In the nineties I worked at the Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London. It was the largest women’s bookshop in Europe and one of the items we sold was mugs, listing the names of women writers. I came across a couple of these the other day in the back of the cupboard and looked at them with a curious and critical eye. The decision about who to list must have been made close to when the shop first opened in 1984 and I thought it might be interesting for the purposes of this blog to draw up my own list of 33 (that’s the number of names listed) and see who I’d keep from the original list, who I was horrified not to see on the list and and who in current times would definitely have to be on it. Please join me in twisting your fork into this highly subjective plate of literary spaghetti.
First a list of the original names:
MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, ANGELA CARTER, WILLA CATHER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, MARGARET DRABBLE, MARGUERITE DURAS, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, JANET FRAME, MARILYN FRENCH, NANCY FRIDAY, MARTHA GELLHORN, SUE GRAFTON, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, JUNE JORDAN, DORIS LESSING, AUDRE LORDE, TERRY MCMILLAN, TONI MORRISON, IRIS MURDOCH, ANAIS NIN. SYLVIA PLATH, MARGE PIERCY, SARA PARETSKY, RUTH RENDELL, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, SARAH SCHULMAN, GERTRUDE STEIN, ANNE TYLER, ALICE WALKER, E. H. YOUNG.
The ones I would definitely keep from the original list I’ve marked in red. It’s eleven of them, a third of the total.
I then began to consider what writers you would simply have to have in there who are not there at the moment and these are the ones I thought of: BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, ELENA FERRANTE, HILARY MANTEL, J.K. ROWLING, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON.
So that brings the number up to 20.
Thirteen more to go.
But then I had a startling realization – no JANE AUSTEN, no CHARLOTTE, EMILY, ANNE, BRONTE, no VIRGINIA WOOLF, no HARPER LEE. What were they thinking of! E. H. Young but no Virginia! I should admit at this point, by the way, that I am ashamed to say the only Woolf book I have ever completed is To the Lighthouse and that is because I had to read it at A’Level and I never got over the death of Mrs Ramsay. I love Woolf’s letters, although it made me realize that going to tea with her would be about as enjoyable as swimming with sharks. But she has to be on there, doesn’t she?
So, if I add in Jane Austen, one of the Brontes (sweat beads brow – oh God which one!) and Virginia Woolf then I have a list of 23.
So I have ten to play with.
At this point the breakdown is:13 British, 6 American, 1 Australian, 1 Canadian, 1 South African, 1 Italian, and my world is looking a bit narrow and a bit white. So what did I do next?
Here is my final highly subjective choice which includes two more from the original 33: My aim was to create a list of excellent women writers and cover a range of eras, sexualities, ethnic origins and nationalities.
MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, JANE AUSTEN, BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALISON BECHDEL, CHARLOTTE BRONTE, RENI EDDO-LODGE, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, ELENA FERRANTE, ROXANE GAY, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, HAN KANG, HARPER LEE, DORIS LESSING, HILARY MANTEL, TONI MORRISON, HERTA MULLER, CHIMOMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, SYLVIA PLATH, MARILYN ROBINSON, J.K. ROWLING, ARUNDHATI ROY, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, GERTRUDE STEIN, ALICE WALKER, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON
THE FINAL BREAKDOWN:
NATIONALITIES: British – 14, American – 9, Italian – 1, South Korean – 1, Roumanian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, French – 1, Australian – 1, Indian – 1, Canadian – 1, South African – 1
ETHNICITY: White – 22, African American – 4 BAME – 3, Indian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, South Korean – 1
ALIVE OR DEAD?: Alive – 23, Dead – 10.
GAY/STRAIGHT: Gay (as far as I’m aware!) – 7, Straight – 26
What do you think of my choices? Too British, too white, too straight, too dead? Or perhaps too alive! And would you buy my (hypothetical) mug? Have I got a good balance? Tell me all in the comments below. But here’s the thing, if you suggest someone who should be on there, you have to take someone off. Those are the rules. Have fun. And before you start in, I know I’m lacking a crime writer and a science fiction writer, although Atwood could be called a science fiction writer at a pinch. I thought of getting rid of Doris in exchange for Agatha or Val but Doris won the Nobel Prize, so even if I don’t find reading her a pleasure, she has to stay in, doesn’t she?
And to help you out or perhaps derange you, here is a pool of writers I thought about but did not in the end include. These do not include the ones on the original mug that I didn’t retain, who you can of course argue the case for, and anyone else if it comes to that:
NAOMI ALDERMAN, KATE ATKINSON, MARY BEARD, MALORIE BLACKMAN, EMILY BRONTE, A.S.BYATT, JULIA CAMERON, AGATHA CHRISTIE, HELEN DUNMORE, BERNADINE EVARISTO, P.D. JAMES, OLIVIA LAING, URSULA LE GUIN, ANDREA LEVY, HELEN MCDONALD, VAL MCDERMID, EDNA O’BRIEN, SUSIE ORBACH, ALICE OSWALD, ANNIE PROULX, BARBARA PYM, CLAUDIA RANKINE, MARY RENAULT, JEAN RHYS, JANE SMILEY, MEERA SYAL, MURIEL SPARK, KATE TEMPEST, ROSE TREMAIN, ALISON WEIR, EUDORA WELTY, JAQUELINE WILSON.
The best comment will win one of these mugs. They are not exactly in peak condition but have a few more years of life left in them yet. I’m afraid this only applies to the UK. I’ll leave the comments open for two weeks and announce the winner then. Have fun!
P.S. Just realized I left out Carol Ann Duffy. She has to be in doesn’t she? Gertrude might have to go!