Iconography: Who is in the Library?
I started this series with a strained and cheesy Doctor Who reference, and today's title was me finishing with one (“Silence in the Library,” for those playing at home). Let’s try and move on from my sparkling wit to discuss which kinds of books and writers get to grace bookshelves, and the social and economic processes governing this. Who gets published and who does not? Whose work gets preserved? Who gets into libraries and bookstores? Who gets to be an icon?
I like to frame this through the question of what lasts: which books get reprinted long after their authors are dead? It wasn’t just middle class English people who had stories to tell in the nineteenth century, but we’re still reading their books because the concerns of middle class English people are those that were and are considered worthy. There is doubtless a wealth of work which has been lost to time and not being thought quite good enough, or quite representative of good literature. By process of elimination, those are the stories of those outside of those privileged contexts and classes.
Not everyone gets a chance to learn to write, or to have their stories written down, or preserved orally, or some such. If you’re working hard for long hours, you’re not going to have the time or energy to write a book, let alone negotiate a sale to a publishing house. Publishing houses themselves have to pick books they think will sell, which cuts out a lot of “niche” (representative of anything outside the oppressive norm) writing.
And then, if a writer negotiates all that, there’s still the question of getting into bookstores and libraries. What parts of the world can one’s book reach, and how accessible is it going to be to people in particular areas, financial circumstances, or disabilities? Is it going to be placed on the lowest shelf, in the back, in what section, and how many copies? If a book can get the best placement, it is in the best position to reach audiences. That is going to happen for very few books, and fewer by writers in marginalized groups.
Make no mistake: who gets to be an icon, who even gets to be considered, is not a matter of political neutrality.
It’s time for me to leave you, readers. I've written about dozens of books over the last eight weeks, which has translated into my having no life outside of books. And that is the way I like my life, so it's been a real pleasure to write for you. Thank you so much for your wonderful engagement in the comments. It has been really gratifying that so many thoughtful, book-loving types wanted to engage with what I had to say, and with each other. Thank you very much indeed to lovely Kjerstin for the encouragement, and to Kelsey for her editorial talents; what the woman must have gone through.
There was so much more to say, wasn’t there? One of the most deserving literary icons who I didn’t cover was Murasaki Shikibu (I’m saving her The Tale of Genji for a 20 hour plane trip), but there are so many more people to cover. Who do you think are feminist literary icons who might have been mentioned?
I have to tell you, writing for Bitch was a fantasy I liked to indulge in when I was in high school; I’ve got a file of ideas of things I dreamed of pitching to the magazine one day when I was a proper writer. I wish I could go back in time to show my seventeen-year-old self my pieces here! Thank you again for having me, and don’t forget that you can also catch me at Zero at the Bone and Feministe.
Keep loving literature!
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