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Out of Print: the writing-out of women in literary history

29th Sep 2015

Out of Print: the writing-out of women in literary history
It's one thing to be published, but it's quite another to remain in print. Many books have an agonisingly short lifecycle: just a few years - months, sometimes - in which to attract enough readers to secure future print runs and make their mark on literary culture. Once books do fall out of print, it's up to archivists to sustain and preserve the work of past writers. But libraries are under-funded these days; meanwhile, the work of established and much-lauded women writers remains out of print and irritatingly elusive. Clara Heathcock muses on the collective impacts of discontinued titles, struggling libraries and gender-biased reading lists, all of which frustrate attempts to celebrate and study some of the finest writers in recent history.

A few months ago, I discovered the writer Alice Thomas Ellis by way of unearthing a crusty old paperback of The Clothes in the Wardrobe in my parents’ house. The attraction to her prose was immediate and visceral – I wept actual laughter-induced tears on a public bus. The Observer called her work, “exquisitely, diabolically, mischievous,” while The Spectator called it, “short, sharp and sparklingly malicious,” comparing it to that of Muriel Spark.

I consider her work as akin to Sylvia Plath’s or Dorothy Parker’s in its combination of morose uncertainty and existential gloom with close, sharp and hilarious observations of the everyday. In its attention to the foibles of the British Class System, it should also be seen as a forerunner to Sue Townsend’s writing.

A quick google revealed that Thomas Ellis, whose day job was Fiction Editor at Duckworth, had herself penned a total of thirteen works of fiction. I quickly began visiting local bookshops to attempt to buy any one of the other twelve. I tried Smith’s, Waterstones, Foyles, The Big Green Bookshop, Houseman’s and three or four places whose names escape me down Charing Cross Road. None stocked her work.

helene hanff

Two years ago I read Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, a title whose conjured world left me so astonished that I immediately decided to pursue a publishing job in the hope that the London book industry would be even fractionally like it. 84 Charing Cross Road became a stage play, a television show and a film. It prompted an invitation for Hanff to appear on Woman’s Hour to present a comedic feature once a month every month between the years of 1978 and 1984.

At the time I was in mourning after finishing The Most of Nora Ephron, so I was thrilled at the discovery of a new waspishly funny female writer of narrative nonfiction. Reassured by the knowledge of Hanff’s thorough critical reception in the UK, I hastened again to a bookshop to attempt to buy a copy of her book of travel writing, Apple of My Eye. I was told that it is out of print.

The cases of Hanff and Thomas Ellis point to a situation where even the female writers that do receive full literary approbation in their lifetime are being written out of literary history – be that by having their works left to go out of print, or by having in-print volumes remain totally un-showcased (I hardly think the inclusion of Thomas Ellis in the bookcase in my parents’ house in inner-city Birmingham counts).Are the gaps in literary history we are witnessing now the result of some decades-long ‘whoopsie’ on behalf of the publishing industry, just now coming to the fore? (“We know there must’ve been something we had forgotten when combing through the drawers for a title to reprint – women!”) Or is this attitude to archiving ongoing?

In more anecdotal terms, here is some positive news: For Books’ Sake (natch) exists to review, interview and contextualise women writers. In September this year it celebrated its fifth birthday. Meanwhile, it is a fact well documented by children’s literature scholars that theirs is a field populated by a higher percentage of women than any other literary sub-group. It is relevant, then, that Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, last month had a grand reopening of its exhibition centre.

Nonetheless, The Feminist Library, an organisation which has for 40 years served to protect the literary history of activist women, are currently scrambling to raise £40,000 to preserve their archive from completely disappearing from public access. An enquiry to Little, Brown imprint Sphere, who currently hold rights to Apple of my Eye, as to whether they intend ever to reprint, remains unanswered. Ditto enquiries to Thomas Ellis’ publishers.

the 27th kingdom

What’s more, women writers remain woefully underrepresented on English Literature undergraduate degrees in the UK. A friend who just graduated from a BA in English at Cardiff University tells me that, with the exception of a single optional module about women’s writing in the interwar years, her reading lists were at most 30% women. A friend who just graduated from the same course at Liverpool tells a similar story, and estimates her women writers’ percentage at 15 – 20.

Ensuring that women’s writing is as likely as men’s to be included in newly reforming English Literature canons is a necessarily complex task. ‘Women writers’ have never been a single, coherent group and nor, rightly so, has their work. Nonetheless, we would all do well to be mindful of what percentage of the books that we are recommending in our personal and professional lives are by women.

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Clara Heathcock graduated in 2014 with a Philosophy degree with a minor in Children’s Literature. She now works in publishing for Turnaround UK. Her interests include all forms of memoir and life-writing, all forms of illustrated fiction; from children’s books through to graphic novels, documentaries, music and football.