The almighty authoress
Caelin Miltko | Friday, February 27, 2015
A 2014 MTV study found a peculiar paradox amongst millennials: 73 percent of those surveyed believed that “never considering race would improve society,” while 83 percent also believed that “celebrating differences between the races would improve society.”
The issue of being “color blind,” to borrow a term from the study, is something we see more and more amongst those who preach politically correct speech. We ought not call people out by their race, gender or any other differentiating factor. To be equal is to be neutral. Or is it?
Though this is a multi-dimensional issue, I’d like to approach it from a gendered point-of-view. I am not a gender studies scholar, and I do not claim to be an expert on every issue that could be raised here.
In a Feb. 12 article I wrote, “Fear of revision: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman,’” I referred to Harper Lee as “the almighty authoress of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’”
In a podcast released Feb. 23, Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” called me out for my use of the anachronistic, diminutive term “authoress.” They used my article as a jumping off point to discuss the disappearance of gendered terms like this from the English language, with a few exceptions like “actress” and “goddess.”
There is a concern that use of terms like “authoress” implies that females who write are invading a male-dominated sphere and that their status as “authors” is in question. “Authoress,” they argue, implies something less than “author” because it is a gendered term.
The use of such terms does not have to be condescending, insulting or even unnecessary. In the case of Harper Lee, I certainly never meant any insult by calling her the “almighty authoress.” In fact, my intention was to emphasize her status in mainstream American literary canon.
I freely concede to Slate that the term “authoress” is anachronistic. In part, my use of the term was to intentionally play on the fact it is hardly ever part of our modern-day lexicon.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” is a timeless classic, and we don’t expect such books to have living authors who continue to write sequels. To earn the title of “classic,” a book must stand the test of time and prove relevant to multiple generations. “To Kill A Mockingbird” has done this. Harper Lee is a giant literary figure of the 20th century, not subject to the tides of modern popular culture.
As such, though the term “authoress” fell out of use long before Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” was first published, the use of an anachronistic term conjoined with “almighty” is intended to set this tone while recognizing her stature. As the “almighty authoress,” Lee has unparalleled power to deconstruct and change a story that is now part of our American psyche.
More troubling, however, is clearly the implication that being an “authoress” is somehow less than being an “author.” I would never deny Harper Lee’s right to the term “author.” But she is also an “authoress,” and to deny her femininity is to deny part of what is so important about “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
One of the reasons for this is that “To Kill A Mockingbird” is one of the few bildungsromans we have in mainstream canon that tells the story of a female protagonist. Scout is not the typical protagonist of a rite-of-passage novel, which is typically the domain of young boys. Harper Lee wrote a seminal text for young girls. She gave the world a growing female protagonist. Now such characters are much more common, but this was not always the case.
Alongside English, I study Irish Gaelic. Among linguists, there is a theory that if languages are fossilized — not allowed to grow and change with each new generation — then their death sentence has already been written. The natural state of a language is one of constant change and variable. Words grow and change as time goes on.
To limit the term “authoress” to how it has been used in the past is to deny this aspect of language. I would consider Lee not only an author but also an authoress. Her status as a female sets her apart from her contemporaries in an important way — it is certainly not the only thing to consider about her writing, but it ought not be erased in some mistaken quest for “equality.”
When I called Harper Lee an “authoress,” I meant only to encapsulate her gender as another reason to note the extraordinariness of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Mainstream literary canon is made up almost entirely of male authors — it is only recently we have truly begun collecting and analyzing a female literary canon that stretches across time and space.
“Authoress” is a useful term here because Harper Lee’s name is androgynistic. Unless noted, it is not clear “To Kill A Mockingbird” was written by a woman. This may have even contributed to the novel’s initial success but to make her gender-neutral in 2015 is to deny some of her power. She is an authoress amongst authors. And that, I think, is important.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.