Yesterday I was reading a list of "the 110 most banned books" that someone posted on LiveJournal, when I became aware of how few women writers were on the list. I counted them: there are 11 of them. 11 banned books written by women, out of 110 banned books total. In order of rank from highest to lowest, the women authors listed are: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anne Frank, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Katherine Paterson, Sylvia Plath, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Margaret Atwood.
"But what's your point?" you may be wondering. "It's a list of the most frequently banned books! Are you complaining that people don't censor women often enough? It's not as though some sexist or group of sexist compiled a list of 'the literary canon' and deliberately omitted women from it! It's just the books that got most frequently banned!" Well, actually, it isn't. Some googling revealed that whoever turned the list into a LiveJournal/blog meme originally took it from the Online Computer Library Center website's ranking of banned books. The OCLC website explains, "This is a list of the titles that both made it to the OCLC Top 1000 list and have been banned according to the 4 volumes in the Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature series." Interestingly, the OCLC website does not bother to explain on that page what exactly the "OCLC Top 1000 list" is, nor to link to it from that page (despite the fact that it's posted elsewhere on their website and when mentioning a different page of your own website it really makes sense to link to it), which initially leaves the impression that the "OCLC Top 100 list" might be a list of the top 1000 banned books. But it isn't. Further searching revealed that The OCLC Top 1000 List is a list of "the intellectual works that have been judged to be worth owning by the 'purchase vote' of libraries around the globe."
What this amounts to, then, is a list of "banned books" that deliberately includes only the most popular and well-liked-by-librarians ones, and omits the books that the librarians themselves "censored" (in a manner of speaking) by opting not to buy them. So, it's a list of the top 110 Banned-But-Not-Really-All-That-Banned Books, a list designed to direct readers searching for revolutionary books toward safer, authority-approved books while making readers think they've gotten their hands on stuff the authorities didn't want them to.
Reading the first 100 of the Top 1000 revealed that only nine of the top 100 books most frequently purchased by libraries are written by women. I then checked the whole first half of the list. Of the top 500 books most frequently purchased by libraries, 59 were written by women. The women in question are, in order of rank from highest to lowest: Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anne Frank, Louisa May Alcott, Anna Sewell, Jane Austen again, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Johanna Spyri, Jane Austen yet again, L. M. Montgomery, Beatrix Potter, Margery Williams Bianco, Harper Lee, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Kate L. Turabian, Margaret Mitchell, George Eliot again, Edith Wharton twice, Madeleine L'Engle, J. K. Rowling, Irma Rombauer, Pearl S. Buck, Edith Granger, Willa Cather again, Dame Daphne Du Maurier, Marjorie Rawlings, J. K. Rowling again, Toni Morrison, Helen Keller, Helen Gardner, Alice Walker, J. K. Rowling again, Toni Morrison again, Maya Angelou, Willa Cather again, Isak Dinesen, Margaret Wise Brown, Mildred D. Taylor, Jane Austen two more times, Lorraine Hansberry, Katherine Paterson, J. K. Rowling again, Edith Wharton again, Mary Mapes Dodge, Betty Smith, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Drabble, Jane Austen yet again, George Eliot again, Natalie Babbitt, Toni Morrison again, Carol Ryrie Brink, Edith Hamilton, and Rachel Carson.
This adds up to a little under 12% of the books most purchased by libraries being written by women. Now, I realize that many of the books written by men that appear on the list were written in previous centuries when women had (far more so than they still have now) drastically less opportunity to write and/or get published than men did, which could explain some of the inequality - but I don't think it explains all of it. I don't have the time or energy right now to attempt to determine the dates of publication of the books on that list written by men versus the dates of publication of the books written by women and verify whether there are more books on the list written by men that were published in the last, say, 25 years than books written by women that were published in the same time period, but I suspect that there are - because I personally tend to read overwhelmingly books written in the past 25-50 years, and I keep noticing continually, despite having already made frequent mental notes to strive to correct it, that my own reading lists seem to contain two to three times as many male authors as female authors. And I don't think I'm personally biased against female authors, but if I'm not, then it appears that the people I get my recommendations from or the people they get their recommendations from or somebody somewhere along the line is.
So, I finally got frustrated enough with all this to search the Internet thoroughly for a list of great female authors, in order to make a new LiveJournal book meme that will increase awareness of female authors. There are various such lists to choose from, but the one I liked best was the list from the book 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide by Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen, and Holly Smith. The reasons I liked it best are that it's extremely racially and internationally diverse, it includes plenty of women writers of previous centuries (there are a lot more of them than the libraries are buying!), and it's mostly limited to serious adult reading materials (although there are a few instances of trashy genre fiction included that make the literary snob in me gape in horror). This is not any type of scientifically selected top 500 list; it's just the 500 books chosen by the three co-authors of 500 Great Books by Women. But I do like their selections, and I would like to see this meme spread because I think it will give a whole lot of people who are in the habit of considering themselves "well read" serious pause for thought when they find that they haven't even read 20 of the 500 great books by women.
( Bold the ones you've readCollapse )