In the midst of turbulent times here in Britain, it is good to have things to look forward to.
As many of our readers will know, throughout the two-and-a-half years that we have been running Something Rhymed, and more recently writing a non-fiction book together, Emma has also been working on a novel.
I have written before about the joys of being able to follow the progress of Owl Song at Dawn – a project that has been a real labour of love for Emma.
As a reader, I quickly fell in love with its story too, even in its earliest, least polished drafts. For what feels like a very long time now, I have been waiting for the day when readers beyond Emma’s family and friends will be able to share in her wonderful book.
Owl Song at Dawn is a warm and deeply evocative novel. Its indomitable protagonist, Maeve Maloney – the octogenarian proprietor of the Seaview Lodge boarding house – has spent a lifetime in the seaside town of Morecambe, trying to unlock the secrets of Edie, her exuberant yet inexplicable twin. These are characters who will move you, and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
When Emma called me up to tell me that the publishing house Legend Press had acquired the rights to Owl Song at Dawn, it was a wonderful moment for both of us. While we’ve been hard at work on our joint book since then– and with Emma’s publication date creeping ever closer – it’s been fun to remain somewhat involved with her novel too.
We’ve talked a lot about early drafts of book covers, for instance, and the literary events Emma has planned for this summer. Recently, I was privileged to be able to get a special preview of a short story of hers, which will be coming out at around the same time as the book.
Now, finally, on the first of July 2016, the launch day of Owl Song at Dawn has arrived. And, not as Emma’s friend, but simply as someone who loves good writing, I urge you to buy a copy.
The novel is available to order here. It has, in fact, been available for pre-order for several months but I confess that I haven’t ordered it myself.
You see, ever since I first read a page of Owl Song at Dawn, I have looked forward to the day when I will be able to pick up a printed and bound copy from a bookseller’s display, glance at Emma’s name on the cover and then hand over my money with the lovely, satisfied feeling that my friend wrote this.
After waiting all this while, how could I deprive myself of that?
This month I re-read a novel that has perhaps influenced me more profoundly than any other. Below is the letter I sent to Emily, in which I explained the root of my fascination.
I’m sending you my copy of Mrs Dalloway, its margins filled with notes in different coloured inks. My fascination with Virginia Woolf predates our friendship by half a decade – the enclosed novel already dog-eared from several readings by the time you and I first met. It seems strange that I’ve never shown you this book, since my interest in Woolf is something I now share with you: the hours we’ve pored over her handwriting; our annual trips to her sister’s farmhouse; that time we forced our way through the crowds to reach her iconic image at the National Portrait Gallery. This well-thumbed novel is my way of introducing you to the Emma who, in 1996, propped herself up with pillows in her childhood bedroom in Birkenhead, breaking the spine of her brand new book.
In the rare quiet of the early morning – last night’s Mersey Beat still ringing in my ears, my hair heavy with nicotine – I struggle over Mrs Dalloway’s opening pages. Self-doubt bloats in the pit of my stomach. In just a week’s time, I will travel south from Liverpool Lime Street to an educational centre that promotes fair access to Oxbridge, and the tutors there will expect me to speak intelligently about this unfathomable book. It crosses my mind that the centre’s admissions team might have been right when they rejected my initial application. Perhaps I shouldn’t have convinced the Head of Sixth Form to write that second reference. As my hands leaf through the pages, my thoughts turn to the other successful applicants. Will they have understood with ease this book that’s defeating me?
Back then, I burned with such a ferocious sense of competition that I’m glad I didn’t meet you until half a decade later. I would learn so much about sisterhood during those intervening years.
Watch me focus once more on my new book, searching for stability amongst its shifting sands. See my concentration lapse as the rest of the house begins to wake. Hear the sounds from upstairs of my fourteen-year-old sister, exuberantly embracing the day: ‘What noise does an owl make? Twit-twoo, I love you true. Who do you love the best, pork pie or custard?’ Like most nights, she has crept into my parents’ bed during the early hours of the morning, lying diagonally across their mattress, forcing them to opposite sides. And, like most mornings, they sing her favourite nursery rhymes until they can no longer fight their fatigue. Listen out then for my dad’s stage whisper: ‘I’m sure Emma would love to play. Why don’t you go and wake her?’
