The Anxiety of Authorship in Contemporary Literature

In Gilbert and Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” they examine the affect of patriarchal literature on female writers. The foremost literary theorist on the psychology of literary history is Harold Bloom, who applied Freudian structures to literary genealogies, coining the phrase “anxiety of influence” to mean: “[the artist’s] fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential priority over his own writings” (46). He continues to explain that a literary Oedipal struggle occurs because since “a man can only become a poet by somehow invalidating his poetic father” (47).

In Bloom’s exclusively male and patriarchal model of literary history, there is no explanation or consideration of female writers. His use of “he” and “father” are not interchangeable with “she” and “mother”, because the literary history of women is a very different and distinct course. The female writer has few, if any, predecessors, so she does not want to annihilate her “foremother” because she does not have one. Likewise, she does not want to annihilate her “forefather” because she does not have the relationship to him that the male artists do. She does not experience the “anxiety of influence” the way her male counterparts do; her precursors not only embody patriarchal authority, they “attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster), drastically conflict with her own sense of her self” (48).  The female author is battling against her male precursor’s reading of her–she is not competing with him but instead struggling to break free of the limitations he created for her.

 Gilbert and Gubar describe women as experiencing an “anxiety of authorship”, which they define as “a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her” (49). Women are attempting to break into a patriarchal structure, within which they are already socialized and deemed inferior. Gilbert and Gubar say that contemporary female authors are free of these limitations and isolation that their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers faced.

However, I’m not sure if these struggles are completely done away with, particularly in regards to the patriarchal literary structure and extreme stereotypes. On the one hand, we do see a greater population of female writers (within certain genres, although this was discussed more in my previous post on Cixous) and a broader range of female characters, but on the other hand, even these characters still somewhat fit these “angel/monster” polarized identities. In contemporary literature, television and movie storylines, women are the “girl next door” or the “bitch”, the sweet girlfriend or the heartless mistress. Slowly, I think, women’s roles are becoming more complicated, more empowered—i.e., the popular Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen (don’t judge me, I just watched the movie this weekend so she’s the first one I can think of. P.S., it was amazing J ). But I think the fact that this is still pointed out as significant means that it is still considered different; strong female lead characters, ones that don’t fall into either of the two aforementioned categories, are still considered the Other. How far have we come from the initial challenges that female writers faced? Do you guys think that the patriarchal and male literary structure has been broadened and expanded to include enough accomplished female literary figures that women have “foremothers” to look to? And if so, do they experience the “anxiety of influence” that their male counterparts do?

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7 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Authorship in Contemporary Literature

  1. First of all, agreed, Catching Fire was amazing!

    I really like the questions you’re asking although I don’t think that Gilbert and Gubar are arguing that contemporary female writers are free of limitations and isolation. After all, starting at about page 75, they do talk about their contemporaries like Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir and their struggles with the patriarchal literary structure. Gilbert and Gubar published this around 1979, so now that it’s 30 years later, I think it would interesting to ask female writers (whether they be novelists or screenwriters), if they experience any “anxiety of influence” now.

  2. That’s true. I guess I was thinking of contemporary as in specifically those writing in this generation, although it may be too soon to tell (for them and for us). I think there are those writing in this generation looking to Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir as their inspiration, perhaps even their foremothers. I think every subsequent generation faces less of a struggle, but I think inherently, because of how it was established, literature (both writers and characters) will probably always be predominantly male

    • I wonder how the gender breakdown of authorship will change in the next generation. Whenever I hear advice for authors from established authors or educators, of any gender, one of the biggest pieces of advice is to read more and write often. I don’t have statistics offhand, but postsecondary education, at least in America, is becoming predominantly female, which means women more than men are in an environment that is inherently designed for reading and writing. Maybe this growth of female education will result in growth of female authorship?

      • I think so. I think the fact that the humanities are now considered more of feminine means that women will more and more establish themselves as artists. It makes me wonder when the anxiety of authorship will shift to the “anxiety of influence” that Gilbert and Gubar talk about, once women have enough predecessors to look to

  3. “In contemporary literature, television and movie storylines, women are the “girl next door” or the “bitch”, the sweet girlfriend or the heartless mistress”

    Yes yes yes.

    I absolutely agree that even today, females and female characters still have a sort of “binary” perception, one that exists even outside of fiction. In high school debate, an activity full of egotistical men flaunting their mental superiority, there were only 2 perceived kinds of women: the timid girl who was only good as a mouthpiece through which to broadcast the male partner’s ideas, or the bossy dragon lady who was “over the top”. Women are either liked because they are quiet and “where they should be”, or disliked, because they are threatening the sphere of men, and their ability to compete makes them disliked.

  4. I think it’s definitely true that we see a lot of creative work (including film, music, etc.) still being produced in a “male tradition” that reaffirm the angel/monster, girl-next-door/bitch, madonna/whore, etc. identities, even when the work is created by a woman. Maybe this is just hindsight bias, but it seems as though it’s been a lot easier to change the social/political institutions in place that prevented women from becoming artists and to encourage more women to write than it will be to encourage both men and women to escape the established male tradition of writing and create “strong female leads” or a female character that doesn’t fall into the angel/monster identity.

    I think the anxiety of influence definitely creeps in to contemporary authors/artists who try to write a strong female character because they might feel they need to write a character that is so unlike other female characters that have been written before in an effort not to create a whole new trope, which might just create a third identity of headstrong, stubborn, etc. woman in addition to angel/monster. In this case, writing a strong female character might almost be paralyzing because trying to do so is experiencing the anxiety of influence and anxiety of authorship in tandem and being worried that the character one creates might redefine both female authorship and characters for the worse.

    • I agree about your point regarding this contemporary anxiety of influence. I think it’s interesting how writers will interpret a “strong/independent female lead” in different ways. Strong male characters seem to be more noticeable and easier to define whereas there will be controversy over what makes a female character strong. I’ve heard authors, even woman authors, be called “anti-feminist” with their portrayal of women in their books because of how the female characters handled their problems (or didn’t–and let the man do it for them) or how the characters presented themselves. I feel like I’ve heard a surprising amount of controversy over what makes a strong female character.

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