Siri Hustvedt’s newest novel, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, March 11) tells the story of a frustrated artist, Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, who presents a series of exhibits of her own work under the names of three male artists in an attempt to reveal the sexism inherent in the art world. There has of late been much attention focused on expanding the coverage and readership for women writers, and so Hustvedt’s theme of a female artist fighting for space and attention are certainly timely.
2014 has been declared the Year of Reading Women, after the hashtag #readwomen2014, started by Joanna Walsh, became part rallying cry and part celebration of the achievements of women writers. Walsh explains that she launched the project in part as a response to VIDA’s 2012 survey of literary publications, which demonstrated that though works by women writers are published just as often as those by men, they are often overlooked by literary journals.
VIDA, a cultural organization aimed at examining the perceptions of writing by women, has been conducting such surveys since 2009. While the 2013 VIDA Count released last month showed some increases in the coverage of books by women and reviews written by women in major outlets like The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review, the bigger picture demonstrates that there is still much work to be done.
Hustvedt’s novel taps into this current zeitgeist, but, of course, the idea that a woman might need to present her work under a man’s name is nothing new. In the 1920s and 30s, when Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the illustrious author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was trying to make her own name as a writer, she published more than a dozen short stories and articles in such outlets as the Chicago Sunday Tribune, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar under the byline “Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” In two other publications, her own articles were run alongside companion pieces written by her husband, all of which suggests that editors felt the need to prop up her writing with her husband’s prestigious reputation. Though Fitzgerald is now an icon of liberated womanhood, she had trouble being recognized as an independent artist. In fact, biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald tend to focus more on her influence over her husband’s writing than her own work.
Fortunately for Siri Hustvedt, who like Zelda is married to a famous writer—the novelist Paul Auster—this sort of practice is no longer the norm. But the VIDA Count suggests that even well-established women writers might not be getting the same kind of attention that their male counterparts enjoy. In the spirit of the Year of Reading Women, here are some other women writers whose books deserve a place on your shelf alongside their husbands’.
Waldman was inspired to write her funny and irreverent collection of essays Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (Doubleday 2009), which became a national bestseller, after publishing a controversial essay in which she dared to assert that she loved her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than her children. Waldman is also the author of seven mysteries, all part of The Mommy-Track Mysteries and four general fiction novels. The latest of these, Love and Treasure (Knopf, April 1), follows a gold pendant taken by a US Army lieutenant from a shipment of Nazi-confiscated treasures on the “Hungarian Gold Train.”
Krauss was included, along with her husband Jonathan Safran Foer, on The New Yorker list of “Twenty Writers Under Forty” in 2010. She is the author of three novels: Man Walks Into a Room (Doubleday 2002), The History of Love (Norton 2005), and Great House (Norton 2010). In this most recent novel, a desk inherited from a Chilean poet connects an American novelist, a British man caring for his dying wife, and an antiques dealer in Jerusalem. At the heart of the novel, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award, are questions of what we pass on to our children, and how those lessons and inheritances are absorbed.
Vida is the author of a loose trilogy of novels, And Now You Can Go (Anchor 2003), Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Ecco 2007), and The Lovers (Ecco 2011). She also collaborated with her husband, Dave Eggers, on the screenplay for the movie Away We Go and published a memoir in 2000 titled Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-Bys, and Other Initiations (St. Martin’s). Each of her novels imagines a solitary female protagonist entering a foreign environment in order to learn something about herself. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Vida explains, “I like the idea of putting someone in a new place and watching them have things revealed to them by the situation they find themselves in. Or have them changed by it.”
Finally, of course, there’s Zelda Fitzgerald. Her novel, Save Me The Waltz, was originally published—under her own name—in 1932, and is available now as an e-book (Scribner). The novel, while fiction, tells a story inspired by Fitzgerald’s real life, about a young Southern girl married to a successful painter, who eventually achieves her own success as a ballet dancer. While the couple appears to have everything they want, they are miserable, and the female protagonist searches for meaning in their empty lives.
Siri Hustvedt, Ayelet Waldman, Nicole Krauss, and Vendela Vida are all accomplished authors, none of whom have needed their husbands’ help attracting readers for their work. Readers, though, who have yet to read their work—whether fans of their husbands or not—should be inspired by #readwomen2014 to give them a try.