Lou enters my room, cradling one of her noisy toys. After a minute or so of feigning sleep, I admit defeat by lifting my duvet and inviting her in. Partly to distract her from her talking teddy bear, I read to her from my difficult book. Lou clasps my chin and listens intently. I would love to know whether she shares my feeling that this novel marks a departure from those we’ve enjoyed together during the past few years: novels by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. But it’s impossible to tell whether she appreciates simply the tones and tremors or whether she also picks up on some of its sense.
What were you and your sister reading, I wonder, back when I was reciting Mrs Dalloway to Lou? I would love to get a glimpse of you both in your teens, sitting in your home on the outskirts of York, worlds unfurling from the pages of your books. Lou and I were separated from you and Erica by the Pennine hills’ great spine, neither pair of us aware of each other’s existence. But perhaps you sat up in bed with The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield while I opened my copy of Mrs Dalloway. I know that you came to the New Zealand author’s work far earlier than I did, but you’ve never told me about your discovery. Did your imagination take flight from your small Yorkshire village, landing in the author’s childhood of wooden verandas, fresh oysters, and aloe trees that flower once in every hundred years? Was it you or Erica who first came across these stories; did you argue over which one you each preferred?
Just a week after I fell in love with this compassionate novel about a shell-shocked soldier returned from the front, I discovered something that filled me with the same kind of fury that Katherine had once felt. Imagine me if you can, Emily, nineteen years ago, sitting in a darkened seminar room in that educational centre in Oxfordshire, flush with hatred for Virginia Woolf. My new classmates and I are watching a film about Modernist literature, and Virginia’s diary entry for January 9th, 1915 has just appeared on the screen:
On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled and looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin; or an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
I now know that Virginia was on the verge of a shattering breakdown when she made this note in her diary, and that ‘imbecile’ was the official terminology of the time. But pause for a while with the sixteen-year-old me, wounded by Virginia’s vehemence. Would this author have described my sister with such vitriol: Lou, who had climbed into my bed, our bodies still warm with sleep, whose palm had felt the vibrations of Mrs Dalloway, whose ears had delighted in its music – would Virginia have condemned her to death?
Together, Lou and I had come under Mrs Dalloway’s incantatory spell: ‘Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room.’ I’m still at a loss to explain the magic of these lines, but they have continued to enchant me, even during the moments when I’ve doubted the sisterliness of their author.
Search with me, Emily, the faces of my fellow students, studying them for signs of solidarity. Share in my confusion at the endurance of my love for Mrs Dalloway and, by extension, its creator – a complicated love affair with a complex book, which I now want to share with you.
With love and friendship,
Next month Emily and I will be talking about ‘Prelude’ – a long short story by Katherine Mansfield, which Virginia Woolf commissioned for her newly-formed Hogarth Press.
During our Something Rhymed salon series, and in the conversations they inspired, we looked at ways to accelerate gender parity in the literary world. We’ve compiled a list of all the suggestions that emerged. Perhaps there’s something here that you feel well-placed to do?
Start with our own bookshelves. Do we read at least as many books by women as men? And do we read diversely in a broader sense too? If not, perhaps we might want to redress this balance by embarking on a period of reading only women, for example, or black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers or books published by independent presses.
Take a look at the VIDA counts and consider subscribing to those magazines whose statistics show a commitment to gender parity. We might also want to think about cancelling subscriptions to magazines whose statistics have been consistently poor in this regard, and writing to the editor to explain why we’re turning away.
Encourage our friends to read more diversely.
Read stories to our children that explode gender stereotypes.
Donate funds to organisations such as VIDA, who campaign for equality in the literary world.
Start with our own writing. Do we explode gender and other stereotypes in our own work?
Champion the excellent work of writers from discriminated against groups. We can do this through reviewing, blogging, writing endorsements, nominating for prizes, mentioning fellow authors in talks, holding firm in prize panel negotiations etc.
Mentor emerging writers who might struggle to get their voices heard.
Keep submitting our stereotype-exploding work to competitions and magazines.
Set up a website or event series that focuses on the work of an excluded group.
Edit a collection of work by writers whose voices are traditionally suppressed.
Find a project we admire and ask those who run it what we might do to help.
Design our syllabito reflect diverse influences.
Call our colleagues out when they fail to do likewise, and encourage our students to do the same.
