Women writers vs. the literary canon

As we transition from Ella Hickson's The Writer to Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, Helen Lewis argues that women writers throughout history have always had to battle to be taken seriously. But, there are also certain things that can and should be done to stop history repeating itself, read on to find out what they are. 

Like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, Naomi Alderman’s dystopian novel The Power has a sting in the tail. Its appendix suggests that the text was written long after the events it describes, where women suddenly develop the ability to deliver electric shocks from a new organ growing beneath their collarbones.

In the future world of the appendix, this physical quirk means women’s strength and dominance over men is taken for granted. “Naomi” questions “Neil”, the supposed author of the book, about the authenticity of including male soldiers in his story: “A whole battalion of men in army fatigues or police uniforms really does make most people think of some kind of sexual fetish, I’m afraid!” In patronisingly indulgent tones, she counsels Neil to go away and do some more research. Oh, and if he and the other members of the “Men Writers’ Association” want to be taken more seriously, she has some helpful advice: “Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?”

The neat reversal of genders in The Power is funny, biting and occasionally infuriating. It also underlines the challenge that women writers have always faced. Who wants to be an aberration – a freak? And if men dominate the literary canon, well, perhaps there is a good reason for that? Perhaps a form of literary Darwinism has simply weeded out the weaker sex. Perhaps women can’t write – their worlds are too narrow, their experiences too domestic, their ambitions too modest. (Norman Mailer: “I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.”) Perhaps women don’t want to write. (For maximum irritation, accompany this with a wry shrug of “how sensible, it’s a ghastly life”.) Or. . . perhaps they have been held back first by material circumstances – illiteracy, poverty, unpaid caring labour – and then by a value-system created by men to reward each other.

In her acidic book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ points out that the old-fashioned ways of denying female creativity were brutal and overt. Women were not taught to read and write. Women were excluded from the clubs and societies where literature was discussed. Women were discouraged from developing their talent because it would get in the way of their god-given role as daughters, wives and mothers. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and ought not to be,” the poet-laureate Robert Southey told Charlotte Bronte. “The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it.” Let’s pause for a moment here and laugh at the fact no one reads Southey’s poems any more, not even the one rejoicing in the retrospectively hilarious title “Roderick the Last of the Goths“. Bronte 1 – Literary Mansplainer 0.

More recently, the ways in which women are made to feel like intruders into a male world are more subtle. They are encouraged to work in less prestigious genres, packaged in cutesy pink covers, shunted to smaller stages, dismissed as minor, genteel, ladylike or otherwise insubstantial. They win fewer prizes. Their work, popular in its day, is silently discarded as a canon is formed. Perhaps its very popularity is held against them, as proof that they cannot be Serious Artists.

The canon has always been unkind to women. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have worked to rediscover the forgotten “mothers of the novel”, smashing the myth that Jane Austen arrived fully formed from nowhere, without a tradition behind her. (In fact, she wrote about not daring to read Mary Brunton’s Self-Control while revising Sense and Sensibility in case it was “too clever” and made her feel inadequate.) In the theatre, this process has been slower: Michael Billington’s The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present contains just six works by female playwrights. We are just beginning to rediscover Mary Pix, Elizabeth Inchbald, Rachel Crothers and the rest, but a stubborn resistance remains. The kind of people who would update Ibsen in a heartbeat, or set a Moliere play on Mars, tend to treat these forgotten women as nothing more than historical curios. Which, to be fair, is what they will remain, unless new life is breathed into them by contemporary artists.


For a woman, one of the disadvantages of working in any male-dominated environment is that it threatens to make your gender the most notable thing about you. Many women find that oppressive in itself. (Nathalie Sarraute: "When I write I am neither man nor woman nor dog nor cat.”) For some, the category of "female writer" creates an implicit boundary around the subjects they are supposed to tackle – a restriction imposed this time not by sexists, but by well-meaning progressives. The new orthodoxy edges toward suggesting women should write about traditionally feminine subjects because these need to be reclaimed – and, in any case, shouldn’t we all stay in our lanes? Yet writers, correctly, will always resist being told what to write. The novelist Sarah Perry was once asked why she had chosen a male protagonist. The question came, she suspected, “from that wretched truism that writers ought to write what they know. If ever an aphorism hobbled the imagination more than this, I’d be very surprised.” Women have no more duty to write about women than their male peers do.

Still, there is something undeniably refreshing about plays like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls or Abi Morgan’s Splendour, where female characters fill the stage. In 1929, Virginia Woolf claimed that “Chloe liked Olivia” was the most astonishing sentence she had ever read. Nine decades later, it’s still too rare to see art which sees women in relation to one another, rather than as wives, mothers, lovers and daughters to men. The unmapped terrain of women’s lives is also fertile soil for art. Watching Annie Baker’s John – in which the lead character’s period pain is a crucial plot point – was quietly revelatory. There are umpteen classic plays where men wang on about their erections, yet it took me until 2018 to hear this everyday female experience mentioned on stage.

Oh yes, and one last thing before we lob the concept of a “woman writer” into the bin and march on to our glorious gender-neutral future. Even if you don’t write like a woman, you will be heard as a woman. In 2015, a novelist sent out her newest work under her own name – Catherine Nichols – and received such a disappointing response that she tried again, this time as “George”. Out of 50 agents, two requested a manuscript from Catherine; 17 wanted to hear more from George. Of her alter-ego, Nichols wrote: “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.” 

This is why we need a radical solution to the undervaluing of women’s work. As women, we can write about football, or war, or any other traditionally masculine subject. We can fill our plays with proper blokes, Great Men of History and laddish banter. We can turn down the pastel covers and the swirly font. But until we smash the idea that “women’s writing” is intrinsically less interesting simply because the people writing it are women, we will get nowhere.

Luckily, there is a simple answer to all this, and by chance it’s the one Naomi suggested to Neil in The Power. They might find it distasteful, but really – wouldn’t it be easier if all the man writers just published under women’s names?


Machinal previews begin 4 June, click here for tickets and info. 


Image: Sophie Treadwell, University of Arizona