English Literature: The Asymmetry of Male Writers vs Female Students
Within the domain of the modern novel - both internally among the pages and externally through the pen- women still fail to emerge as the main protagonist. My last semester of English Literature covered the modern period, spanning from High Victorian Culture to Post War Modernism- out of the 35 writers on the lecture outline list, only 4 were female. In the past 20 years, the Man Booker Prize has only been afforded to 5 women. And in January of this year, Times Higher Education reported positively on how in 2018 the “…Share of Female Professors [is] Now Virtually a Quarter.” How a statistic of this measure is presented as optimistic or progressive is astonishing.
These figures may not appear as overtly concerning as many statistics surrounding the issue of gender inequity. Nevertheless, this sizeable disparity becomes ever more unsettling when acknowledging that English Literature, as an undergraduate field of study, is so commonly associated with, and dominated by, women. This begs the question of why, when reaching its natural culmination in writing, academia and criticism, the world of English Literature becomes so swiftly male dominated.
Initially the answer appears obvious; where there lies money and a respected position, is unsurprisingly where we predominantly find men. One of the primary reasons for the male domination of the English academic field is rooted in its societal and financial ‘gentrification’. During the mid-nineteenth century, the tail-end of the enlightenment period, the wider public consideration of the novel writing altered from an inane feminine amusement, to a reputable intellectual pursuit. Yet whilst this may ‘explain’ the initial male appropriation of the novel, it doesn’t give reason as to why this mind-set is maintained through the syllabuses of today.
In February of this year The Guardian reported on a study that concluded “Women better represented in Victorian novels than modern…” raising the tendency of male written modern novels for damaging, heavily gendered vocabulary and that “…in books by men, women occupy on average just a quarter to a third of the character-space. In books by women, the division is much closer to equal.” Certainly, from experience, studying a syllabus lacking a single text that features a figure, or situation that you can relate to, academic enthusiasm wanes. While this is not necessarily applicable to every A Level English Literature course across the UK, my AS year of study consisted of a group of around 25 English Literature students, of which 3 were male yet, every single text and anthology studied was written by, and about, men. From the female victimisation of Browning and Tennyson’s anthologies, to the pure machismo of Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, there remained not one central, strong or dynamic female character. Far from rejecting these texts as unworthy of attention or accolade- the point remains that a more representative syllabus is in the interest of both student and teacher.
Through the straightforward diversification of the syllabus that occurred from AS to A2, from Angela Carter’s feminist classic ‘The Bloody Chamber’ to Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Faustus’, engagement and satisfaction within the course was manifest. Clearly, representation is not only deeply important but also a breeding ground for greater academic interest and a wider, infinitely more interesting debate.
It is likely that some may argue that you can’t study what isn’t there, and that due to a long history of gender imbalance there are simply more male texts. This argument is redundant. From the prowess of Jane Austen, to the affecting social commentary of Zora Neal Hurston, to the historical classics of Hilary Mantel, and the vital intersectionality of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, not only are the options innumerable, but varied. Many female writers correspondingly tackle and represent other marginalities and experiences that the modern syllabus lacks.
Undeniably, experiences will vary from institution to institution, and it would be obtuse to suggest that there has been no improvement in the study; nearly all of my past essay selection choices have included a question on the exploration of gender. However, this awareness of gender-imbalance within the pages of the novel needs to follow though into the structure of the syllabus to have any profound effect. Questions need to be raised as to what we consider a modern literary classic and an incorporation of both female and non-Western centric authors to the English Literature syllabus from as early in education as possible is essential, not only for the benefit of English students, but for the society within which they are writing.