The Anxiety of Authorship

(Note: I’m not hating on men.)

I hope I’m not the only writer experiencing anxiety. I can’t be. I shouldn’t be. According to the literary critic duo Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and other writers, I’m definitely not the only one.

In college, I read some of Gilbert and Gubar’s criticism from their book The Madwoman in the Attic. In this book, they develop the idea of “the anxiety of authorship,” exploring the different anxieties men and women feel when writing. (This is where I got the name of my blog. Is it obvious?).

The theory might be dated, but I wonder if we all experience the kind of writing anxiety they suggest. Gilbert and Gubar say that men and women have different approaches to writing, and thus different kinds of writing anxiety. Male writers (subconsciously) “revise” the writing of other male writers that came before them. Female writers, on the other hand, must (subconsciously) “create” their own female writing tradition, because there have not been enough female writers for them to revise. Before the 1800s, most poetry and prose was written by men. It was actually quite blasphemous for a woman to write creatively.

Most writers, male or female, experience a degree of anxiety when thinking of their predecessors. There is a feeling of inadequacy, tension, and hostility. John Keats, way back in the late 1700s, named this awful feeling “belatedness.” Belatedness: the fear that everything great has already been done.

Famed literary critic Harold Bloom thinks writerly “belatedness” can be applied to Freudian psychology. He says that writers have an “anxiety of influence”–a fear they’ll never be better than past writers. According to Freud men must battle their fathers in Oedipal struggle (“kill” their father in order to gain influence and authority). Bloom concludes that writers and artists are anxious for their work to be more influential than their forefathers’ work. His theory, however, suggests only a father and son relationship between past and present writers.

Women could look to their foremothers for that mother and daughter relationship, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were hardly any known female writers. Gilbert and Gubar say that instead of having an “anxiety of influence,” women felt anxious just trying to be an author–they felt an “anxiety of authorship.” A woman’s anxiety of authorship is a fear that she isn’t capable of writing at all, that she will never be a predecessor.

Back in the day, a woman was considered monstrous if she did not conform to the passive angel-in-the-house role that society expected, and female authorship was quite taboo. However, the earliest female writing pioneers like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen, somehow overcame this anxiety of authorship and wrote.

It seems that today, women have a number of successful foremothers to rely on. Gilbert and Gubar’s idea of the “anxiety of authorship” came from the feminist movement of the 1970s. Where does the 21st century woman writer, like me, slip into this theory? I guess we now have mothers of the 20th century, grandmothers of the 19th century, great grandmothers of the 18th century, maybe even some great-great grandmothers. Their work may not date back to ancient Rome, but still. Do today’s women have enough material to “revise”? Does that mean we now experience the “anxiety of influence” like the guys do?

I’m not sure. This theory is really just a theory. It can’t be proven. However, I think since the 20th century, women writers seem to have grown in number and strength. It also seems that more and more students in English literature and creative writing programs are women. It appears to me that women are closer to equality in the literary world than ever before. With all of these woman writers out there, maybe I experience an anxiety of influence and an anxiety of authorship. I do feel overwhelmed because there is so much literature out in the world already. I know I will never get to read it all in my lifetime, and who knows if my writing will ever be better most of it? And of course I’m anxious about just writing and actually getting it done.

Really, I think men and women experience both of the above fears: fear of their writing not being good and fear of never finishing their writing. It’s a lot of anxiety for us writers to experience. But it’s also what pushes us toward greatness.

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