Sunday 3 August 2014

"Most influential books by women" my aunt fanny

This recently-published selection of 20 titles (below) was voted for by members of the public following a campaign, launched after this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (awarded to Eimear McBride), to determine those books by women, "that have most impacted, shaped or changed readers' lives". This involved a public consultation and here are the results, arranged numerically in order of popularity. Ready?

1)  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

2)  The Handmaid's Tale – Margaret Atwood

3)  Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4)  Harry Potter – J. K Rowling (I suppose this means the complete series rather than one book)

5)  Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

6)  Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

7)  Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

8)  Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

9)  The Secret History – Donna Tartt

10)  I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

11)  The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

12)  Beloved – Toni Morrison

13)  Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell

14)  We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

15)  The Time Traveller's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

16)  Middlemarch – George Eliot

17)  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

18)  The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

19)  The Colour Purple – Alice Walker

20)  The Women's Room – Marilyn French

Of course any list of female authors that finds room for J. K. Rowling and not Virginia Woolf is, let's agree, partial (in both senses), and any list of influential novels that omits Mrs Dalloway is suspect. The compilers of this list will have their own agenda, of course, and their own definition of what constitutes the 'influential' which appears, on the evidence above, to revolve around sales (while omitting the really big names such as Agatha Christie, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Barbara Cartland), and current visibility (hence Atwood and Shriver and Tartt). Harper Lee is there not least because her single book has been on the National Curriculum forever and may therefore be one of the only books respondents have read.

The list was, let's remind ourselves. restricted to those books 'that have most impacted, shaped or changed readers' lives.'  (Let's respond to the barbarous 'impacted' with no more than a fastidious shudder. And let's not quibble over the life-changing potency of Gone with the Wind and Little Women.)

Notice anything? It's this: all these authors are, without exception, women who wrote, or write in the English language. Not a foreign writer among them, not one. So there's no Simone de Beauvoir, no Colette, no Nathalie Sarraute, no Marguerite Yourcenar, (and that's just the tip of a French iceberg). There's not a single author from outside the English-speaking world. This is, I think, regrettable. If we are a multi-cultural society,  and we are, shouldn't this be expressed through a less parochial view of literature? 

And another thing. Although the compilers of the list claim they are ranking the most influential books by women writers, they have restricted their choices entirely to novels. So there's no work of feminism, philosophy, science, history, economics, biography, theology, biology, geology, ethnology, linguistics, political theory, literary criticism or anything else by any woman writer over the past millennium who isn't a novelist.

There's not even any poetry. No memoirs or diaries either, so no Anne Frank, whose single book can surely claim to have at least as great an influence as, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved? This focus on fiction to the exclusion of all other writing is, I think, not so much regrettable as inexcusable. The hard-to-avoid implication is that novels are what woman do best, bless 'em - the cultural equivalent of needlework and flower arranging. Making up stories.

Of course what is revealed here is both the participating public's narrow range and the intellectual impoverishment and condescension of the whole project. Exercises of this kind show how, and always with the best intentions, cultures become inward-looking and finally fail. 

But then you look at the "nineteen inspirational women" who launched the campaign that led to the compilation of this list. Here they are, with their choices:

Baroness Valerie Amos: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Zawe Ashton: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Mary Beard:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Edith Bowman: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Saffron Burrows: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Shami Chakrabarti: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Gwendoline Christie:  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Grace Dent: The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Katherine Grainger: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Martha Lane Fox: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Caitlin Moran: Two Pence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester
Kate Mosse: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Dawn O’Porter: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Susanna Reid: We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Jennifer Saunders: Dust by Patricia Cornwell
Sharleen Spiteri: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Tanni Grey-Thompson: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sandi Toksvig: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Joanna Trollope: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

It's not really much of a list, is it? The choice of books, that is. It's not much of a list if one is looking for seriously influential books by major female writers because, with a couple of exceptions, the chosen titles are all popular, middlebrow, crowd-pleasing choices, established favourites alongside a few modish latecomers that the nineteen inspirational women happen to have read at some point in their lives and liked. There's not much here that one could regard as serious, and very little that even their admirers could defend as 'life-shaping'. I agree with Sandi Toksvig that Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm is a marvellous comic novel, but still . . . 

Enough already. Here (since nobody is likely to canvas my opinion, even as a token bloke with an interest in such matters) are my top ten 'influential' books by female writers, arranged alphabetically (and not as a numerical pissing contest):

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Infidel

Elizabeth Anscombe (the pre-eminent female philosopher of the 20th century. Her omission from the Baileys list is inexcusable). No single book comes to mind so perhaps her editing of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations? Or Intention.

Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

Barbara Cartland. who wrote - or dictated - over 700 novels with total sales estimated at a billion. There's influence for you. Has any man ever read one of her books, I wonder?

Agatha Christie And Then There Were None (over 100 million copies sold of this one novel)

Germaine Greer The Female Eunuch 

Virginia Woolf  Mrs Dalloway 

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Marguerite Yourcenar Mémoires d'Hadrien

My list concurs with the Baileys roster in omitting (though perhaps for different reasons) Camille Paglia, Ayn Rand, Zadie Smith, Gertrude Stein, Jeanette Winterson, and Naomi Wolf (whom Joan Smith described memorably as 'the show pony of American feminism'). All of them have written, or wrote, 'influential' books. But then so did Mrs Beeton.

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