Some time ago, Tessa Hadley suggested that we explore one of Eudora Welty’s female alliances. When blog reader Elizabeth Ahlstrom also wrote to us to mention Katherine Anne Porter’s mentorship of Welty – a fellow writer from the Deep South – we were further intrigued.
This literary bond particularly piqued our interest since we have long felt indebted to the authors who took us under their wings when we were starting out. And, more recently, we thanked our lucky stars when Margaret Atwood generously agreed to write the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.
Katherine Anne Porter’s lifestyle, roaming from place to place and lover to lover, bore little resemblance to that of Eudora Welty, who returned to her family home in her early twenties and remained there unmarried until her dying day.
But, a few years later in the late 1930s, when the middle-aged Porter came across Welty’s short stories in the Southern Review, she knew she had found a kindred spirit in the twenty-eight-year-old.
Welty never forgot the helping hand she received from the more established writer, looking back with wonder at her first letter from Porter, which seemed to come ‘out of the clear blue sky’. Porter invited the younger woman to visit her in the two-room apartment she shared with her third husband in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 150 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty lived with her mother in their large mock Tudor home.
It took Welty six months to gather the courage to take Porter up on the invitation. She twice got halfway there before turning back. But, one midsummer day in 1938, mutual friends drove her down to Porter’s home, where she enjoyed a convivial evening, the open windows letting in a welcome breeze as she listened intently to the conversation.
True to her word, Porter went out of her way for the modest, young writer, nominating her for a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt award, introducing her work to Ford Madox Ford, and inviting Welty to accompany her to Yaddo – a prestigious artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York.
At Yaddo it became clear that the outwardly shy Welty shared with her glamorous mentor a love of socialising and a knack for friendship. Neither woman got much work done during their two months together because they could not resist the temptations of companionship: Welty tried to teach Porter to drive and they made excursions to view the renovations at the nearby colonial home that the recently-divorced Porter had just purchased.
That summer, Porter did begin work on a foreword to Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green – an act that Porter herself predicted would add $10,000 to the book’s sales. But the gesture was not without its complications. Porter, who had always struggled with deadlines, failed to turn it around on time. Welty chose to postpone the publication date rather than chivvy on her mentor, and the book did eventually come out complete with Porter’s promised foreword.
Their bond would always combine the literary and the social. One of Welty’s abiding memories of Porter was an evening they spent together in the late 1970s. By this stage, both women had been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and Porter would soon honour her protegée by presenting her with a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters – an occasion for which Porter had prepared months in advance with the purchase of an Italian silk pant suit.
Despite recovering from cataract operations and suffering with a broken hip, the eighty-four-year-old spent all morning cooking for her friend. The pair began with spears of asparagus, butter melting onto their fingers, followed by ‘dainty catfish fingerlings’, which they ate using golden cutlery. They finished up with strawberries and champagne, celebrating and chatting all afternoon.
When Porter died at the age of ninety, Welty took a group of friends out for a crab supper after the memorial service so that they could reminisce in a style that would capture Porter’s spirit. And Welty looked back on her bond with Porter more publicly too. She wrote a tender essay about it for the Georgia Review, and her introduction to the Norton Book of Friendship conjures up the way friends give tribute to one of their group who has passed away: ‘As if by words expressed they might turn friendship into magic, the magic that now, so clearly, it had been.’
Even though writers are supported by a team of people at their publishing house, bringing a book into the world can sometimes feel a lonely business. There’s usually one person hunched over her desk, one name on the cover and one person travelling to interviews and events.
We feel so fortunate to be able to share the experience. During the most intense periods of editing A Secret Sisterhood, we stayed in each other’s homes for days on end, took walks together during our breaks, and cooked each other late-night bowls of pasta.
Now that our UK publication date is almost upon us, we’re working in the same room once more. This time our advance copies are stacked on the desk beside us, our names side by side on the cover – alongside Margaret Atwood’s, who generously wrote our foreword.
In keeping with the theme of A Secret Sisterhood, during our years of research and writing, a great many individuals and organisations have extended the hand of friendship to us – not least the readers of this blog. Your confidence from early on that this subject deserved to be explored in greater depth inspired us to write this book.
We’re hoping to meet lots of you in person during the coming months at some of our events. We’ll be interviewed by Michèle Roberts and Sarah LeFanu at Waterstones Gower Street; talking with Kate Mosse at the British Library; and delivering the keynote speech at the 46th Annual George Eliot Lecture. Details of these and other events can be found here, and we’ll be adding to it regularly over the coming days and weeks.
Just to add:
The UK edition will be out on 1 June. The US edition, with a slightly different title (A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) will be out on 17 October. We’ll say more about this nearer to the time, but both editions are available for pre-order now. The US edition is currently heavily discounted if you pre-order it here.
Some of you may remember that Margaret kindly shared a link to Something Rhymed on social media not long after we first launched. We were particularly touched by this gesture since we know that Margaret understands the importance of female literary friendship first-hand. She is a longstanding friend of Nobel Prize-winner and fellow Canadian, Alice Munro. You might well find more details about their relationship cropping up on our site in the new year…
But how could we possibly get our request to Margaret Atwood? Ironically, given that she is a keen user of new technologies, the answer lay in the lost art of letter writing – something we wrote about in the early days of this blog. We plucked up the courage to slip the handwritten note into Margaret’s hand after a public lecture, and then we waited…
The new addition of Margaret Atwood’s name to the front cover tells you all you need to know for now about her response! Come June 1st, A Secret Sisterhood will be available from bookshops, our stories of female literary friendship coming after Margaret’s wise and funny reflections.
As you can imagine, we are delighted by this generous example of sisterhood, and are truly humbled to be sharing our cover with her.
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.”
Please do continue the conversation by using the comment facility below.
It’s been a week since the last of our first series of Something Rhymed salons, which looked at ways to increase gender parity in the literary world. So now marks a good time to reflect on the ideas we’ve generated during our panel discussions.
The author and books blogger, Kendra Olson, who attended all three salons, has kindly offered us her summary of the series. Over the coming days, we’ll follow on from this by posting up some of the panellists’ talks and some other responses by audience members. And, finally, we’ll collate all the ideas we’ve come up with for accelerating change.
If you came along, now’s your chance to voice any suggestions that you didn’t get to make on the nights. And, if you weren’t able to make it, do get involved in the conversation by using the comment box below.
A Summary of the Something Rhymed Salon Series by Kendra Olson
Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London that examine the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempt to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship.
Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest from men. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog.
The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication and reviews of male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts, which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.
Salon One: VIDA Count
Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation of female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons why women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.
BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors at magazines are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation, editors need to ferret out the female reviewers, and female writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity models for fear that print media is on its way out.
Maggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield, which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.
The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, a friend of Maggie Gee, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday. She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.
“I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake
During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.
Salon Two: So-called Women’s Issues
The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences and perspectives of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or are there other issues at play?
The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines more easily. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when it’s by Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård. She said that newspaper and magazine editors need to be aware of this and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.
Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.
Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world. She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.
Sarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press and one of the three members of Michèle’s writing group, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space that should be available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.
Salon Three: Genuine Change
The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.
Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical about the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, her own journey has been relatively easy. She attributed this to growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.
Orange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson, who has guest blogged on SomethingRhymed, said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc. as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way that, for example, Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading, as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.
Former Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty, who has also guest blogged on Something Rhymed, spoke to the benefits of the internet age. Since publications can be crowdfunded and there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers claim to be desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.
Melanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t always affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all.
During the discussion, an audience member who is a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke about the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.
The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.
While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.
Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.
What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? Please do leave a comment below.