. But, the Reading Ape reminded me of it and it seemed to me to be worth another look, 10 or so years down the track.  Here are the women:

  • 15. Virginia Woolf’s To the lighthouse
  • 17. Carson McCullers’ The heart is a lonely hunter
  • 58. Edith Wharton’s The age of innocence
  • 61. Willa Cather’s Death comes for the archbishop
  • 69. Edith Wharton’s The house of mirth
  • 76. Muriel Spark’s The prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • 84. Elizabeth Bowen’s The death of the heart
  • 94. Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea
  • 95. Iris Murdoch’s Under the net

Oh, that’s actually 9. The Reading Ape can’t count! Still 9% is pretty poor isn’t it? There are only 2 in the first 50, and did you notice that only one of these authors is represented by more than one book? That’s not the case with the male authors. I’m not going to be thorough about this but Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, EM Forster, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh are just some of the male authors represented by two or more novels.

Anyhow, back to the women. I’ve read all those authors, and 7 of the books. I would agree with the inclusion of most of them, but let’s think about who’s missing. Well, for a start, there are quite a few Nobel Prize winners, including the following who write in English (which seems to be what this list is – Top 100 English language novels):

  • Pearl S. Buck
  • Nadine Gordimer
  • Toni Morrison
  • Doris Lessing (Nobel granted in 21st century, but her main body of work was written in the 20th century)

Surely each of these has at least one novel worthy of inclusion and could, say, replace one of DH Lawrence’s 3 (THREE!) inclusions? And what about Christina Stead, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, AS Byatt to name a few other significant female authors of the 20th century? What about Keri Hulme’s The bone people? Or a novel by Thea Astley? (Because, another feature of the list is that it’s very America-England centric)

Given that we are now over a decade into the 21st century, it might be interesting to reflect on a list compiled at the end of the 20th century. What do you think of the balance, and do you think there are novels by female writers which should have been included in the top 100 of the 20th century? (Let’s not get too bogged down in what we’d eliminate – that’s much less fun!)

24 thoughts on “Nine, just 9, books by female authors at the top of a 20th century list?

  1. I’m usually not one stirred to action by the thought of inequality in publishing, but something about this list in particular makes me want to read everything by women I can get my hands on – because you’re right, this list is so lopsided that it’s almost impossible for me to understand. Why grant multiple slots to so many male authors without even giving a space to, god, TONI MORRISON of all people? You’ve also reminded me that I need to read Keri Hulmes – I stumbled over “The Bone People” in the peace corps library a couple months ago and have been meaning to read it ever since.

    • Yes, I nearly didn’t post this – partly because it’s a decade old – but The Reading Ape brought it up again and I thought it was worth revisiting.

      Do read The bone people. It’s a while since I’ve read it, but it’s the only book my reading group has done twice!

  2. What about Elizabeth Jolley? Maybe we need to prod our publishers a bit to push these names on their overseas trips.

  3. Woolf (obviously), Wharton, and Cather are huge favorites of mine. I keep meaning to read Elizabeth Bowen (and with slightly less urgency Sparks and Rhys) but haven’t gotten to her (them) yet. McCuller and Murdock haven’t really been on even the outer reaches of my TBR (though I am aware of them, of course).

    While the list is fairly light on late 20th Century writers, the absence of Morrison is still an abomination. The Reading Ape’s initial observation and now your follow-up do make me want to focus more on women authors.

    I understand why a favorite of mine (Gina Berriault) was not included, though I think her books are worthy. She’s never gained much popularity of any sort. I would say another omission was Dawn Powell, but you’d have to take the word of Tony’s Book World because I have only read one of her works (Turn, Magic Wheel which was outstanding).

    I would also plug for Winterson, but her work was probably too fresh in 1998 to the sort of respect it would need to knock off Lawrence or the like.

    And you are definitely correct that the other aspect of the list is that it is very tilted toward American-British fiction. You know better than I do, but Patrick White maybe? Also, Things Fall Apart was an “English language novel” and it definitely deserves a place on the list.

    The list has major flaws, but the gender flaw is to my mind the one least forgiveable. (I will accept that those polled were mostly American and, hence, the bias. I suppose they were probably mostly men too, but that still does not seem a very good excuse. A sort of literary nativism, while not admirable, seems less odious than male chauvinism.)

    • Love your thoughts and suggestions Kerry. Must say that when I said I agreed with most of the inclusions McCuller was one I was thinking of as perhaps not. I have read her two big books (but way back when) and have never really thought them as being “really up there” (says she using her best literary jargon). I do think Murdoch’s worthy – I have struggled with some of her works and loved others. The sea, the sea is worth reading.

      Yes, I have Dawn Powell in my radar as the result of reading Tony. One day, perhaps, because she does sound up my alley. I think I recollect your reviewing Berriault? She sounds worth checking out too. (She’s probably like my Astley – and Jolley whom I didn’t mention but certainly had in my mind – great writers who just haven’t received the broad recognition to result in their being considered.)

      Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to comment thoroughly … and for not thinking it silly to bring it up again.

      • Oh, and Angela Carter. I have only read The Bloody Chamber which is not a novel, but any novel she wrote must be “best of” worthy. This is great. It is providing some clarity for my reading plans for the next six months to a year. (Aside from newer stuff.)

        • Oh yes … I haven’t read her yet but have Nights at the circus on my TBR. Another must read. I’m not sure I need to have my reading plans clarified (!) but I am appreciating the reminders re the gaps in my reading!

  4. I haven’t seen the list, so I don’t know if the same is true of the men, but this does seem very top heavy in terms of the beginning of the twentieth century. What were the criteria by means of which the list was compiled? Does this have a bearing on the outcome?

    • Yes, good point Annie. That’s partly why I thought it might be fun to revisit now, because some (though not all) of my suggestions are people who made their mark late in the century. It purports to be a 20th century list but was published in July 1998! Why are people always so impatient to post “tops” and “best ofs” before the end of whatever it is they are reviewing? It happens at the end of each year and it mystifies me. (My cynical answer is that they want to be the first – but what does such a first mean?)

  5. There is no doubt whatsoever that this list is sadly lacking in female authors. For example, I would put Anne Tyler’s books up in the top ten somewhere, perhaps Ladder of Years, being my favorite of her many novels. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News also. Iréne Nemirovsky Suite Francaise, etc, etc

    • Thanks Tom. Anne Tyler – she’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker International this year hasn’t she. I’ve read a few of hers and have liked them a lot. Ladder of years is certianly a great one – wonderful exploration of the ’empty nest’ issue, if I remember correctly.

  6. No Good Morning, Midnight?

    At the risk of causing controversy, I don’t think The Color Purple should be there. I don’t actually think it’s a very well written book.

    Glad to see Sparks there though. Very well deserved.

    Any list incidentally that includes Ayn Rand as an example of quality can be pretty much binned without further consideration. A shockingly bad writer. I’ve noticed even her fans defend the philosophy much more than the literary quality.

    Interestingly the last two books I read both clearly assumed a male reader. V by Pynchon (I actually mention it in my blog review of it because it struck me so much) and In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (lots on the aesthetics of women clearly predicated on viewing rather than being one). Big American fiction of the sort rewarded in lists like these seems to me especially prone to that flaw. Written by men, for men, with women treated essentially as plot devices.

    Mass women’s fiction does the same thing with men (I’m thinking chicklit here), and I think that’s ok (in much the same way I can’t get excited about gender stereotyping in action novels – everything’s stereotyped including gender). In literary fiction though I don’t see much of an excuse. That said, from outside the supposed gender divide seems very exaggerated generally in US cultural discourse.

    • Yes, it was the early hours of the am when you posted this.

      The Rand was the Readers’ list and would certainly not figure in my list – anywhere (unless of course it was a list of everything I’d read. Then she would have to appear!). It’s fascinating though how she divides people.

      I have only read one Tanizaki – and I’m sure you can guess which one that is – but have another on my TBR. “Assuming a male reader” is interesting. You are right I think that some writers – and chicklit is a good eg – do assume a certain reader which results in very particular perspectives. In the end, though, I agree with you that “literary fiction” needs to be a little more nuanced if it is to survive its first printing.

  7. Seeing as I’m still trying to educate myself on 20th century literature (err… literature in general…), I can’t add any possible titles to this list (at least, none that haven’t been mentioned) but I want to say that though I typically try to assume the best in gender imbalances like this, it’s a clear dismissal of women writers and literature written by women (particularly given that numerous male authors are given multiple titles). I’m not quick to accuse the writers of the list of purposely ignoring women writers, but rather wonder what it is about our reading culture that makes us think first of the “classic” male writers first.

    Anyways, great post and great follow-up comments. A lot of interesting books and authors to think about.

    • Thanks Biblio. And that’s a great question, one that I pondered as I wrote the post. It’s not that there aren’t great women writers as we’ve all discussed here but that readers in general seem to think of the male writers first when thinking classic. It probably starts in academia where, certainly in my time, male authors outweighed female. Of course I studied some women – Eliot, Austen, Woolf – but males (and particularly when we got to drama and poetry) were in the ascendant. But then, why does it start in academia? Is it because in the past (and still?) the majority of academics were male?

  8. As a Canadian, of course first come to my mind are titles from authors like Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Lawrence… among others. Beyond our national border, I’m also thinking of Marilynne Robinson, and I’m sure, as you’ve properly suggested, there are many more.

    • Did I say Munro? I don’t think I did and I probably should have. I have yet to read Marilynne Robinson but she is high on my hit list as I do actually have one of hers in the TBR. Thanks for adding to the growing list.

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