The Italian publisher Loescher, which specialises in school textbooks, has just this year published an anthology for secondary school students, entitled Controcanone. The editor, Johnny Bertolio, a young academic who divides his time between Italy and Canada, describes it in this way: ‘The first history book that traces the lives and works of Italian women authors from the thirteenth century to the present day, highlighting the long and painful journey of emancipation: arranged marriages, forced sex, physical and psychological violence, together with proposals for social and political reform.’
Starting with the title, Counter-Canon/Alternative Canon, the book is interesting because it confirms how the Italian publishing industry today feels the need to give a new visibility to women’s writing, not only by proposing new authors, but also by promoting the rediscovery of voices unfairly neglected for so long. It is precisely with this objective in mind that specialist publishing houses are being established. This is the case of the tiny Rina of Rome, which in its publicity manifesto promises to ‘rediscover “forgotten” figures, bringing to light the experience and contribution of those courageous women excluded from the literary canon’. Its catalogue contains books by authors who were once very well-known, from the great Matilde Serao, novelist and journalist (1826-1927, the first woman in Italy to edit a daily newspaper, among many other things) to novelist Carolina Invernizio (1851-1916), arguably the most popular pulp fiction writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; alongside them are other writers of remarkable originality, such as Paola Masino (1908-1989), dismissed by fascist critics as ‘a scribbler’ and today recognised as one of the twentieth century’s greatest fiction writers.
It is not only the small publishing houses that are bringing back to light the literary jewels of the past: in 2019 Feltrinelli published Paola Masino’s most famous and controversial novel Nascita e morte della massaia (‘Birth and Death of the Housewife’), while the daring and gifted Cuban-Italian writer Alba de Céspedes (1911-1997) was published again in 2011 in the famous Meridiani Mondadori series, which confers the status of ‘classic’ on any author, demonstrating that the ‘Ferrante effect’ and its positive effect on publishing Italian women’s writing merely consolidated a trend that was already under way in Italy. For more than twenty years, in fact, female critics, journalists and essayists, flanked by a small army of admirable male academics, have been tirelessly digging in the field of Italian literature. Among the latter we should mention Federico Sanguineti, whose La storia letteraria in poche righe (‘Literary History in a Few Lines’), published by Il Nuovo Melangolo in 2018, punches at the traditional canon. The foundation in 1995 of the Italian Society of Women Writers and two years later of the independent women’s magazine Leggendaria prove that the focus on the work of Italian women writers is neither a recent nor a passing phenomenon.
And what about today’s women authors? If we take Italy’s most important literary prizes as a barometer of the situation, the picture is more contradictory. In the last ten years, the best-known award in the field of fiction, the Strega Prize, has been won by only one woman, Helena Janeczek in 2018 with La ragazza con la Leica (‘The Girl with the Leica’), while its most direct competitor, the Campiello, has had four female winners: Simona Vinci with La prima verità in 2016; Donatella Di Pietrantonio with L’Arminuta in 2017; Rosella Postorino with Le assaggiatrici in 2018, and finally, in 2021, the young Giulia Caminito, author of L’acqua del lago non è mai dolce, who not surprisingly dedicated the prize ‘to women, so that they will always have the opportunity to read and write anywhere’.
However, the feeling – and this is certainly influenced by the spirit of the times – is that things are changing, that when evaluating a book, in Italy as elsewhere, publishers and critics are increasingly taking into account the identity of the person who wrote it: it is a paradigm shift that will certainly have consequences for the way we read, and perhaps write. What those consequences will be, it is too early to say.
by Maria Teresa Carbone
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