Arifa Akbar, Literary Critic and Reviewer: So-Called Women’s Issues

During her talk at the second Something Rhymed Salon, Arifa Akbar, formally of The Independent, gave us an insider’s glimpse of life as a literary editor.

She has generously allowed us to share it on here so that you can mull it over at your leisure.

Until recently, I was the literary editor of The Independent newspaper. I worked there for fourteen and a half years, many of these on the book desk, and in a decision make capacity, so that I was choosing who wrote reviews for our weekly books section, where they were placed on the pages, what labels were put on them, and who was reviewed.

Part of this process involved the management of so-called women’s fiction, women’s genres, women’s writing. These categories have been helpful to me at times to ensure that equal numbers of women writers are represented, to make sure they are on the books pages of a national newspaper. And further afield, the categories are useful so that we have the Bailey’s prize correcting the bias against women’s fictions because we know statistically men don’t like to buy books by women authors (that’s why we have the likes of JK Rowling, who sell their books under ambiguous gender identities). The category of women’s fiction is also helpful to publishers – Virago was built upon the idea of making space for women’s issues.

But concepts of ‘women’s fiction’, and women’s issues in literature, can be trapping too, precisely because we have created a nice tidy category that can be devalued by the literary establishment! It can be ‘put in its place’, side-lined in its own ghetto. Margaret Atwood’s fiction is suddenly women’s fiction; it’s not SF or dystopic fiction. Elena Ferrante dramatizes female friendship so she writes female fiction A builder who was recently laying my floors at home was a voracious reader and I saw that he was reading Paula Hawkin’s bestelling debut, The Girl on The Train. I asked him a few days later what he had thought of it and he said he enjoyed it but that it was ‘more a woman’s book’. Having read it, I had considered it to be a crime thriller so I asked him what he meant and he said it was ‘a book about a woman, so women would read it’. This made me think – when women read about men’s experiences through fiction, we so often universalise them, while the reverse doesn’t always happen. It’s certainly what I do with my favourite male authors such as Dave Eggers and Michel Faber – I extrapolate a universal story from their books, and their male protagonists.

Conversely, the domestic novel is only called the domestic novel when a woman writes it. Not when Philip Roth writes American Pastoral, all about one American family, or when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about looking after the kids and wiping their noses in his series, My Struggle, or when Jonathan Franzen writes Freedom, about middle-class American life. These are considered to be state-of-the-nation-novels, but not when Anne Tyler writes them, or so many other women. And so-called women’s issues aren’t devalued either when they’re written about by men.

 

In 2011, Granta brought out an edition of the magazine called The F-Word. I wrote a long piece on women’s fiction at the time to mark this publication, asking what it is, and studying the sexual politics of storytelling. When I asked some writers and thinkers who I regard as staunchly feminist, and hugely aware of the issues, they told me they didn’t want to be part of that article. It seemed to me as if they didn’t want to be hounded by the same old questions – what are women’s issues, what is women’s fiction, what is a woman’s way of writing…

These questions can corner you as a woman in the same way that questions of race and writing do – some writers I know are forever having to answer the question, ‘are you an Asian writer or a writer?’ The ones who are sick of being seen as Asian writers, rather than just writers, have every right to be sick of it, but I would argue that they can’t escape being Asian writers. Just as women writers are both writers and women writers, dealing with universal issues, and also grappling with women’s issues.

So I would return to the central Catch-22 – once the categories of women’s writing, and women’s issues in fiction, are created, some use them as an excuse to take women out of the universal spectrum. I have a recent example from The Independent: we had a section called ‘Round-up’ in which five or six books under a specific category were reviewed together – so this month’s crime fiction, or romance, or historical fiction, or debuts. One week, we had a crime fiction round up that happened to feature five books by five women writers. This was flagged up to me by a sub-editor, and then, when I ignored it, by a more senior editor, and I was asked how this had happened, why it had happened that the reviewer hadn’t even included one man, and please could I make sure it didn’t happen again? It was even suggested to me that we should change the category name to ‘women’s crime fiction’. And yet, how many times had the reverse happened – that all the authors mentioned in so many lists and round-ups, are all men? And how many times is it queried?

I want to end by drawing back to my article on The F-Word, on how relevant feminism was to 21st women’s fiction, in which I quoted several acclaimed female writers, some of whom would say they write about women’s issues, and some who wouldn’t. I was struck by the broad range of opinions and differences between them and I thought their opinions might add to our discussion tonight.

Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who is constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices, said that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: “Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a ‘model’ for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.

“In the short run, something like a ‘political’ vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant…. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.”

Kate Mosse, founder of the then-Orange (now Bailey’s) Prize, reckoned that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers of female fiction in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are “freed up” she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink.

Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagreed, but added that “I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question ‘are you a woman writer?’ People hardly ever ask that question of men.” The statement “I am not a woman writer” need not be anti-feminist either, she said. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the “other” enclave.

Urvashi Butalia, an Indian activist, writer and feminist, said: “Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination”. And Margaret Drabble said she so often chose to write about women because “I write about what is important to me… I haven’t felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me.”

The Ghanian-American author, Taiye Selasi, said that she had not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters in her fiction. They just “emerge on the page that way”, and Emma Donoghue said that she felt no obligation to represent women’s lives, yet a feminist consciousness remains: “I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.

“So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women’s lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women’s. But I would argue that I’m being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I am just as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them… I certainly don’t feel as if I’m working within a distinct tradition of women’s writing.”

Lastly, I want to quote Virginia Woolf, who believed in the ideal of literary androgyny. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, she suggested that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”

Discuss!

Please do continue the conversation by using the comment facility below.

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