21 August 2009

as a part of the human species

I awoke this morning to find a "you bought this, you might like this" email from Amazon in my inbox, announcing the publication next week of the fourth of the Penguin Great Ideas series. This is good news.

Each of the series follows a similar format, 20 paperbacks, smaller in size than normal, each reprinting a tract or piece of a tract from an influential thinker of the last two or so millennium, with Plato, Confucius and Plutarch standing shoulder to shoulder with Marx, Orwell and Camus. The series are all colour-coded, with spines and cover designs all in the same hue, red for series one, blue for two, green for three and now purple for series four, and to be honest many of the books are worth buying for the cover design alone. Each individual book is priced at £4.99, which mysteriously ends up being between €6.50 and €6.99 when it hits Irish bookshops, another classic example of the paddy tax.

However when I took a look online at the full series, I was somewhat dismayed to see that Penguin have made the exact same 'mistake' that they did in the previous three series, they somehow have forgotten to include any great ideas from women. Series one contained twenty books, only two of which ('A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf, and 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women') were by a female author. Series two also had two out of twenty ('The City of Ladies' by the medieval writer Christine de Pizan and 'Eichmann and the Holocaust' by Hannah Arendt), and series three unbelievably had none. Series four only manages a single work, 'Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid' by Virginia Woolf.

I'm sure if challenged Penguin would explain that the Great Ideas Series is composed solely of works that are either long out of copyright or that they own the copyright of, that their early catalog does not contain many female writers and until the modern era female writers simply were not as widely published as male. However given that they include works from the thirties and forties it shouldn't really have been that difficult to include more, perhaps Emma Goldman to balance the Marx and Tolstoy, Mary Prince to balance the W.E.B. Du Bois, or Simone de Beauvoir to balance out Foucault. I really think that with a bit more effort they could have produced a slightly more balanced list.

A House famously recorded their song "Endless Art", in which the names of great artists are recited with their dates of birth and death, without including a single woman. They had to go and release a follow up single, 'More Endless Art', just listing female artists. The Irish collaborative novel 'Finbar's Hotel' featured chapters submitted by a who's who of contemporary Irish authors of the day, none of whom were women. A subsequent collection, 'Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel' was released featuring an all-female ensemble of authors.

'Endless Art' was released in 1992, 'Finbar's Hotel' in 1999. You'd think that in ten years we would have moved on enough and learned from our mistakes to not publish a series entitled 'Great Ideas' with only 5% of the contributions from women. This sort of carelessness is just not good enough, Penguin really should be able to do better.

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At 9:05 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The original Finbar's Hotel volume did, in fact, include good stories from two Irish women who are writers: Anne Enright and Jennifer Johnston.


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