Anxiety of Authorship and the Modern Feminist: An homage to Gilbert, Gubar, and Collective Growth

By Lindsay Grippo

Writing is an unbearably complicated act. Between parsing through one’s ever-constant contemplations for some inspiration, landing on an idea that will garner intrigue, and fastening the whole mess into a coherent structure, what can seem like a simple and straightforward piece often takes enormous brainpower on the part of its author. In fact, to write simply and clearly about something important is a skill many have difficulty mastering, and the simpler and clearer the writing, the more talented the author.

The creative process is something many writers tackle with enthusiasm, humor, and grit, but there is another, more sinister aspect to writing that can lurk in the shadows and prove crippling if not understood and dealt with head-on. This phenomenon is known as Anxiety of Authorship, and it is one that, though conceived about fifty years ago and groundbreaking for its time, still resonates today.

Literary theory can often be dense and abstract, but at its core, meaningful criticism can truly reshape the way we think about our experiences. The simple explanation behind Second-Wave feminist authors and critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Anxiety of Authorship is that, in a world that is woefully consistent in its reinforcement, women fear they are not good enough.

Women are continually proving themselves and have been for centuries; the conquering of literary feats is no exception to this pattern. In their 1979 book The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Gilbert and Gubar point out that women, more often than not, doubt they can write at all – because the past has not shown them they can.

The writing process is a beast of its own when one has something important to say and the will to say it, but to add a notable lack of precursors that one can identify with into the mix is to also add several more layers of doubt and hesitation.

As a young woman coming of age during a time of what feels like widespread feminist support, I find reading the works of trailblazing female thinkers refreshing and empowering. The voices of fearless women not only speak to me in intimate ways but makes me feel seen and understood. This modern context is markedly different from the one that bred the concept of Anxiety of Authorship; a lack of this exact female representation was undeniably a driving factor in Gilbert and Gubar, as well as many other women’s, plight to change their world.

While these historical gaps are simultaneously infuriating and disheartening, what these women created to fill them has wound up being an invaluable tool for contemporary women like me. It is because of female thinkers like Gilbert and Gubar that I can understand what I experience and articulate it in a meaningful way.

Though there is now a significant amount of brilliant, modern female authors, I still often feel entirely overwhelmed by the prospect of being a writer. Sometimes, I do not feel imaginative enough for fiction or interesting enough for autobiography. I can sometimes feel I have nothing worthwhile to add to a collective conversation or especially pressing to say about a cultural matter. I can sometimes feel crippled with intimidation by those who came before me, by the beauty and power of their words.

In short, it is quite often that I doubt my abilities as a writer, and Gilbert and Gubar taught me that I am not alone. My urge to write is ever-present and fiercely loyal, no matter what I have to say, what I do not have to say, my confidence-level, or available platform. I have learned not only to trust this urge, but to understand the importance of giving it its rightful dues, and it is my literary precursors who administered this lesson.  

It is unsurprising, then, that women from an era of such heightened solidarity had the capacity to understand the value of uplifting their kind, while many male thinkers did not exhibit the same quality. In his 1973 book called The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom introduced the idea of Anxiety of Influence. In the work, Bloom recognizes that poets are inspired to write by the works of other poets; however, he argues that influence is ultimately not inspirational, but rather a hindrance to personal creativity. Poets, he says, must come to resent their forefathers, to think they have failed in enough ways that leave themselves room to contribute something to the conversation.

To believe the alternative – that your idols are brilliant, all-knowing geniuses whose imparted wisdom is expansive and all-encompassing – means there is nothing left for you to say. Essentially, Bloom presents us with a dog-eat-dog literary world, a zero-sum game; we must believe everyone else has gotten it wrong so we have the opportunity to get it right.

Gilbert and Gubar’s Anxiety of Authorship was a response to this concept and in some ways channels closely the anxieties offered by Bloom’s model, its constant worry if there is anything left to say and if one is able to personally say it. But the pair approaches these very natural concerns of the writer from a much different perspective – from that of women – and in turn, presents an even more compelling notion.

Anxiety of Authorship does not just encompass the fear that there is nothing left to say, but rather that women are incapable of saying anything at all. While Bloom argued that poets (read: cisgender, heterosexual, white men) experienced anxiety because the canon they learned from, studied and admired was created by brilliant men like themselves (so robustly they feared there was nothing more to contribute), Gilbert and Gubar pointed out that women (of all types) had no such predecessors to even be intimated by.

The question of authorship for women was and is not posed by male masterminds of centuries past, but rather by a world that implicitly deprioritizes their voices – with a revered, centuries old and almost entirely male-dominated literary canon to point to for evidence. Our authorial predicament is not an internal dialogue of “I had a good idea, he just had it first,” but rather “Is my voice meaningful?” and “Will people care enough to listen to it?”

It is true that all authors can find themselves daunted by the brilliance of their literary predecessors. A huge roadblock to success is often one’s own intimidation, the fact that we let other people’s work – albeit what can sometimes be magnificent, unparalleled work – cripple our own creative processes. Inspiration can sometimes be so damn inspirational that there is a part of us that truly believes we could never rise to meet it.

But it is impossible for women to follow Bloom’s advice on how to deal with this anxiety – to resent our literary ancestors and scour for issues with their work – because to tear down other female voices is to continue to hold us back in a race for legitimacy that we have been behind in for centuries.

Women are not done fighting for the space or credibility to create. We must continue to understand, feel and release the fear that we are not good enough, smart enough, important enough, or worthy enough. We can and must coexist with our female precursors while creating room for new perspectives and stories.

Weaving letters into words and words into sentences is the intimate act of reclaiming your own voice, down to the atoms in its sound wave and the vibration it causes in the air. To write is to take a stance – your stance – and to appreciate your voice. Society has come a long way in the art of appreciating the female voice, but the fight is ongoing, and we all must participate. I recommend reading Madwoman in the Attic to start.