The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life (Nava Atlas)

Nava Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life
Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors Who Paved the Way
Sellers Publishing, Inc, 2011

Click to visit the book's official site
Click to visit the book’s official site

If you have followed Nava Atlas’ work through her website, Dear Literary Ladies, you will be thrilled to finally find this collection on glossy pages.

An almost-coffee-table-book sized volume, scrapbook-styled, Nava Atlas has brought together quotes about the writing life from a number of well-known female authors.

The work is aesthetically pleasing: useful enough for authors to excuse purchasing a copy – even on a limited budget, and pretty enough to ensure its inclusion on many a writer’s wishlist.

Rooted in letters, journals, memoirs, and interviews, The Literary Ladies’ Guide focuses on deceased authors: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.

(The author had hoped to include Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), but she could not find quite enough material specifically about their writing lives to include them in this volume.)

For those who love to troll the back pages of volumes like these (*clears throat*), there are four pages with teeny-tiny text with source reference details.

If you are already fond of the specific author in question, you will likely already be familiar with these sources. But some are surprisingly extensive. For instance, George Sand’s volumes of correspondence? Twenty-five of them. That’s right: twenty-five.

And although I, myself, am overly familiar with Montgomery’s writing life, and have a passing acquaintance with Alcott’s, Austen’s, Brontë’s and Sand’s, I particularly appreciated the focus on the remaining authors; for although I had come across quotes and essays, having a compilation of their thoughts on writing creates a broader understanding of their creative lives and endeavors.

Two elements are notable about this work: first, the thematic organization, and second, the design.

Structuring the volume in this way affords the reader the opportunity to read it cover-to-cover, straight through, OR to browse, leaf through with whimsy as a guide. The author’s commentary between the quotations (which are sometimes only a few lines long, sometimes a page or two long) is accessible and inviting.

The layout of art and photographs and the variety of sizes and sources make for a satisfying experience indeed. Many of the images are specifically related to the author’s discussed, but even the generic images are of high-quality and suit the collection.

Much of the volume would be of equal interest to male and female authors, but there are elements of the volume which may hold particular appeal for contemporary “literary ladies” (more so than “gentlemen”.

A quote like this, from Virginia Woolf, graces the “Conquering Inner Demons” chapter:

Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different. She has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.

(This is from Woolf’s essay, “Professions for Women”, 1931: Literary Ladies’ Guide, 73.)

From postmarks to passports, from quotes to photos: Nava Atlas’ volume is well-designed, well-presented, and an attractive addition to any bookish shelf.

Good stuff for writers!

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