Provide talented students with resources and support to help them overcome barriers to success.
Be alert to the preconceptions that might colour class debate and encourage students to question their own prejudices.
Consider whether conscious or subconscious prejudice is affecting hiringdecisions.
Campaign for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.
Literary Industry Professionals
Solicit work from writers whose backgrounds reflect the diversity of the general population.
Ask our colleagues to be equally accountable.
Keep reviewing our statistics, and asking how we might seek to improve them.
Set up a journal or TV/radio showthat sends review copies to reviewers without providing any information about the author.
Set up a journal or show that asks two very different reviewers to review each book.
Think hard about what we prize in writing, and whether any of this is based on prejudice.
Is the academic at the highest level of the hierarchynecessarily the best person to write this review? Has privilege contributed to their rise up the ranks?
Fight for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.
Identify a gap and come up with strategies for filling it.
Work with representatives of excluded groups to find excellent writers from these backgrounds.
Consider whether a temporary quotamight help.
Set up a prize that will champion the work of an under-represented group.
When running literary events, make sure that every element of it is committed to diversity in its broadest sense.
Using the comment form below, please share any other strategies to accelerate greater diversity in the literary world. Or perhaps you intend to take us up on one of these suggestions. Do let us know what you plan to do.
We’ll be back on the first Monday in June with an autobiographical post by Emma on her early readings of Virginia Woolf – one of the authors who will feature in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.
New Zeland-born writer, John Forde, was inspired to pen his first blog post in nine months after attending two of the Something Rhymed salons. Here are his reflections on the state of gender relations in the UK’s literary world, and whether men have a role in this conversation.
Is feminism dead in the UK? This month’s Something Rhymed Literary Salon series re-opens a much-needed debate about women’s visibility in the literary scene.
Not long after I moved to London, in the summer of 2003, my friend D’arcy and I were sitting in a park, watching some cute guys playing football. A cluster of young women watched them from the sidelines, giggling nervously behind their hands, and shifting their weight from one leg to the other so their kitten heels wouldn’t get stuck in the damp grass.
“There’s something wrong with this picture,” D’arcy said. “If this was New Zealand, the girls would be in there playing too.”
Her point was proved just a few minutes later, when their football rolled in our direction. One of the boys jogged towards us to retrieve it. He was about 18 or 19, lean and sexy, with a shaved head and grey trackie bottoms. As he came closer, D’arcy grabbed the ball and stood up to face him.
“Give it back!” he said. D’arcy said nothing but smiled at him, taunting him with the ball.
The boy flew into a rage – furrowed brow, red cheeks, skinny arms gesticulating. “It’s not for you!” he bellowed, grabbing the ball out of her hands. “You’re a girl!”
Though I didn’t know it then, there in a nutshell was my experience of gender relations in the UK. Action and adventure is for men; women are there to watch men, and empty the slop bucket when it starts to smell.
In the years that followed, I puzzled at the meek acceptance of women’s subordinate status in the culture, and tried to identify the conditions that made it possible. Part of it was the everyday tragicomedy that constitutes being English. Politeness and deference are celebrated as virtues, meaning in language is buried under layers of irony and passive-aggression, and there’s a national addiction to the word “sorry”. It’s amusing, in a Dadaist, masochistic kind of way, but hardly conducive to having a serious dialogue about inequality.
But there was something else at play, I sensed, that felt painfully specific to women. Feminism was a dirty word. Over the years, I lost count of the number of times I read or saw or heard a woman begin a feminist critique with “I’m not a feminist but….”. And it was truly, madly, deeply uncool for women to get angry, especially if it involved contradicting a man.
Where were the strong, stroppy feminists of my home country? The Kate Sheppards who got the vote in 1893 without having to resort to hunger strikes, the Jean Battens who flew solo around the world, the Katherine Mansfields who moved to London and made Virginia Woolf jealous, the Jocelyn Harrises who taught me at university, the Helen Clarks who became Prime Ministers? In Ye Oldie England, the only murmurings of feminist discontent came from nice white middle-class radio presenters with cut-glass accents, or columnists in the left-wing newspapers. Everything was so quiet and measured, carefully calibrated so as not to give offence.
