Culture

The story hiding behind my books

20.02.2019 | By ELLIOT SCHMIDT

There’s something terribly wrong happening on my bookshelf.

It took me a while to figure out exactly what. Partly, because I had been approaching the whole thing the wrong way. For months, I stood and stared at it in bewilderment, or went pacing from one of its sides to the other, trying to examine all the angles and perspectives. Sometimes, I found myself spying on it from afar, or peeking at its layers of cheaply lacquered wood and paper and words, while hiding behind a Sunday newspaper (employed just for the purpose), or a couch pillow, or the glow of a screen. I even tried sneaking up on it, in the hopes of triumphantly catching whatever was going on doing just that.

And yet: no luck. The issue, as I know now, transcends the surface. It is in fact so deeply rooted, that it stretches out far beyond the confines of my domestic life. Yes, my bookshelf, among many just like it, plays a crucial part in a long and ghastly tale. Like many of the stories the bookshelf itself carries, this one speaks of oppression, of violence, of power and its abuse. Unlike all, this story is the unedited truth.

The problem, to put it simply (which is difficult), is this: out of all the books I have read and shelved over the years, only a painfully underrepresented minority was written by women. I washed down my initial shock at finally realizing this with profound shame and was left with a general uneasiness, which flares up each time I think or talk about it, or even just hold a book in my hands.

It doesn’t matter how progressive, how aware I consider myself to be. All this time, discrimination has been taking place in my own home and mind, where the inflated image of the male writer has overshadowed female colleagues, or prevented them access in the first place. I take full responsibility for what I recognize now as careless negligence, or even down-right ignorance. But I also can’t help pointing out a structural, systemic issue here: looking back at my college education (I have a Bachelor’s in Literature and a Master’s in Publishing / Communications), I have to admit a general lack of female representatives in my academic curriculum, which served as my introduction to so many great authors, but was evidently biased in terms of gender.

After a year of social upheaval and courageous outcry, however, which has really opened my eyes and ears and heart, I have decided it is time for change.

A small revolution is now taking place on my aforementioned bookshelf. Gradually, female voices are taking over the great cloud of conversation it houses. Here are some of my new additions to the all-time favorite writers list, together with some others perspective candidates I am very much looking forward to (and some confirmed presences I have loved for years).

Zadie Smith

My way to Smith’s work was through her articles and short stories published in the New Yorker. Concentrating on the fiction, I’d have to pick The Lazy River and Now More than Ever as my two favorite pieces. Both struck me with their metaphorical portrayals of the times we’re living in, portrayals which, for all their abstraction, are sharp and analytical and often as thigh-slappingly funny as they are hair-rippingly tragic.

Alice Munro

Truth be told, Munro is anything but a new addition to my list of favorite authors and I am sure her name isn’t new to hardly anyone consulting this list. I started reading the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner a couple of years ago, in one of the few college classes I attended that focussed almost exclusively on the work of a female writer (the class was Literary Theory and Criticism and the work in question was the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). Ever since I’ve been a fan of Munro’s intricate fiction, which, like some kind of magic machinery, is always able to have me look in the direction exactly opposite to where it’s preparing to absolutely stun me.

Virginia Woolf

Again: not a new entry, certainly no surprise. But I really couldn’t possibly compile a list of favorite writers without including Virginia Woolf. The key player of English Modernism, based on my own modest appraisal, she revolutionized the way we write, read, and understand fiction. In doing so, she also changed the way we see ourselves and the way we live. One quick example? Her novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Woolf offers us an unprecedented look into her characters’ souls, which in turn sometimes mirror and reveal our own.

Jennifer Egan

Egan won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer prize in 2011 and, by all means, justly so. From what I’ve gathered, she is one of the most ground-breaking authors out there, a true narrative innovator. Up until now, all I’ve read is the Black Box, a short story that, originally, was published entirely in tweets (on the New York Times Twitter account), making it one of the first masterpieces of what is referred to as twitterature. Apart from her celebrated A Visit from the Goon Squad, I’ve got my eye on her 2001 novel Look at me.

Jesmyn Ward

Another National Book Award recipient, Ward has been celebrated by critics (she even made the list of former President Obama’s favorite 2017 books with her last novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing). But, apart from all the awards and honors, what really attracts me to her writing is her declared intention of using her work to contrast the tendency we have to categorize and create implicit hierarchies in literature and culture. It is this tendency that usually brands work from oppressed and historically overlooked segments of the population as exactly that: an expression of marginalized groups in society, which has no general relevance or appeal. In Ward’s own words, from an interview with The Paris Review: “It infuriates me that (…) black and female authors are ghetto-ized as ‘other.’ (…) The stories I write are particular to my community and my people (…) but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one.”