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This book in its tattered dust jacket has stood on my bookshelves for more than 30 years. It once formed part of my late father’s library, so I know he must have considered it an important work. And for more than 30 years I’ve avoided reading it, even though I know it occupies a place of honor in American literature, particularly feminist literature.  I feared it would be a disquieting experience to read it.

And I was right. It is a difficult, disquieting, demanding book:  difficult to read because of the peculiar cadence of Olsen’s prose; disquieting because Olsen tells hard truths about women’s writing that one would prefer to forget; and demanding because of the unusual, choppy format that obliges the reader to continually readjust her focus. Yet Silences is important because it pierces so deeply to the heart of what one wants to believe about America: that we are all equally entitled to the pursuit of happiness through our freedom to choose our life, our work, our adult relationships. Olsen bluntly reminds us that race, class, and gender are the determinants of one’s right to pursue such happiness, not the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Olsen’s life, quite apart from her writing, is enough in itself to inspire awe: born one of six children in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, Tillie Lerner grew up in a farming community in Nebraska. Always poor, she dropped out of school after the 11th grade to earn a living in a series of tedious, ill-paid jobs. She joined the Young Communist League and was later jailed after organizing packinghouse workers. Olsen began writing one of her books, Yonnondio, while recovering from an illness.

She was jailed again in San Francisco during the West Coast longshoremen’s strike in 1934, as was Jack Olsen, a union organizer who was to become her husband. Subsequently her energy was subsumed in the demands of bringing up four children and working at low-wage jobs to make ends meet. Her writing was done on small scraps of paper at odd times; only in 1955 did she experience a breakthrough in her writing career, by winning a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University.

In the first chapter of Silences Olsen examines the nature of the silences imposed on both the beginner and the mature writer. There are the silences of work deferred; silences imposed by censorship or governments; the silences created by alcoholism, drug dependency, suicide; and the silences created by societal expectations of women’s role in life—helpmeet and mother, dutiful daughter or grandmother, but never an achiever, never a novelist or poet in her own right. “Among these,” Olsen writes, “the mute, inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women.”

In the chapter titled “One out of twelve,” Olsen asks:  Why are so many more women silenced than men? Why, when women do write (one out of four or five works published) is so little of their writing known, taught, accorded recognition? What is the nature of the critical judgments made throughout that (along with the factors different in women’s lives) steadily reduce the ratio from one of three in anthologies of student work, to one out of seventeen in course offerings.

This question is still relevant. Why are women’s writings, as well as films made about and by women, dismissed as “chick lit” or “chick flicks”?  Almost 50 years after Silences was published in 1965, women’s literary and artistic achievements are still derided.

Much of Silences is devoted to Olsen’s examination of the life and work of Rebecca Harding Davis, an important 19th-century writer whose writings are all but forgotten today. Davis’ work broke new ground in American literature because she wrote the truth, about real people, in prose that was devoid of misty sentimentality. Her novel Life in the Iron Mills was a passionate declaration of the humanity of ordinary, beaten-down working people whose 12-hour, six-day work week left them no time to be human, to enjoy life, to create something of their own for the sheer love of it.

Rebecca H. Davis enjoyed a certain amount of fame in her day, with magazine editors welcoming her short stories and serialized novels; she was invited to go on what nowadays would be termed a lecture tour. She did go, from West Virginia to New England. In Boston, Davis encountered another woman writer.

She wrote that she went over to talk with “…a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her.”

That writer was Louisa May Alcott.

The final section of Silences offers excerpts from the journals of writers and short descriptions of the “obstacles, balks, encumbrances in coming to one’s own voice, vision, circumference” those writers have suffered. Olsen includes Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Herman Melville in this section, all of whom experienced either self-imposed or external obstacles. The case of the unfortunate Thomas Hardy, whose Jude the Obscure was so cruelly received by the British literary establishment that he never wrote another novel, is particularly poignant.

Is the premise of Silences dated?  In some ways women have achieved a greater voice than before: certainly the shelves of public libraries and bookstores are filled with books written by women. Women have a greater literary voice in the private sphere—there are many women writers, several of whose books regularly inhabit The New York Times bestseller list. However, women are still vastly underrepresented in Congress and the upper reaches of the business world. And in the 21st century American women still must rely on patchwork solutions to the eternal problem of combining the duties of motherhood with the right to work at paid employment.

It was the pill that liberated women as much as anything; the availability of the pill eroded conventional sexual mores. Once women’s anatomy was no longer their destiny (or at least, let us say, no longer the destiny of women of the educated, affluent class), it was possible for them to envision a future not tied to reproductive slavery. Women are free to marry or not: in either case, their life plans need not be derailed by unplanned pregnancies.  

Very well: if women are free to have paid work, free to indulge in creative activity—writing, painting, music, sculpture, and other arts—why are there still silences?  Why, for example, is it so hard for talented women writers—or talented male writers, for that matter—to achieve validation through having their work published by the literary establishment?

The answer, as someone pointed out long ago, is that there are more talented writers than there are slots available to publish their work. Once that would have been the end of it, but no more.

The Internet is the great equalizer of our age, for just as the growing ascendancy of political blogs like dailykos.com and sites such as Craig’s List have undermined the power of the traditional media, so the mighty Internet has undermined the hegemony of the literary establishment.

Almost anyone has access to the Internet these days, and almost anyone who knows a 12-year-old can have a Web site.  (Children, having less to unlearn, pick up new technologies faster than most older people.)  Nowadays, instead of planning to drown oneself in the village pond because one’s novel has been rejected by the New York literary establishment, one can publish one’s own work through such print-on-demand companies as CreateSpace, Lulu.com, or iUniverse.

“Ah, the vanity press,” some may scoff.  Not quite. If one sacrifices a certain amount of prestige and money by not publishing one’s work through the establishment, the corollary is that one also gains a certain amount of freedom.

For there is a price to be paid for publication by the establishment. One sees it the novels of such writers as Diana Gabaldon, Jilly Cooper, and even my own cousin, Laura Van Wormer. They are required to write about the same characters again and again, fueled by the same bean-counting attitude that drives Hollywood to make the same movies over and over (think of “True Grit,” “The Wicker Man,” and now “Dirty Dancing”). Cooper has cleverly got round this problem to some extent: she has been allowed to write about new characters and subjects other than horseflesh by making sure that the minor characters are all characters we’ve encountered in her previous books, living in the aptly named fictional English county of Rutlandshire.

The work of one of the best writers I’ve ever known, Elizabeth Cunningham, is published by a small publishing house. Her Goddess-inspired novels have a delighted following who snap them up as soon as they’re available.  At this writing we are all awaiting publication of the fourth and final volume of the Maeve chronicles, Red-Robed Priestess.

Another writer I know loves to write gay fiction—science fiction thrillers, mysteries, historicals, and even vampire fantasies—but was mostly unable to get a hearing by the large publishing houses. So she turned into a publisher herself, making her work available to her devoted readership in Australia and around the world through her Web site and such outlets as Amazon. com. Doing it this way, she affirms, she can write what pleases, without worrying about the bean counters.

Olsen’s Silences is an important reminder of the external factors that have combined to silence women writers. It is up to us to throw off these invisible but potent shackles and insist on our right to create, to cry out, to sing and be heard by the whole world.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Aug 15, 2011 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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