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Time Magazine list of top 100 most-read female writers in college

Top 100 Female writers in college

TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Authors on Campus
TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Authors on Campus

Today Time reported on the top 100 most-read female writers on college syllabi drawn from the Open Syllabus Project‘s collection of over 1.1 million course syllabi referencing 933,635 texts. Unfortunately, Time fell foul of a schoolboy error, thinking that the creator of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, was a woman. Akin to thinking George Eliot was a man, she was in fact one Mary Ann Evans. Whilst they soon changed it to another undoubtedly female author they could not stop the error-spotting pedants’ scoop circulating on social media.

Historically, over the last 15 years, some 20,214 syllabi have featured William Shakespeare. Plato, Marx and Freud, and 13 other male writers precede the first female author on the list: A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian. The current course texts list includes at #5 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ahead of Aristotle’s Ethics, and Turabian’s work at #13.

Evelyn Waugh, He-Evelyn or She-Evelyn?

So, not a female writer then! But also, not an uncommon mistake as Waugh himself pointed out:

“I was christened Arthur Evelyn St John: the first name after my father, the second from a whim of my mother’s. I have never liked the name. In America it is used only of girls and from time to time even in England it has caused confusion as to my sex.” – Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography

Following TIME magazine‘s gendered mistake, the Independent in its ante-penultimate weekend issue seem to have made the same error:

“When Evelyn Waugh was listed recently among Time magazine’s top 100 female writers, it made me wonder how Evelyn’s books would be reviewed and marketed if she had written them now. In 1928, Decline and Fall was lauded as a viciously funny social satire; but would the same novel by Mrs Waugh be read as semi-autobiographical flimflam about a wedding? A Handful of Dust: a condemnation of the futility of humanist philosophy, or a thinly disguised roman à clef? Vile Bodies was a dark view of a decadent, doomed generation, but today’s Evelyn would have had her novel forced into pink covers, renamed Pretty Young Things and marketed as a romcom.”

Waugh, not a fan of punctuality, considered it a virtue only for the bored – much like Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps he had a similar attitude to accuracy! Certainly, he thought gendered division by sex “absurd”:

“Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic.” – Evelyn Waugh

In 1927 Waugh got engaged to one Evelyn Gardner, yes another Evelyn, and they were affectionately known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, though the marriage only lasted a year owing to She-Evelyn’s unfaithfulness with a mutual friend rather more simply named John. During the decline and fall of their marriage, Waugh’s first book and social satire, Decline and Fall, became successful. The first edition bore a note from the author:

“Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.”

One imagines that is probably how he would see his name being on an all-female writers list!

St Julian of Norwich

The actual first woman to write a book in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love (1395), was an anchoress attached to the Church of St Julian in Norwich. She is even named ‘Julian’ from the church cell she occupied as her actual name is not known.

Gender bending Authors

The use of a cross-gender pen name has been around for centuries, in the main for female authors trying to get published or taken seriously in the predominantly male domain of publishing.

George Eliot

Whilst Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote as female, Mary Ann Evans chose to use the nom de plume of George Eliot to avoid Victorian romantic stereotyping of her writing. Instead, she wrote seven serious and substantial novels including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Middlemarch is currently #331 on the list of over 900,000 texts.

George Sand

TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Writers in CollegeAnother female author said that “My name is not Marie-Aurore de Saxe, Marquise of Dudevant, as several of my biographers have asserted, but Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin”, in fact, nineteenth century French novelist Aurore wrote under the more familiar name George Sand. Apart from novels and a memoir of an affair with Chopin, Sand wrote works of literary criticism, socialist political and feminist activism. At the outset of the 1848 French Revolution she founded a workers’ co-operative newspaper. The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev said of her:

“What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”

She even began wearing male attire in public, claiming it was more practical and hardwearing. It also gave her access to places more typically dressed French noble women might have been barred from. It didn’t stop the criticism of her smoking in public, then frowned upon for women. Her most well known and most-translated work La Mare Au Diable (1846) “The Devil’s Pool” appears at #24,956 on the Open Syllabus list and has even been reinterpreted as a contrasexual queer novel once the author’s female gender is acknowledged.

Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell

Never heard of them? Well Ellis was in fact Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (1847) #680. Currer was Charlotte Brontë, the writer of Jane Eyre (1847) #406. Acton was Anne, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) #27,436. All three Brontë sisters first published under their male pen names a volume of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846).

Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen or indeed Pierre Andrézel were in fact the Danish female author Karen Dinesen who became Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. She is best known for two literary works that became films, Out of Africa (1937) #6,151 and Babette’s Feast (1958).

Harper Lee

Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) #255, who died last week, was born Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards, her grandmother’s name) but wrote under the gender ambiguous name Harper. Harper as a forename is derived from the Middle English surname for a harpist, and is most commonly a boy’s name but does feature in girl’s names lists, even as high as #89 in the UK (2014).

JK Rowling

The Harry Potter novels author, Joanne Rowling, has written as JK and as Robert Galbraith. It was her publishers who asked that she use use initials to aid appeal to the male young adult market. Her highest novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is ranked #4,599 by the Open Syllabus Explorer.

EL James & LS Hilton

Maestra, Lisa LS Hilton
Maestra, LS Hilton

Writing under gender-neutral initials rather than a gender-outing first name is becoming all too common. Following in JK Rowling’s footsteps, five years ago, Erika Leonard aka EL James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. Now Lisa Hilton, writing as LS, breaks onto the erotic literary scene with her – or should that be an ‘unouted’ their, 2016 book in the now obligatory three parts. Maestra (published 10 March) is a sexy but classy romp in the art world, a far cry from her academic literary biographies written as Lisa.

Male to Female Pseudonyms

The eighteenth century American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin penned works under pseudonyms. He chose Richard Saunders but also Alice Addertongue, Polly Baker, Martha Careful, and Caelia Shortface. The 1747 Speech of Polly Baker by Franklin was an early woman’s rights protest against the way women were hounded and charged for having illegitimate children not the fathers. 250 years later societies are still trying to solve that injustice.

Even Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum, wrote books for a female audience using feminine pseudonyms: Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, and Suzanne Metcalf.

Changing Sex POV

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, Stephanie Meyer
Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, Stephanie Meyer

It is a common writing exercise and literary device to change the gendered Point of View (POV) of an author and have them write from the viewpoint of a main protagonist who is of a gender different to that of the author. A variation on this is what Twilight author Stephanie Meyer intends to do with the release of her gender-switched tenth anniversary rewrite of the novel. Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined features a male human Beau and female vampire Edythe, transposing the original roles, allegedly to prove the original intended no patronising damsel in distress stereotype.

Sex and Gender Bias

It’s been sadly proven that job applications, manuscript submissions are affected by gender bias. It is a very interesting psycho-social experiment to degender authorship and identity, to third-person neutral gender reference work colleagues by their job proficiency and not by their sex. Perhaps all authors should use initials? I often use just KJ so as not reveal my gender or even transgender by my fully spelled out name, Katy Jon.

The legacy of Sue Townsend, social commentator, book-lover, author of Adrian Mole and his Secret Diary

Adrian Mole Secret Diary Sue Townsend book cover montage
A montage of just some of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole book covers over 30 years by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend (1946-2014), creator of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, has died of a stroke, aged 68. Despite failing her 11-plus exam, leaving school at 15, and being a three-child single mother by 23, she went on to write 17 books, 11 plays and receive half-a-dozen awards including two honorary doctorates. She shared the Freedom of Leicester, where she was born and based the Adrian Mole books, with Leicester-raised singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Her humble writing roots were not dissimilar to JK Rowling’s and she wrote for 20 years before being published. The first volume of Adrian Mole’s Diary was written was working 3 jobs and living on Leicester’s Saffron Lane estate.

Stephen Mangan, who played the television role of Adrian Mole in 2001, said on hearing of her passing, “Greatly upset to hear that Sue Townsend has died. One of the warmest, funniest and wisest people I ever met.”

A Portuguese edition of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
A Portuguese edition of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

The Adrian Mole books described the growing pains and internal worries of a teenage boy, his loves and woes, such as glue sniffing and ending up with model aeroplane stuck to his nose! Her first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ became one of the bestselling books of the 1980s in which it was also set.

