For every Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, there are numerous women writers whose works aren’t found in the typical literary canon or school-required reading list. I’ve come across a handful of people who claim to be die-hard Anita Brookner or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha fans; these writers instill a certain kind of fervor among their devotees. It’s as if the authors themselves had reached out from the bookshelf and chosen their readers rather than the other way around. Their relative obscurity is what makes their fans so passionate — these are voices that never quite found the right audience when they were alive.
Perhaps now, thanks to the megaphone of the internet, they’ll find their disciples with a bit more ease. These five stories focus on women whose work has been overlooked, forgotten, or misinterpreted.
1. “Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98.” (Shusha Guppy, Paris Review, Fall 1987)
British novelist Anita Brookner was often accused of writing the same story over and over again: tales of quiet, middle-class desperation and loneliness. But this dismissal is hardly noticed by those who relate to her quiet, fiercely independent characters. “It is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market,” Brookner explains. “Hares have no time to read — they are too busy winning the game!”
2. “The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” (Morgan Jerkins, The New Yorker, February 2017)
The questions that American novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset’s work raises are just as relevant today as they were during the Harlem Renaissance. “Does a black artist have to reflect the larger ideals of his or her community? Is individuality reserved for white people?”
3. “The Fight Against Silence in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée.” (Sophia Usow, Uncovered Classics, March 2016)
At Uncovered Classics, Sophia Usow examines Korean American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 novel, Dictée. “What is most haunting about Dictée, other than its many martyr narratives and Cha’s own untimely death, is a recurrent theme of urgency, an insistent ‘fever to tell’ that would make Karen O’s forehead cool in comparison. There seems to be something biting at her heels as she writes, a prescient fear of being silenced.”
4. “Zoë Heller on Nancy Mitford.” (Zoë Heller, The Telegraph, March 2010)
Zoë Heller writes that the subjects of Nancy Mitford’s novels “condemn [them] to inconsequentiality.” But among the parties, courtships, and the witty asides, Heller finds a level of calculated discretion in Mitford’s prose that elevates it to the discerning reader.
5. “Lost no More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s* Forest Leaves.” (Johanna Ortner, Common-Place, Summer 2015)
Johanna Ortner shares her research and rediscovery of Forest Leaves, Frances Harper’s lost collection of poetry from before she became one of the famous black women activists of the 19th century.