• Millicent Stott

Being The Literary Sideshow

Art by @365_women

I don’t want to read any more books written by men. No, seriously. The endless recitals of the white male experience are exhausting. My mind is full to the brim of ways in which men describe women. We are watched, analysed, scrutinised, even in the realm of literature, where we should be liberated, free to portray our lived experiences as we see fit.

Recently, my literature degree has been leaving me feeling burnt out, frustrated and demotivated. The variety of works which we study isn’t terrible (for an old, elite institution), but it’s bad enough that I feel a glimmer of excitement when studying a play or novel written by a woman, a Black writer, or god forbid, a queer writer. And it’s this, I think, that has left a bad taste in my mouth. As a queer woman, it is exhausting feeling as though your life experience is not as worthy of literary acclaim. Having to fight to explain why the literary canon should be expanded to include diverse voices should be a thing of the past, right?

From my school days, I have been taught that white, heterosexual men dominate the practice, study and criticism of literature. Other voices are accepted, but only as characters for diversity schemes, quick attempts to tick off the boxes of feminist and post-colonial criticism. The central stage is, as always, reserved for the hero of literature, the white male writer. Anyone else is secondary, respected, but in a slightly condescending and patronising tone. Your lived experience, your writing, is good, but it does not relate to the majority. It does not comply with wider societal views.

Take the fact that ‘women’s literature’ is seen as a genre within itself. The genre of men’s literature has never existed, never been a section on its own in a bookshop. It is impossible to presume that women have the same experiences, the same writing styles, that they enjoy writing within the same genre. But this is so often how literature written by women is taught – as a little add-on, to show diversity and inclusion. How can we be expected to not be angered by this?

Grouping literature written by women in this way is not only insulting, but makes a mockery of intersectionality, ignoring the different struggles Black women, queer women, transgender women face. Male writers are simply offered a dignity and a space within the study of literature that others have never been afforded. It is for this reason that the academic study of literature is still often seen as a dusty and irrelevant discipline. And even for someone immensely passionate about their degree, I find it hard to justify its ignorance of diversity in 2021.

Misogyny is rife within the English literature texts we study. From Chaucer to Bukowski to Nabokov to Fitzgerald, it seems I am never free of the tireless misrepresentations of women in literature. And begrudgingly, I accept this; I know that important texts within the literary canon are often problematic, and it is crucial to read widely. However, the harm inflicted by these damaging representations must be countered by writing by women, by feminist critics who rage against the male gaze and offer new interpretations.

And there is, I feel, a deep lack of understanding and denial in areas of academia about the problems erasure can have on minority groups. As you can probably imagine, I am (unfortunately for them) the type of student to contradict the choices of staff members when I don’t believe their reading lists are diverse enough. I’ve been told, among other strange reasonings, that choices are based on the quality of writing, and not the writer themselves. This is obviously up for debate, but I don’t see how this can be the case, when fiction is so deeply personal and tied to individual experience.

There should be nothing radical about simply relaying the experience of women, queer people, Black people. And yet, in 2021, to make those voices heard in literature is still intensely difficult, seen as a bold or egotistical move. We need to expand the literary canon, and change how we teach fiction. We are tired of being the literary sideshow – it’s time for our work to take centre stage.

Art by @365_women