As I learned, feminism – or any other social cause in the UK – would always play second fiddle to the monolith of class. How can class be avoided, in a society where the head of state is an unelected monarch (though admittedly a woman), where the ruling classes are overwhelmingly drawn from a handful of private boys’ schools, and where the rest of the population gets classified by their accent or what school they went to? George Bernard Shaw was onto something in Pygmalion: the way an Englishwoman talks can be literally the difference between her being a duchess or a flower seller.
It was then that I realised how shocking and revolutionary Germaine Greer must’ve been when she took on the UK in the 1970s. She was the antithesis of a “nice girl”: searingly intelligent, classically educated, articulate, funny, and most importantly, fearless in her opinions and unconcerned with being “difficult” or giving offence.
Towards the end of the 2000s, with the Conservatives back in power, the UK seemed in dire need of a re-inoculation of Germaine’s brand of feminism: articulate, angry and persuasive. Greer still popped up occasionally in the Guardian, but she seemed strangely irrelevant and lost in her own nostalgia – twittering about new translations of Proust or criticising transsexuals with a venom that was out of sorts with contemporary sexual politics. There were a few others of her generation about: Helena Kennedy was still going strong, though since ascending to the House of Lords, she’d shifted her focus from women’s justice to the wider sphere of human rights abuses.
So who was England’s modern-day feminist voice? In 2011, Times columnist Caitlin Moran had a huge bestseller with her book How To Be A Woman. Moran’s greatest achievement, I think, has been to rescue the word “feminist” from the trash heap, and repackage it for a post-Internet/lads’ mag generation. She’s a bright and entertaining writer, but to me, she’s more stand-up comic than feminist commentator – always working too hard to get the laugh, and desperate to prove that she’s as hard-drinking and rock ‘n roll as one of the lads. Her autobiographical writing is extraordinary – How To Be A Woman has a fearless and unapologetic account of her getting an abortion – but even this seems to work against her. By continually referencing her life, Moran reminds us how exceptional she is. Like Julie Burchill before her, she was a working class girl from up North with no university qualifications, who somehow became a broadsheet journalist and author. Moran is a depressingly rare success story; she’s an outlier, rather than the Everywoman she seems to want to be.
In the last few years, something has been shifting in feminist discourse, much of it centred around social media. Websites like The Everyday Sexism Project encouraged women to take note of and record daily reminders of their secondary status. The vicious trolling of academic and TV presenter Mary Beard was met with a sustained critique about misogyny in Twitter. And research sites Vida and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media published hard evidence of women’s under-representation in literature and film. Finally, women were getting angry again – and even talking about how their right to get angry was being slapped down by men smirking “Calm down, dear”. There was still little hope in hell of Britain getting a feminist Prime Minister – I’m with Russell Brand’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher breaking the glass ceiling for other women “only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards” – but it was a start.
A new voice in the current wave of English feminism is Something Rhymed, a website set up by writers Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa to research and celebrate female literary friendships. Their efforts are soon to be turned into a book, A Secret Sisterhood, published in 2017. This month, Emma and Emily curated a three-part series of panel discussions on women’s under-representation in the UK literary scene, and what can be done about it.
I’ve been to a fair few literary salons in my time, and walked away from most of them feeling entertained but not that challenged, forgetting most of what I’d heard by the next day. The Something Rhymed salons were a weightier, more satisfying experience – like the glorious meal Virginia Woolf describes at the start of A Room of One’s Own, before she returns to the women’s college for prunes and custard.
The first salon (which I confess to not attending) concentrated on the shameful under-reporting and publishing of women’s voices in literature and journalism. Bolstered by statistics from Vida, the London Review of Books was singled out for a particular kicking: despite having a female editor, its record of reviewing books by women and female contributors is appallingly low. (Just a few weeks later, Jenny Diski, one of the LRB’s few regular female contributors, died, leaving the magazine looking even more terminally male and white.)
In the second salon, a new panel – writers Michèle Roberts and Karen Maitland, editor Sarah LeFanu and journalist Arifa Akbar – took on the vexed subject of “women’s writing”. Arifa kicked off by noting that many of her female interview subjects described “women’s writing” as a trap, a niche category into which female writers can be dropped into and ignored. Quoting Woolf, who said famously that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”, Arifa also noted that gender categories tend to be imposed from outside than from within. Women writers are called “domestic” when they write about family, she said, whereas male writers writing in the same territory (Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgård) are categorised as “state of the nation” writers.
