Distaff Writers

It’s widely assumed today that, due to systemic sexism, women were so culturally oppressed until roughly last week that, of course, there were few famous women writers.

In truth, however, women have made up a sizable fraction of professional novelists for centuries. But why then aren’t these old-time women writers more renowned today among anybody not trying to get tenure?

For example, in the comments at Scott Alexander’s Substack for smart nerds, one commenter, irate that sixteen of the seventeen reviews that Scott had published by his readers were of books authored by men, scoffed:

So you discount the structural forces that lead to vastly more men than women appearing on our proverbial bookshelves?

But, of course, if you look at actual bookshelves, a large fraction of books are written by women. And it’s been that way for a long time.

One obvious reason that readers of a website that grew out of the Rationalist cult are more likely to be interested in books by men than by women is that nerds don’t much like fiction, especially fiction about people and their relationships. They’re Rationalists, not Emotionalists! So, all the books reviewed were nonfiction.

The novels of men and women aren’t hugely different, but a computer that has studied 67 million words of fiction can guess the sex of the author with 72 percent accuracy.

In the study, Dr Luoto says that compared with straight men, women used more social words, personal pronouns, positive emotion words and words related to sadness and anxiety. “Heterosexual men, by contrast, used more articles, numbers, spatial words, death and anger-related words, swear words, and words that reflect analytical thinking.”

Women have been highly successful fiction writers for several centuries.

By way of illustration, consider how colossally influential was Daniel Defoe’s 1719 adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, which inaugurated its own genre of shipwreck fiction, Robinsonade, as reflected in Swiss Family RobinsonLord of the Flies, and The Martian. Yet, Defoe’s book went through fewer printings in the 18th century than Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s 1728 work of epistolary fiction, Friendship in Death, in Twenty Letters From the Dead to the Living.

In James Boswell’s famous 1791 biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, the critic Dr. Johnson is always complaining about how much money lady novelists make, but then confessing that he had just stayed up all night reading the latest page-turner by a woman writer. (Dr. Johnson and Edmund Burke were frequent guests at the Bluestockings salon organized by wealthy women literary intellectuals.) But people still occasionally read Boswell (just open his Life at random and see if you find it amusing), although virtually no books by women written before Jane Austen (1775–1817) are read.

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