Within a decade the first book had sold in excess of 2 million copies. To date some 20 million+ copies of the books have sold, as it has spawned numerous sequels and translations, making both Sue Townsend and Adrian Mole famous.

“Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual.”

Indeed, that is how Adrian saw himself, an aspiring yet unrecognised intellectual with the following catch or caveat:

“I have a problem. I am an intellectual, but at the same time I am not very clever.”

This was evidenced by his confusing “Pride and Prejudice” with “Prejudice or Pride” and not getting the association of Pandora and Box – a tenth unpublished Adrian Mole novel was to have been titled “Pandora’s Box”. Similarly he confused the genders of Evelyn Waugh and George Eliot. His mother found his poetry funny rather than deep, because “she was not an intellectual”.

“Now I know I am an intellectual. I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word. It all adds up. A bad home, poor diet, not liking punk. I think I will join the library and see what happens.”

Books offer both the ticket and journey out of dead-end life circumstances. Townsend saw a life littered with literature and books as an opportunity for economic, mental, and social escape.

“To unlock the heavy outer door and to walk into the hushed interior, with the morning light spilling from the high windows on to the waiting books, gave her such pleasure that she would have worked for nothing.” – Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year

Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry
Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry

In “Rebuilding Coventry“, a 1988 Townsend novel about Coventry Dakin, a woman on the run in London after killing her neighbour with an action man – he was in turn killing his wife at the time, she again writes of her novels characters’ love of books:

“I’ve always loved books. I’m passionate about them. I think books are sexy. They are smooth and solid and contain delightful surprises. They smell good. They fit into a handbag and can be carried around and opened at will. They don’t change. They are what they are and nothing else. One day I want to own a lot of books and have them near to me in my house, so that I can stroll to my bookshelves and choose what I fancy. I want a harem. I shall keep my favourites by my bed.” – Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry

One obituary, in the Telegraph, describes her self-taught literary Damascene journey: “the internal, secret world of books increasingly played a central part in her existence. Having started on Richmal Crompton’s Just William, she quickly graduated to Jane Eyre, and from there to Dostoevsky. ‘Jane Eyre was the first book I read right through, non-stop,’ she said. ‘It was winter, freezing cold, and I remember seeing this thin light outside and realising it was dawn. I got dressed reading, walked to school reading and finished it in the cloakroom at lunchtime. It was riveting.’ She devoured ‘all the Russians, then the French, then the Americans. I remember getting in trouble for reading The Grapes of Wrath under my desk in a boring lesson.'”

Whilst Adrian Mole’s father read Playboy he read Charles Dickens by torchlight and wanted to escape his housing estate existence and find true love with Pandora. His were the trials of a teenage boy, intellectually and sexually thwarted, at one and same time. “Somehow,” writes David Walliams, “Townsend understood what is was to be an adolescent boy better than any adolescent boy.”

“I have realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac.”

Her novels featured wry humour, social commentary on class and economic inequalities, and an independent feminism and socialism. The working classes were seen as separate to the pro-Royal “Marks and Spencer set”.

“Well, there are people and people, aren’t there? It was hardly the Marks and Spencer set, was it? Tattooed grandfathers, single parents, Alsatians, delinquents and maladjusted children. Hardly a discriminating public was it?” – Sue Townsend, Bazaar and Rummage [Gwenda speaking]  (see more on this)

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Although she is most famous for creating a teenage boy and all his adolescent angst, it was her female characters that most reflected her own ideals. For instance, Pauline Mole, Adrian’s mother reads Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch“, cuts her hair short, goes on an assertiveness course, camps out at Greenham Common and seeks to become an independent woman. Similarly, love of Adrian’s life, Pandora, wants to be a free woman yet also a feminist mum, saying:

“I should like to have one child when I am forty-six years of age. The child will be a girl. She will be beautiful and immensely gifted. Her name will be Liberty.” – Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole

Sue Townsend, Ghost Children
Sue Townsend, Ghost Children

In 1987’s “Ghost Children” Townsend explored heavier themes of abortion, body-image, abuse, bereavement, reconciliation and redemption – quite a departure from her usual fare but no less observationally sharp.