This bias was something reported on by all the panelists. Karen added that there was still widespread kowtowing to the perceived authority of men, and an assumption that women’s literary territory was “domestic” and therefore narrower in scope. Arifa agreed, arguing that many male readers (including her builder) were reluctant to read fiction written by women – even The Girl on the Train, the recent femme-penned commercial blockbuster.
Sarah gave a fascinating account of her work at the Women’s Press, which was set up expressly to further the cause of the women’s movement, and to create a platform in which “revolutionary women” could get published. The Women’s Press was instrumental in publishing science fiction written by women – until that point considered largely a male domain. Sarah commented ruefully on the poor showing by women in Penguin’s recent two-volume anthology of British short stories, edited by Philip Hensher, and called on women in the literary world to renew their political credentials.
Michèle, one of the Women’s Press’s most celebrated authors, couched women’s inequality in a wider historical and political context. Since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, women have been associated with the body and child-bearing, rather than intellect or public speaking. In our modern capitalist era, huge profits are made from dividing and categorising the sexes for marketing purposes. Arifa agreed, and discussed the sexual commodification of female writers, especially those from “exotic” BME backgrounds. She described a hair-raising moment from her days at the Independent, where a Ghanean author was selected for a profile solely on the strength of her youthful good looks.
Karen discussed the problems of literature being separated along gender lines, and the reluctance of the industry to move beyond binary categories. She related visiting a bookstore, in which the male store owner had organised all the books into male vs female sections. The owner told Karen proudly that he’d even researched authors with gender-free names, to ensure that sneaks like Pat Barker and J K Rowling didn’t end up in the “wrong” section, thus avoiding the horror of one of his male customers accidentally buying a book written by a woman.
When asked what strategies should be put in place to combat gender stereotyping, Arifa encouraged female authors to stop anonymising themselves or trying to “trick” readers with gender-neutral names. Michèle spoke encouragingly of the power of community, and praised Something Rhymed as a good example of modern-day consciousness-raising. Sarah argued that more attention needed to be paid to female success stories, and to continue the fight for pay equity among the sexes. And Karen encouraged everyone to read and write widely, and to focus on removing gender barriers for the next generation of readers.
It was a fascinating panel, as much for the generation differences in the panellists’ approach to feminism as for their individual strategies. As Sarah and Michèle spoke, I felt my shoulders drop and I exhaled with satisfaction. Here, at last, was the confidence and the unapologetic politicising that I’d been missing in over a decade. It sat in such marked contrast to the tentative, atomised discourse of whichever wave of feminism we’re in now. Maybe I am just a 70s feminist at heart; I’m certainly from the generation who benefited from their efforts. And yet Arifa seemed closer to my generation’s voice: cautious, questioning, alert to inconsistencies, and keen to avoid orthodoxies. Both voices seem necessary to inform a well-rounded debate.
In the third salon, Emma continued the discussion about strategies to improve gender equality in the literary world. The panel comprising novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams were asked to discuss how we can encourage more reading by and of female writers.
Louise spoke of the power of literary prizes, both to transform a writer’s career, and to bring women’s writing to wider public attention. She discussed the controversial history of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), in which the original sponsors Mitsubishi withdrew their support after protests that the competition was biased against men. Jill noted that the prize is now one of the world’s top literary prizes, a status that was unimaginable when it was first launched.
Varaidzo spoke about the absence of writing featuring female and non-white protagonists, particularly in children’s and young adult fiction, and pointed to the opportunities offered by self-publishing as a means of short-circuiting the publishing world. Crowdsourcing provided an accessible way to finance literary projects, she said, and has the added commercial benefit of identifying demand for a writer’s work in advance. She gave a hilarious account of attending a workshop at a major publishing house, in which well-meaning editors admitted they had no idea how to access younger and BAME audiences. While the will was there to connect, bridges needed to be built between publishers and writers from under-represented groups.
