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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

Overlooked and underread: Five great reads by women

The book reviewing world has been in a tizzy for years. One complaint or crisis seemed to erupt after another as print book critics lashed out at bloggers for destroying publishing, newspapers reduced or scrapped review sections, women complained that they were less likely to have their books reviewed or to be hired as critics, and authors threatened, slapped, spat on and responded publicly in an embarrassingly unhinged way to those who claimed their books were mediocre, offensive or trite.

Photo: Flickr/Mo Riza

The VIDA statistics, showing that the aforementioned women were absolutely right about their assumptions, was just one chapter in a bitter long story of a strange little life choice. It makes those working in criticism a little defensive. Like Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who answered my query about the gender disparity at his publication with: “I would expect that at the TLS more reviewers review more books by more writers from more places than at any other paper — although I am not about to take time out from editing to produce a pie chart that proves that.”

When I asked what drives the process of selecting the books to be reviewed, as well as the critics hired, Stothard replied, “We take most seriously the requirement that the TLS selects, without prejudice, fear or favour, the writers who have the best things to say about the books we think are important. To give any target a higher priority than excellence — or to commission reviews for any other reasons than that — would risk the intellectual reputation that is more vital to us than any other.”

That avoids the question of how one defines “best,” particularly if one group is being consistently favored over another. Joshua Cohen at the Boston Review pointed out that there are a dozen imbalances throughout the world of criticism. “We are also attentive to racial disparity, to concerns about having non-U.S. writers, and (because of the political stuff we do and the convictions that guide it) about diversity of positions, but the issues about gender are a common theme in our discussions.”

A book not being reviewed does not equal the book’s demise, of course. Word-of-mouth hits happen frequently enough — Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” managed to win the Pulitzer with almost zero critical attention — and online support on blogs, GoodReads and social media can grow an audience.

But as we wind down our discussion about the VIDA statistics, I wanted to highlight some of the books released in the past year by amazing women writers, who didn’t get critical support for their work. Strong writers, all. And hopefully by the time their next book is released, there will be a slightly more open critical culture waiting for them.

“Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Comyns

Comyns is one of those writers you can barely believe ever goes out of print. Her books are so funny, so exact, so twisted, you imagine their appeal would last for generations. Luckily for us, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead,” originally published in 1954, has been rescued by the new publishing project Dorothy. As the book opens, the town is flooded with water, the drowned sheep floating by the English estate windows. Then the madness settles in, taking one inhabitant after another. It’s a dark little book, but elegant and funny, too, and it deserves better than the silence its reissue has been met with.

“The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda”

Rodoreda may be considered one of the greatest Catalan writers ever, but in America she’s barely known at all. In Open Letter’s new edition of her short stories, she’s introduced as perhaps a Spanish version of Shirley Jackson. Her stories carry the same menace, and her narrators, mostly women trying to adapt to the freedom of modernity after being raised in the low expectations of tradition, seem to occupy the same psychic space. Her stories are tense and quick, many being only two or three pages long, but they cut deep. A woman just diagnosed with diabetes reflects on a life of regret as she makes her way through a bag of cookies. Another prays for the man who chose the priesthood over married life with her to die quickly before his illness eats away the inheritance he left to her in his will. Rodoreda has a wonderful wit and a keen eye for the conflicts being waged inside of each of us.

“Silver Roses” by Rachel Wetzsteon

“Silver Roses” is Wetzsteon’s posthumous collection (she took her life in late 2009). And I will miss her poems of those thrilling, free urban lives that can tip over into loneliness with no warning:

Collapse the bars where you drank too much
(mistaking a lunge for a loving touch),
the masked balls you supposed were come-as-you-are,
until they form one lurid snapshot:
a lot of people standing in a kitchen.
Tear it up by the river one spring dawn.

Despite not being as strong a work as 2006’s Sakura Park, there are some lovely moments in this book.

“The Colony” by Jillian Weise

It’s possible the shocking epigraph to “The Colony” inspired the whole thing: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.” — James D. Watson (yes, the one who co-discovered the structure to DNA and helped make sure his female collaborator went uncredited). Weise imagines a near-future world where gene therapy can cure most ills, and her narrator Anne agrees to be a lab rat to see if the scientists can regrow her missing leg. There she’s housed with other genetic freaks (mental disorders, a thin woman with the “fat gene” who is deathly afraid of gaining weight, a man predisposed to suicide) and starts hallucinating Charles Darwin as her rum-swilling, advice-giving sidekick. This is a hilarious and bold book, confronting issues of beauty, disease, imperfection, reality television and our unconscious fears. It’s a tremendous work, and I’m still disappointed it was so neglected.

“The Light in Between” by Marella Caracciolo Chia

In June 1916, Princess Vittoria Colonna met the futurist Umberto Boccioni. Two months later, Boccioni had been enlisted to fight World War I and died in a tragic accident, a letter from Colonna in his wallet. Yes, it’s a tragic love story, a true one, and there’s nothing more girly than that, I fear. But the story of an intelligent but bored woman all but abandoned by her husband, alone with her mentally disabled son,  a woman who finally finds love, only for it to be taken away from her again a few months later… It’s a heartbreaking book, but the letters between them are searing and inspiring. Chia has a deft touch, never letting the book descend into sappiness or melodrama. Given the facts of the story, that would be an incredibly easy misstep. And now an overlooked book about an overlooked woman — it’s a too perfect note not to end on.


On breaking the literary glass ceiling

‘Numbers don’t lie’: Addressing the gender gap in literary publishing