Beyond Brontë: Underappreciated Women Writers
A couple years ago, I was sitting at my desk in a rented space of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space, edited by former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes, where I had once worked as an assistant editor, but had since become a tenant as a freelance writer in need of a desk, when I overheard plans for their forthcoming issue focused on forgotten writers who happened to be women. I became intrigued by one of Hughes's rediscovered authors, her memoir plucked on the $1 bookshelf at Housing Works in New York City, a woman named Bette Howland, who had published a memoir and two collections of stories, won a MacArthur Genius grant, was a friend and part-time lover of Saul Bellow, and wondered, like Hughes did, why I had never heard of her. I ended up writing a short piece for Lit Hub about A Public Space's efforts to find and published work by her--and I ended up buying all her first editions online, most for only a few dollars.
This is a far too regular a rhetorical question I end up asking silently about women writers who produced serious and accomplished work during their lives, before fading quite quickly from the spotlight, from cultural conversation. And it is a similar problem in rare books, something I saw simultaneously as I started writing for Fine Books and attending rare book fairs, at one of which I bought a first edition Joan Didion for no more than $20, and then checked the price of her neighbor on the bookshelf, Cormac McCarthy, and couldn't believe it was over five or six hundred. It didn't bother me that the McCarthy was so expensive. It bothered me that Didion was so cheap. I also observed that the majority of book buyers were men, and majority of sellers were men, and started to realize that that is a part of the problem in terms of getting women the proper respect in their distinguished lives and afterlives if it is primarily men deciding the market and the value.
Since around this time I started to dream up a business focused on books by women, and am now dipping my toe in the rare book trade for the first time with a small selection of books by and about women. The business is called The Second Shelf, after an excellent essay by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times Book Review--I wrote to her and she gave me permission to use the title for my small venture. I hope to encourage women to buy more first editions and rare books, and also to help find and give occassion to celebrate the best women writers, and the forgotten women writers, including the Bette Howlands who should not be written out of literary history so easily.
It is common knowledge in the publishing world that women buy and read more books. It's also common knowledge that men don't tend to read books by women. The market for books by women must include far more women collectors, in order for their books and legacies to share space on the top shelf.
I'll be sharing some offerings from booksellers exhibiting at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair tomorrow highlighting some underappreciated and important women writers in the spirit of The Second Shelf.