Jill agreed with Varaidzo’s assessment of the major publishers, and cited the excellent work done by the Women’s Press and smaller independent presses to fill in the gaps in the marketplace and promote women’s work. She noted similar problems for working class writers trying to find a market, arguing that the publishing industry was still dominated by white middle-class Oxbridge graduates, usually called Lucy. She noted that many publishers and agents still followed a highbrow academic culture, favouring reviews published in the LRB or the Times Literary Supplement rather than on Goodreads. Doughty added that while publishing was now a heavily female industry, the big decisions about sales and marketing still tend to be made by (male) financiers, with an eye on corporate profit, resulting in conservative decision-making.
Melanie, the creative director of Renaissance One, described her organisation’s work as literary ecology: identifying needs and potential markets, and offering support and mentoring to writers and literary organisations. She encouraged a scientific approach to combating gender inequality, identifying “points of infiltration” and shifts in power structures in the literary world, and “looking with joy” at the cosmopolitan landscape.
Jill agreed with this approach, saying that the struggle for gender equality often felt like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a mountain. Rather than a single monumental struggle, many smaller rocks can be set into motion, she said, running together to effect change across a number of sectors.
Louise praised the efforts of Birmingham writer Kit de Waal, who invested part of the royalties from her book deal into a scholarship for a student from a disadvantaged or minority background to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College (where I’m currently studying). Doughty described the huge enthusiasm that the scholarship has generated from other writers, who have donated time, money and mentoring services for the scholarship winner and finalists. All it takes is one person with a great idea, she said, around whom others will gather.
The salon looked to end on a low point, as the panelists lamented, once again, the strict gender divisions between boys’ and girls’ books. Jill spoke of the reluctance of school teachers to teach books with female protagonists for fear of alienating male students. Varaidzo pointed out that recent changes in the secondary school English syllabus has resulted in an absence of black British female authors, and that teachers needed encouragement to teach female and non-white authors.
Louise ended with slightly cheerier news – a book group of City bankers and lawyers, who realised that they were only reading books by men, and eventually put their suited hands up and asked her to recommend a female author. Jill and Louise argued that men needed to be encouraged to read more women’s writing, and that fears about boys’ poor academic progress shouldn’t result in only male-themed books being read in schools.
Emma concluded by saying that men needed to be included in the discussion on gender equality, and thanked the men present at the salon for coming along. For some reason, this moment stuck in my side like a thistle, nagging at me. Part of me senses that discussions about equality are best had by women talking on their own, at least to begin with, raising their own consciousness without the need to reassure or defer to men.
That said, Emma is right that discussions on gender equality can’t exist forever in a female-only sphere. Sooner or later, allies need to be found within the patriarchy. As Jill and Louise pointed out in their respective salons, little boys can be as constrained by gender norms as little girls, albeit with radically different outcomes in terms of their access to power. Feminism belongs to everyone – though it wouldn’t hurt men (me included) to shut up occasionally and listen, rather than being the first to offer their solutions on how best to change the world.
I’d like to offer a Great White Male Bravo! to Emma and Emily for organising a fantastic series of discussions. The energy generated in each of the sessions I attended was palpable – connections were made, business cards and email addresses enthusiastically swapped, and consciousness was raised. Perhaps timid kitten-heeled England isn’t as doomed as I thought it was.
We were delighted when Sue Hampton, a former teacher who has written many books for children, offered to pick up on a point raised by several of our speakers: the gender divide starts young.
Having taught for nineteen years before I became an author, and subsequently visited 600 schools, I’m familiar with several statistics about gender issues in children’s books and literacy. Firstly, the majority of teachers are women (87% in primary, 62% secondary). Secondly, according to the National Literacy Trust, girls achieve better reading test results, enjoy reading more and spend more time on books, all of which impacts on writing standards. Thirdly, 15 out of 18 titles shortlisted in the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2015 were written by women and some of the bestselling novels for young readers in recent years were by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.
In my career as a primary school teacher I was made aware of the drive to close the achievement gap with reading and writing tasks targeting boys. Eight years later I find that when I’m asked to work as an author with more able writers, these groups are predominantly female and beyond Y5, often overwhelmingly so. If we are looking for gender equality in children’s fiction, reading and writing, the evidence might suggest that it’s boys (and possibly male authors) who are at a disadvantage. I must also point out that Michael Morpurgo has created some of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered on the page. However, I would argue that if we look wider and deeper, while everything for girl readers may be pink, the picture is far from rosy.
