July 22, 2006

Dead White Males versus Virago Women Writers

I read an article by Philip Hensher yesterday in The Independent entitled ‘Dead white male seeks publisher’ (21st July 2006, Arts and Books, p. 5).

Here Hensher considers Virago’s reissue of women’s classics that first brought the press to prominence. He praises Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, but damns Antonia White’s novel cycle:

The first one, Frost in May , I quite enjoyed in its naive way; it’s a very simple and fresh story about conventional school life. But after that: what a load of rubbish. The three other novels are extraordinarily technically inept. She can’t describe anything other than through a film of tremulous awareness. She can’t contrive incidents naturally at all. The characters have nothing to say apart from how they feel about each other. The whole thing is swathed in the most appalling snobbery – “each piece of furniture, old or new, had that inimitable air that comes from being acquired in the century it was made.” Lots of people like it, but I find it terribly difficult to regard it as in any sense a “classic”.

I am going to send this link to Sherah Wells who is writing her PhD on White. Maybe Hensher doesn’t like White – I am not familiar with the books so I can’t defend her – but what disturbs me is his idea of the “classic”. It seems rather elitist and traditionalist. The point of Virago’s books is that they are supposed to be an alternative canon, something to offset the problems of male literary canons (see my entry on Harold Bloom: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/is_harold_bloom/ and also on canonicity: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/notes_on_canonicity/).

Hensher goes on to note how on losing his copy of Thackerey’s Pendennis , he is unable to find a new edition. His conclusion is:

Of course publishers aren’t really arbiters of literary quality. All they do is publish books which they believe will sell, and the label of “classic”, in this context, is really only a marketing tool. But I do find it rather odd that, these days it seems much easier to sell books by dead women authors than even the most famous of male authors.

While it is true that publishers are only interested in selling books, Hensher’s logic is not so sound for a number of reasons:

1. While there are now many books by ‘dead women authors’ in publication, there are many more which are only available via a research trip to the British Library.

2. The only reason that so many ‘dead women authors’ have been published is because of the painstaking work by women like Sherah Wells, who have worked hard to recover and republish women’s texts.

I suggest that if Hensher is so worried about Thackery, Disraeli, Meredith and Peacock that he should do something about it just as the feminists have and stop using ‘dead women writers’ as a straw man so to speak.

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