Literary Hub

Joanna Scutts on How We Find—and Lose—Women Writers

How does a woman writer get lost—and found? Brigid Hughes’ story of rediscovering the Chicago writer Bette Howland follows a now-familiar path of chance encounter, pursuit, and recovery. A few years ago, on the dollar cart of a used bookstore, Hughes found a copy of Howland’s 1974 memoir W-3, spurring her to track down the author’s son, then uncover a trove of unpublished writing—selections of which she published in A Public Space, the literary journal she edits, in 2015. Now, the journal is launching a books division with a collection of Howland’s stories, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, titled after the novella that’s a highlight of the book.

Hughes was also instrumental in the revival of Kathleen Collins, a writer and filmmaker who died in 1988 at the age of 46, her work largely unseen, though guarded carefully by her daughter Nina. Having caught the belated premiere of Collins’s 1982 film Losing Ground at a film festival in 2015, Hughes contacted Nina and included one of her mother’s stories in the same issue of A Public Space that first shared the Bette Howland material. In 2016, Ecco published a collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, followed up by this year’s miscellany Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary.

The recovery of a neglected author can be an intimate, obsessive pursuit. Eve Babitz’s self-mythologizing chronicles of Hollywood high life were out of print when Lili Anolik, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, “caught whiff” of them. Slipping quickly down the rabbit hole, Anolik pursued the now 75-year-old writer doggedly, eventually making contact and spurring her revival through republication and a new biography, Hollywood’s Eve. In Vanity Fair Anolik described the endlessly quotable Babitz as “our secret id,” whose outrageous pronouncements about men, women, and sex were in keeping with the reckless, macho spirit of ’70s Hollywood but jarring in the #MeToo climate. But we make excuses for those we love, and I recognize in Anolik’s defiant celebration of Babitz’s un-PC excesses a kindred spirit of discovery. 

I tell my own rabbit-hole story this way. Marjorie Hillis, a funny, frank, and largely forgotten 1930s self-help writer, came into my life as a gift, in the days after my father died suddenly. I was 29, single, and about to finish grad school with no idea what to do next, when my oldest friend brought me a copy of Hillis’s 1936 bestseller, the bracingly titled Live Alone and Like It. In its opening paragraph, the book rewrites Jane Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” for a non-marrying generation: “the chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.”

Hillis urged women to the fearless pursuit of their own joy, whether that meant hosting a cocktail party or leaving an unhappy marriage. Her voice was waspish and wise, deliciously decadent, and cut through waves of disorientation, grief, and self-doubt like a chilled martini. At the same time, I knew it wasn’t mere luck that brought Hillis to me—it was timing. Hachette reissued the book in 2008 through its now defunct chick-lit imprint 5 Spot, and after reading about it, my friend had gone online to find an original copy. It was a good time for celebratory paeans to single life, and—when the financial crisis hit—about the pursuit of happiness amid economic turmoil.

It’s in the sheer number and variety of these recovered writers that the real transformation lies: not with the return of a single neglected voice, but with a chorus.

But my experience showed me how the political climate can act on a literary reputation. Hillis’s championing of female independence was popular while the Depression was upending traditional gender roles, but her attempts at a 1950s comeback ran into a wall of sexism, ageism, and domestic conformity. When I started researching my book about Hillis, The Extra Woman, I thought I was writing a story about money and happiness. Women claiming the right to live as they chose didn’t strike me as particularly controversial. But by the time the book was published, in late 2017, after an election that galvanized women’s activism in a way that was unthinkable a decade before, my book and Marjorie Hillis’s philosophy looked and felt different: more earnest, more urgent. More feminist.

The revival of lost women writers like Bette Howland and Kathleen Collins, along with Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, and others, is more than a private homage or a publishing trend. New York Times critic Parul Sehgal recently described this moment as a movement—to champion neglected women’s voices, correct the injustices of the past, and expand the field of (especially) 20th-century literary heroines beyond the Didion-Plath-Sontag axis. It’s a revival of an older form of feminist activism, on the part of publishers, editors, and critics, to find women writers and make their work available to a new readership. It’s in the sheer number and variety of these recovered writers that the real transformation lies: not with the return of a single neglected voice, but with a chorus.

Since the early 1970s, trailblazing publishers like the Feminist Press and the UK’s Virago Press, have shared a mission to amplify the voices of contemporary feminism while enriching the literary canon, publishing new editions of writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Grace Paley, and George Eliot. In Ms. magazine in 1975, Alice Walker wrote an essay detailing her search for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, a landmark piece that became the introduction to a 1979 Feminist Press edition of Hurston’s work. In this archetypal project of feminist recovery, Walker single-handedly restored the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance writer, ethnographer, novelist, and rampant self-mythologizer to her current stature. (Coincidentally, a batch of Kathleen Collins’s stories were rejected, albeit encouragingly, by Walker at Ms. in 1975.)