In society today we see a gender divide across clothing, shoes, toys and books that presents girls as pretty princesses until they grow into teens who love boys and shoes, and boys as technically-minded fans of war and football. It’s a divide that limits everyone, generating characters as stereotypes and marginalising, or at least unsettling, the girl who is too independent-minded or physical for the market – along with the emotionally literate boy. I met a teacher who thought she had secured a writing future until her prospective agent told her she would have to change her strong, adventurous female protagonist to a boy – and this pink-blue divide, presumably as much a sales ploy as a well-intentioned outstretched hand to draw boys in, inevitably shapes attitudes and expectations around identity. This may explain why, when I ask classes Y5 – 7 to create a character to follow the powerful male baddie who begins my book The Dreamer, at least 70% of the boys imagine an avenging hero who will conquer him, and almost all the girls foresee a female who will redeem him with some kind of love.
Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, The Hunger Games, like the movie Brave, has a female action hero. But I’d argue that strength doesn’t have to fulfil traditional male criteria of competition and domination, and that peace and justice may be better served if children’s fiction celebrates alternative kinds of courage and power. I believe one solution to the self-fulfilling prophecies of blue and pink fiction lies in stories embracing diversity and individuality regardless of gender. It’s my intention to create boy and girl characters, whole and complex, who are uniquely and honestly themselves – just as we would like our children to grow up to be.
For me, the appeal of these writers follows from a lifelong interest in people, relationships and psychology, but also a delight in inventive language. ’Stripped down’ Hemingway-style prose seems to dominate the thinking of most creative writing schools today, but I’m more interested in the range of effects to be found in women’s writing. My problem with minimalist prose is that it’s an orthodoxy that often leads to a kind of ‘objective’ approach where the main characters remain distanced in a typically male, heroic (or mock-heroic) fashion.
I call this the minimalist fallacy.
I’ve always wanted to enter the minds of characters, so I find female writers who do that can take me to unfamiliar places/points of view. They see things from the other side, taking the road less talked-about. It’s an adventure – and, as a man I welcome the challenge!
Superficially, my experience as a novelist has confirmed gender stereotypes. So during bookshop signings I’ve noticed how the non-fiction sections seem to exert an irresistible gravitational pull on some men. In schools you might well think that all boys read comics while the girls study only novels. And when Sue and I talk to groups, it’s often the men who probe proofing/timeframe ‘inaccuracies’ whereas the women look for in-depth characterisation and developed relationships.
I believe we need to become conscious of how gender stereotypes are being transmitted, in order to resist them. In the minimalist fallacy the majority of readers have been persuaded to focus on plot-twists, mystery and action. A book is praised for being ‘clever’ and the selling-point is usually the story or ‘how it grabs you’ (notice the laddish metaphor) or its relevance to something in the news. And in academic circles we are warned to avoid sentiment because writing needs to be hard-edged and rigorous.
Personally, I don’t rate a book by its narrative devices or lack of stylistic ‘mistakes’. I know the ending to a Shakespeare play but that doesn’t stop me watching it again. And I really don’t care who leads the race, wins the battle or stands out from the crowd. What counts for me is the feeling tone, and that needs to be deep, complex, authentic, relevant to our society but also universal. I don’t believe writers are there to simply entertain, stage fight scenes or keep the reader guessing.
I’m not alone in this. Many men are more interested in relationships than action or technology. They might be good with computers or sound-systems but they also wheel buggies, play music, hug, and support LGBTQ. So rather than play to the well-armoured men, we need to talk about women’s writing to the other men who don’t necessarily identify with the stripped-down action male ego. That means talking about relationships and the internal view, about passion and commitment, but also characters with varied feelings that match what they’re going through. We have to say no to ice-cool Bond-types or Punch and Judy in our books. It also means re-evaluating the minimalist fallacy in our own reading habits, our creative writing courses and our reflective/critical thinking.
In the last of our posts from Something Rhymed salon speakers, Sarah LeFanu, provides some recent historical background. She is particularly well-placed to do so, since she can draw on her experiences as a Senior Editor at The Women’s Press and the editor of several anthologies of new writing.
