Booker Prize-Shortlisted Novelist, Michèle Roberts: The Division Runs Deep

Michèle Roberts spoke engagingly at the second of our Something Rhymed salons about the historical and political contexts of gender discrimination in the literary world.

She has generously written up her notes for us to post up here. If you missed the chance to hear her in person, please do take a look. Or perhaps you were there on the night and would like to recap.

To start with something cheerful: women invented the novel. The novel in England could not have existed without the work of Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot.

However, men’s views have dominated culture generally. Men have dominated the institutions of education and hence the creation of the literary canon – it’s only fairly recently that women were awarded university degrees and only in the 1970s that women generally began to run literary pages and journals and work en masse as publishers, editors and agents. Their work can still go unacknowledged. For example, D.J. Taylor, in his recent study (published in 2016) The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 discusses just a few women writers and critics and many, many male ones.

Women’s work still has lower status than men’s. This goes back to the Victorian division between work at home – women’s work – and work outside the home – seen as men’s work, though of course masses of poor women toiled alongside men in factories. Women’s lower status can be traced further back, to the ideas of the modern self propounded in the seventeenth century continuing the split between men being equated with mind/soul, and women being equated with the body, because of their role as childbearers. This split was founded in Greek culture and continued by the Christian Church. The body (femaleness) was viewed ambivalently because of its connection to sex, hence to childbirth and ultimately to death. Women got the blame for death’s existence. Patriarchal cultures, fearing death and female sexuality, seek to control and denigrate women as a result.

So the problem, the division, we are discussing tonight runs very deep.

This image is in the public domain.

Our capitalist culture, in which books are commodities valued only by numbers of copies sold, in which writers are brands producing these commodities, relies on gender division for marketing purposes. Men are still named as the pre-eminent intellectuals producing great literature, high art, whereas women are mostly relegated to a middlebrow ‘feminine’ category, a few exceptions simply proving the rule. No wonder some women writers still feel the need to deny their gender. Women do better writing about men and ‘male’ subjects. Women writing about domesticity, for example, can be written off as producing Aga sagas whereas men writing about domesticity ‘rescue’ the subject and can be hailed as sensitive geniuses.

The problem is a political one.

Perhaps you have some political solutions to suggest? Please share them using the comment facility below.

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