Today, readers curious about the imbalances of literary history can follow the lead of several rabbit-hole-spelunking critics. Emma Garman’s “Feminize Your Canon” column and Lucy Scholes’s “Re-Covered” series for The Paris Review go in search of neglected authors, while Anne Boyd Rioux, a scholar who has worked to revive the once-bestselling Victorian writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, publishes a newsletter, “The Bluestocking Bulletin,” to bring attention to older writers who have dropped out of view. The writer A.N. Devers has turned the recovery of women’s undervalued writing into a business and a social-media movement. Her journal and London bookstore The Second Shelf sells used, rare, and antiquarian books by women, which are chronically underpriced and devalued, in a trade historically dominated by men.

When Alice Walker wrote about Zora Neale Hurston, she argued for seeing her primarily as an artist, “rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.”

Clearly, there is an eager audience for these old-and-new voices—distinctive, spiky, strange, uncompromising, and capable of upending what we think we know about the past. Especially now, women’s rediscovered literary work often comes to us interleaved with letters, diaries, and other personal records, a documentary palimpsest that attests to women’s struggles to balance writing with financial survival, with domestic life. This approach is understandably popular at a moment of heightened awareness of the gendered obstacles women face in their creative and professional lives, and leads us to champion writers like Howland and Babitz, who blur the lines of fiction and memoir.  Perhaps, if we’re women writers ourselves, we’re looking for identification, guidance, or—guiltily—for cautionary tales, who might show us what not to do, how not to be forgotten.

Yet it’s an approach that risks tethering women too forcefully to their biographies, at the risk of diminishing their artistic achievements. It risks limiting our recovery efforts to the women who fit a certain outlook, a certain style, a certain politics. It also tempts us to find the reason for obscurity in a woman’s individual work, in her voice, her actions, her failures—rather than in the power structures at work in the literary world, in the culture at large.

When Alice Walker wrote about Zora Neale Hurston, she argued for seeing her primarily as an artist, “rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” This approach, Walker claimed, would allow us to enjoy her work more fully, comparing the experience to listening to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday without thinking about gin or heroin. But a writer’s politics are not quite the same as her addictions in the way they work to obscure her legacy. During the civil rights era, Hurston was harshly judged by her contemporaries for her conservative views, which included—as Chantel Tattoli recently put it in The Paris Review—her “sycophantic attitude toward her white patrons, Red-baiting, and eventual criticism of Brown v. Board of Education.” (Walker’s own politics came under scrutiny recently, after her praise in the New York Times of a book by the anti-Semitic crank David Icke.) Even in a moment of particular sensitivity to the morals of art and artists, we keep being surprised that pedestals are tottery things.

We’re always starved for heroines. But we owe it to women writers not to pluck them out of history, to elevate them to iconic status without paying attention to the way in which one woman’s fame and the obscurity of others are connected: how our hunger for individual icons can blind us to the diversity of women’s voices.

Even major prizes, bestsellers, and critical acclaim aren’t certain to cement an author’s status—just ask Pearl Buck, Pulitzer Prize winner, runaway bestseller, and the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but now a footnote to literary history. In a 2014 Guardian essay about the vagaries of literary fame, DJ Taylor described the fortunes of the mid-20th century British novelist Barbara Pym, whom Philip Larkin named in 1977 as the most underrated writer of the century. After his endorsement, “publishers found their interest mysteriously renewed,” and Pym’s next novel, after almost two decades of rejection and obscurity, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Pym wrote the kind of books seemingly designed to be a shorthand for “women’s fiction”: social comedies that center on ordinary women, often middle aged, leading lives that are genteel, unremarkable, domestic, dramatic only on the inside, and apparently devoid of politics. But today she is increasingly embraced by a young female readership that is better primed than ever before to detect feminist subversion in a writer who shows the world through a woman’s eyes, through her ordinary activities and takes seriously the complexities of her emotional life. In The New Yorker in 2015, Hannah Rosefield linked this emergent Pym fanbase to a young, self-conscious sisterhood of “spiritual spinsters,” who connected online in places like the Toast and the Awl, and who celebrated Pym’s (and, indeed, Marjorie Hillis’s) understanding of “singleness as an identity not an absence.”

This is an audience hungry for women’s stories, who don’t need those women to be flawless or heroic, nor ruthless and badass, but simply honest. An audience that can embrace Pym and Hurston both. Instead of holding up a few isolated women as exceptions to the rule of male genius, we owe it to that audience to raise up a crowd: sharing, teaching, citing, and celebrating them despite their flaws and complications. Only then can we demonstrate that literary history has always contained a cacophony of female voices, diverse in their politics and outlooks, but forthright in their determination to speak in public and be heard.

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