Throughout the 1980s I worked at the London publishing house The Women’s Press, where we published books by women, for women. The whole venture was informed by a specific political remit, as we explained in a note that was printed in the prelims of the early books. This is how it appears in one of our first books, Cicely Hamilton’s Marriage as a Trade, a reprint of her 1909 analysis of the politics and economics of the domestic, or private, life: The Women’s Press is a feminist publishing house. We aim to publish books which are lively and original and which reflect the goals of the women’s liberation movement.
There was very little space in publishing then for the voices of radical women, for women who wanted to challenge the status quo. We saw that what women had to say about marriage, about domesticity, about sex and sexuality, about the workplace, about anything – that is, what they had to say about being women in a patriarchal society – what they’d said in the past and what they were saying now – was not what the establishment – the publishing establishment and the media – wanted to hear.
Women had to clear a space in which to be heard – and once they’d done that they had to shout loudly. The Women’s Press, Virago, Onlywomen, Sheba, and the magazine Spare Rib provided that space. They were all explicitly feminist. They were all explicitly political.
One of our early titles, published in 1978, was Michèle Roberts’s debut novel A Piece of the Night. I remember a reader writing in to ask us to pass on to Michèle thanks for the richness and the generosity of her prose, for using language as if there were no tomorrow. We went on to publish many works of literary fiction, both contemporary and earlier, and we published literary criticism and theory; again, we were publishing work that explicitly laid claim to a tradition, a heritage of women’s writing that over the years had been distorted if not erased. We published books by feminist scholars, such as Ellen Moers and Carolyn Heilbrun, who wanted to honour our literary foremothers.
In 1984 we published How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – feminist science fiction writer, critic, and associate professor of literature at the University of Washington. It was a book that she had written for her students. The cover quotes snippets of what has been said over the years about women who dare to write serious, intelligent, challenging and beautiful books: She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed … She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. The bedroom, the kitchen, the family. Other women! She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever … She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi! She wrote it, but she had help. Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own ‘masculine side’. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. Woolf. With Leonard’s help … She wrote it BUT …
You can hear some at least of those sentiments still being spouted today.
In the mid-1980s we launched a feminist science fiction list. The thinking was twofold: one motive was pragmatic: I was teaching a course at the CityLit in London on feminist science fiction and there were almost no books available for the students. The writers from America – Joanna Russ, Sally Miller Gearhart, Marge Piercy and so on – weren’t published here, and there weren’t then that many homegrown ones. And the other reason was political, in line with the rest of our publishing. Again, in the first titles we included an explanatory note. From the first page of the prelims of The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ: This is one of the first titles in a new science fiction series from The Women’s Press. The list will feature new titles by contemporary writers and reprints of classic works by well known authors. Our aim is to publish science fiction by women and about women; to present exciting and provocative feminist images of the future that will offer an alternative vision of science and technology, and to challenge male domination of the science fiction tradition itself.
And challenge that tradition it did. It transformed and re-energised it.
At around about this time and throughout the 1990s, by which time I was no longer working at The Women’s Press, I was editing a series of anthologies of original short stories, some of them co-edited with my friend Stephen Hayward, three of which were published by Serpent’s Tail, and one by Lawrence & Wishart. Three of the ones I edited were women-only anthologies, but the rest were mixed. I recently took down copies of them from my shelves in order to check the ratio of women to men. Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa: 18 men, 16 women; Obsession: 7 men, 9 women; God: An Anthology of Fictions: 9 men, 10 women; Sex, Drugs, Rock’n’Roll: Stories to End the Century: 7 men, 9 women.
By contrast, last year’s Penguin anthology of modern British short stories, edited by novelist Philip Hensher, gives us almost twice as many men as women: 35 to 19.
I am constantly alert to the danger of women being crowded out by men. I check. I count. Why shouldn’t women writers be equally represented – in anthologies, or on publishing lists, or in review columns, or on shortlists for prizes? No-one believes (these days) that good writing is gender-specific, do they?
I suspect – and hope – that discrimination against women writers is not done deliberately. It’s more likely that it’s a symptom of an unconscious bias, an unconscious prejudice. What we need to do is to bring that unconscious prejudice into full consciousness, to name it as an expression of patriarchal culture, and to be unashamedly outfront and explicit about overturning it.
If you have any specific suggestions for ways we can overturn the forces that work to discriminate against women writers, please do share them by using the comments facility below. We will add them to the list we are compiling, which we will be posting up soon.