In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath writes about a young woman, Esther Greenwood, experiencing the publishing industry on a summer internship, as well as life in New York City, for the first time. An aspiring poet, by the end of her time there, she is sliding into depression and unable to enjoy her experiences in the city. Once back home, she can't write or read or more worryingly, sleep.
Plath herself interned at Mademoiselle magazine in the summer of 1953 before her final year of college. Two months later, back home in Massachusetts, she attempted suicide for the first time. Plath's early struggles with her writing career and mental health issues are closely mirrored in The Bell Jar. Indeed, the more you learn of Plath's life, the more you want to go back and reread the novel as well as her poetry, also highly autobiographical.
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, while not autobiographical but as intensely personal, is an intimate portrait of two families living on the windswept Yorkshire moors and their tales of love and revenge across generations. The novel was called both “pagan” and “repellent” by critics at the time. Even today, readers and academics find it difficult to grasp that Heathcliff, the brooding, tortured, romantic anti-hero with his obsessive desire for Catherine Earnshaw, was written by a woman who had never herself taken a lover in her short life.
At the time Brontë was writing, it was difficult for a woman to be published, let alone taken seriously as a writer. In 1847, she published Wuthering Heights under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Unlike Plath, whose life was subsequently under the spotlight because of her marriage to Ted Hughes and the many poems she turned out before she died, Emily Brontë was a complete mystery. Little is known of her beyond her one novel and her elder (and more famous) sister Charlotte's accounts of her. Despite this, Wuthering Heights remains a much-read, much-loved classic in the English-speaking world, inspiring songs and numerous TV and film adaptations.
While Wuthering Heights was deemed unusual for a woman writer having a well-written male protagonist, The Bell Jar on the other hand, which centered around a female protagonist, was largely dismissed by (male) critics as catering to a female readership alone. Plath's readers, too, have been marginalised. “If one is to believe the narrative told by literary and popular culture, Plath's primary audience is a body of young, misguided women who uncritically—even pathologically— consume Plath's writing with no awareness of how they harm the author's reputation in the process,” writes Janet Badia, an academic who explores this narrative in her 2011 novel, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers.
Early writers such as Brontë had changed what was possible for a woman to write in those days, beyond what women until then had traditionally written. Today, while women writers are ubiquitous and no longer need to resort to using pseudonyms, many are still relegated to a niche female-only audience. When the main protagonist is a female and talks about her experiences, the story is often maligned as “chick lit”. The same distinction does not seem to apply to male writers, however, whose works are seemingly always for a universal readership.
For instance, Plath is extra-literar(il)y judged in her reviews on the basis of her mental health issues, suicide attempts, and her marriage. However, men such as Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, and prominent male writers such as Joseph Conrad and William Makepeace Thackeray's works are judged independently of their personalities. In Villette, Emily's older sister Charlotte writes this in a nutshell: “He judged her as a woman, not as an artist; it was a branding judgment.”
Undoubtedly, women readers in particular have taken to both these novels, one with strong female characters (Wuthering Heights) and the other an intensely personal look into a woman's life experiences (The Bell Jar). Both writers died young, unknowing of their legacy among women readers and defined by their sole novel (though both also wrote poetry).
In more recent times, Toronto-based writer Sheila Heti's Motherhood, published earlier this year, is autobiographical—about a woman writer in her late 30s who decides not to have children and takes the reader through her thought process. While eager to write it, she had her doubts. “Like, am I really going to do this? And why? It's such a huge, monumental, essence-of-life topic. We all have mothers. Why is this chick-lit?” she said in an interview to The Guardian in May. Women writing about women and their personal experiences as the sole focus of the story, from the time of Plath, have been treated this way.
The perception that women writers are preoccupied with gender, for one, and on their life experiences, as Plath did, persists. Back in 1929, Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, had denounced this prevalence of “masculine values” which made “football and sport 'important', the buying of clothes 'trivial'.” Woolf further observes, “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”
In the literary world, women writers are also lumped together solely on the basis of their gender meaning their work does not stand alone on individual literary merit but is lumped together as representative of a 'group'. Only women writers such as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), JK Rowling (the Harry Potter series), and Agatha Christie's mystery novels, are not tarred with the same brush. Science fiction, fantasy, and crime are apparently “important” issues, and not “women's” issues and so, have universal appeal.
This year's Man Booker longlist, released in July, had a number of women writers who also wrote about women. Sally Rooney's Conversation with Friends, for example, “about a young woman navigating young love in a politicised context” was referred to by the judges of the prize as one which “transforms what might have been a flimsy subject into something that demands a lot of the reader”. The other two Booker-nominated works by women writers with female protagonists are both fantasy-oriented. In the history of the prize, only three winners have been women but none of the novels have had a lead female protagonist.
Encouragingly, more recently, writers such as Arundhati Roy in her semi-autobiographical The God of Small Things, have garnered much acclaim. The tale of the decline of an Indian family resembles partly her own family childhood. While Roy's subsequent work has been mostly non-fiction, her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is also autobiographical, this time, of her adult life.
Another much acclaimed writer of the present day, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, perhaps sums up the issue best when she said in an interview about her third novel Americanah:
"Don't we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it's a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it's just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it's just a love story.”