October 25, 2018

The (literary) future is female; now, what about the past? Rare books and feminism


Were you aware that women’s inequality extends to the bookshelf? 

It does. The literary canon is well-known for being predominantly male, and that trickles down to everything book-related: from which authors are studied in campuses to which first editions command the most money. And with women writers now having 1:1 parity with their male counterparts on bestseller lists and in book reviews, it’s the worst kind of inequality – the inexplicable kind.

Luckily, A. N. Devers is here to change that. Devers – an American writer/critic/journalist living in London – is the founder of The Second Shelf, an online and pop-up rare-books shop hellbent on bringing female writers to the front-of-store, if not the canonical forefront. “First edition books by women are so important and they are underrepresented on the shelves,” Devers told Laura Hampson at Evening Standard last month. Devers started The Second Shelf, her catalog-cum-quarterly, via Kickstarter in 2017, and the inaugural issue has some great offerings: A 1957 first edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley; an 1813 second edition of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, from the library of one of Austen’s close friends.

“Women are not niche,” she told Sheila Gibson Stoodley at Robb Report this week. “The reason I’ve been pushing so hard with the Kickstarter and getting the word out is I really need to find and hopefully inspire women to take up this cause with me … The potential of discovery is so great.”

Devers isn’t the only woman trying to preserve the female written word, but she is one of the few attempting to take on the very masculine, very monetary world of rare books. As she wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian this past June:

… something crystallised in my mind that had never occurred to me before: that book collectors help determine which writers are remembered and canonised, and which are forgotten. The collector trade is a part of a supply line, to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries.

Elizabeth Denlinger, a curator of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (at the NYPL), agrees wholeheartedly. Telling Diane Mehta at The Paris Review earlier this year that the only difference between men’s and women’s collecting “is money,” Denlinger called out the biggest hurdle to rare-book gender parity: men tend to buy and value other men. Unfortunately, this fact is played out not only in the collector’s world of rare books but also in contemporary retail pricing: this spring, a study from Queens College-CUNY looked at gender discrimination and inequality at both large publishers and independent presses. The result is possibly more depressing than you’d imagine: books by female writers are, on average, priced 45 percent lower than those of their male counterparts. And if both the market and the buyers tacitly agree that women’s writing is worth less than men’s, the demand for female writers is effectively nullified. “If [men are] the ones [who] are mostly buying and collecting rare books, then there’s not a market for women writers,” Devers told Olivia Aylmer at Vanity Fair earlier this month.

Until the literary landscape of buyers changes to one slightly less phallic, what can we do? We can hope, we can fight, and we can start collecting books by female writers ourselves. And good news does seem to be on the horizon; while the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America is 85 percent male, they have launched an initiative to encourage women to join as voting members. The Second Shelf hopes to further that aim, too – both by showing the inherent value in female writing, and also by encouraging more women to pick up book collecting as a hobby. And this consumerist plane may be the field on which the battle is won. “We need more women collecting because it creates a diversity of taste,” Devers told Mehta, in that same Paris Review article. Beyond that, it creates a demand for female voices which has been efficiently silenced in academia and antiquary for so long.

“It is a feminist act to preserve stuff that women have done and written,” Denlinger told Mehta. And combining feminism with consumerism may just be the field on which this battle is won.




Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.