Her books appealed to boys and girls, and adults, alike and captured a snapshot of over three decades of British social and political life from Thatcher to Blair (see the satirical “Number Ten“). The Falklands, Old and New Labour, Tony Benn, old-school Communist OAP Bert, even the break up of the SDP all featured. Adrian espoused mixed political beliefs between his desire to get a paper round so that he could afford to go private to sort out his acne and his confusion over the cult and personality of Mrs Thatcher:

“I’m not sure how I will vote. Sometimes I think Mrs Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman. Then the next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”

Tony Blair did not get off lightly in the books either:

“Glenn has been excluded from school, for calling Tony Blair a twat.”

Adrian’s obsession with Tony Blair is described in excerpts from Adrian’s middle-aged diary and his description of Blair surrounding himself, not with “Blair’s Babes” but rather, “Alpha Males” such as Margaret Beckett!

“I am not a trained psychologist but I am wise beyond my 40 years and think that I have discovered why Mr Blair was so keen to become a war leader and to swagger alongside George Bush. He thought it would give him another pair of testicles and would promote him to Alpha Maleness.”

She had planned to write one or two more Adrian Mole novels, the 10th and 11th, to cover the Coalition years of the current Government.

Read more reader suggested memorable quotes from Adrian Mole in the comments section of this Guardian piece.

Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for Year, Sue Townsend
Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for Year

Her last published novel in 2012, “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year“, described as “a funny and touching novel about what happens when someone stops being the person everyone wants them to be.” Reviews said it was “deeper and darker than comedy” (Sunday Times) and “Bursting with witty social commentary as well as humour” (Women’s Weekly). It is a witty and wry observation on life that will be missed.

Sue Townsend, will undoubtedly be missed, despite her few critics and doubters – as evidenced in some comment threads, but most especially for her warmth, generosity and a style of satire, so eminently British, that is paradoxically both sharp and soft on its targets. She was never vicious and left enough humanity in each character she penned or real people she had her creations criticise for each reader to be left to make up their own minds. Take just a sampling of some of the endearing praise on this theme that the media has printed over the last few days:

“…a political fantasy where the Queen is invited to move to a council estate after the creation of the British republic. It’s a gentle approach, but no less powerful for that. Her humour allows you to rise above the politicians and the divisiveness. No one ever got hurt or beaten up because of a Sue Townsend novel, but their conscience was raised nonetheless.” – Bob and Roberta Smith

“A lot of modern comedy is based on cruelty and snobbery, but she found decency and even heroism in Adrian’s delusions of genius, his pointless adoration of Pandora, and his loyalty to Bert Baxter.” – Frank Cottrell Boyce

“While her satire was sharp and scabrous, she treated her characters with a warmth that made them stay with us over the years…warm, satirical style” – Luke Wright

“So funny, without ever being cruel or mocking.” – Isy Suttie

“There was also a kindness in her writing. She treated her characters – and her readers – with such humanity. Always funny, always inclusive, and never cruel.” – Leviathan212 

“She was loved by generations of readers, not only because she made them laugh out loud, but because her view of the world, its inhabitants and their frailties was so generous, life-affirming and unique.” – Tom Weldon, chief executive of her publisher Penguin Random House UK

“However, what I love most about this book is that unlike a lot of modern comedy (and yes, I am partly to blame), Townsend’s writing is full of warmth.” – David Walliams (who wrote the foreword to the 30th Anniversary edition of the Secret Diary)

“Sue Townsend did social satire without contempt and cruelty.” – Linda Grant

Remembered, but never to be forgotten. Sue Townsend – through Adrian Mole, will keep a place of affection in readers’ hearts as strong as JK Rowling and Harry Potter.

The Adrian Mole series
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982)
  • The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984)
  • The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989)
  • Adrian Mole From Minor to Major (1991) including Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians
  • Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993)
  • Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999)
  • Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004)
  • The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999–2001 (2008)
  • Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009)
Other books
  • Rebuilding Coventry (1988)
  • Mr Bevan’s Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (1989) [non-fiction]
  • The Queen and I (1992)
  • Ghost Children (1997)
  • The Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman (2001) [non-fiction]
  • Number Ten (2002)
  • Queen Camilla (2006)
  • The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012)

This article first appeared here.