POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012:
Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature for 30 years has turned spotlight on women writers
There was nothing like The Hunger Games when Laura Stevens was growing up.
The literature professor spoke highly of the novel later turned into a movie of the same name, calling it a "fantastic book" with "really wonderful depictions of a smart, brave, complex female protagonist."
"I wish I had had a book like that available to me when I was 12 years old," Stevens , an associate professor of English at the University of Tulsa, said.
But while Stevens said youth literature for girls has been strong for the last two decades or so, she also said it doesn't reflect pop culture as a whole.
"We have a broader popular culture that represents women in demeaning and superficial ways," Stevens said, including the "sexualizing of girls that disturbs me as a parent."
Stevens edits Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, an academic journal that debuted 30 years ago.
At the time, "there was no academic journal in existence that was devoted specifically to women's writing, so it was a very groundbreaking thing," Stevens said.
Founding editor Germaine Greer, a noted academic and feminist who now pens opinion articles frequently for London publications, soon left TU. But a series of editors and staunch support from the journal's editorial and advisory boards have kept the journal alive, along with the resources provided by the university.
Scholarship allows for dialogue between academics, but Stevens and managing editor Karen Dutoi said their work also involves making connections to the present.
"I think the function of any scholarly enterprise, but especially a journal like Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, is to show context and historical depth," Stevens said. The journal exists "partly to show how a lot of the questions that we're addressing today have historical roots and precedents that have relevance," she said. "Having some awareness of those roots and those broader contexts -- contexts in space and time -- helps us be better prepared to address these hard issues."
KAREN DUTOI AND LAURA STEVENS
To be sure, the journal won't be confused with popular magazines or newsstand book reviews. Authors of journal are almost always academics. Topics may be unfamiliar to even ardent readers, as part of the journal's goal is to unearth previously overlooked writing or further study women writers far removed from the syllabi of a typical high-school or even college literature class.
"In our last issue, we published an article on al-Khansa'" a 7th-century Arab writer, said Karen Dutoi, the journal's managing editor.
She described how the scholarship by Michelle Hartman, an academic at McGill University in Canada, illuminated themes that extend beyond any particular era.
"One of the things the author was saying is that people always kind of view her as just a poet that wrote laments for the death of her brother in war, but that's not something that she should necessarily be criticized for because it was the pathway to writing for women at the time," Dutoi said. "They were fairly limited in the sort of writing that they were -- I don't want to say allowed -- but that they were encouraged to do or was acceptable."
Such patterns can be found throughout literary history.
"In early modern Europe, women in elite families were encouraged to write, but it was not considered acceptable for them to publish often," Stevens said.
Explorations of these circumstances provide grist for studies of women's writing.
"At least until very recent years, one very often sees women writers struggling to assert their authority, to be taken seriously as authors: to be either taken seriously in spite of their sex or to be taken seriously for what they have to say about women, often about their own political experiences, but also about their perspectives and opinions on a range of issues," Stevens said.
She said feminism may not be a term people always feel comfortable embracing, but the journal seeks to recover the term as a way to explore issues of how women found an audience -- or not -- for their writing.
"This historically has been a very important question, and I think it's still a very important question in many parts of the world. It remains an issue in subtle ways in countries like the United States, but is a very crucial issue in other countries still," Stevens said.
Dutoi encouraged readers to pick up a copy of the journal and peruse some of the articles, even though she acknowledged that doing so can be daunting for those outside of academia.
"There might be a piece in there -- even if it's just one paragraph or a sentence -- that jives with something you've thought of or strikes you as interesting," Dutoi said.
Stevens said she'd like readers to be more willing to pick up unfamiliar authors or older texts outside of their typical comfort zone. The journal's Twitter, @TSWLJournal, includes references to women writers and their birthdays, for example, that could serve as a jumping off point for readers interested in engaging with something new.
Stevens said it's also important for readers to consider the societal context of what books they choose or even movies they watch or any other aspects of popular culture.
"If there's one big question the journal strives to consider, it's, in connection with its feminist focus, it's the question of who's listened to, who's paid attention to, whose words survive," Stevens said.
She added: "It's certainly related to women's voices, but it's also related to many other groups, certainly around the world. It's a question of relevance to the history of race, to the poor, it relates to class. It relates to questions of who's controlling the mechanism by which words are preserved, who pays attention to those words and who doesn't. So it's just a question to keep in mind always as we read."
Sample articles from the journal can be found at www.utulsa.edu/tswl/.
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