Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn?
We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.
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.
The first Something Rhymed salon was full of informed discussion and spirited debate, all washed down with great wine and plentiful supplies of madeleines. Guests came alone or accompanied by old friends, and plenty a new friendship was forged.
Our panellists gave candid accounts of their thoughts on the latest VIDA count, which shows the continuing lack of gender parity across the literary pages. And they provided us with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the gender issues they’ve confronted during their careers in the media and publishing.
We will keep track of the suggestions for accelerating change that crop up during this salon series, and we’ll post a list on the site. If you have any ideas, please do share them by using the comments facility and we’ll make sure to include them in our roundup.
Our second salon is fast approaching, and we have an equally stellar line-up of guests. This Wednesday, you can meet journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar; biographer and former senior editor at The Women’s Press, Sarah LeFanu; bestselling author, Karen Maitland; and Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts.
In the spirit of Something Rhymed, Salena Godden will be joining her literary friend, Maggie Gee, at our first salon. The pair will be discussing the latest VIDA count, which reveals major imbalances at premiere publications.
Salena Godden is one of Britain’s foremost spoken word artists and poets. A regular performer at literary festivals in a career that is now entering its third decade, Salena tops the bill at literary events both nationally and internationally.
She’s appeared as a guest and writer for many BBC Radio programmes including The Verb, Saturday Live, Loose Ends and Fact To Fiction and she has written and presented several arts documentaries and a play for the BBC too. Burning Eye Books published her first full collectionFishing In The Aftermath: Poems 1994 – 2014, marking twenty years of poetry and performance, with the majority of the work included previously unpublished in book form. Her literary childhood memoir Springfield Road was successfully crowd funded and published with Unbound Books in 2014.
Widely recognised as a trailblazer for fellow performers, Salena has also dedicated herself to mentoring newcomers to the scene. Her voice is distinctive and unique, her performances are electrifying, hilarious, intensely powerful and full of warmth.
New Book News
• Various poems by Salena Godden will be published in ‘Untitled Two‘ The Neu Reekie anthology. Published by Polygon Books and Neu Reekie, publication date, May 1st 2016
• Short Story ‘The Camden Blood Thieves’ by Salena Godden will be published in The Unreliable Guide to London – a collection of London short fiction, published with Influx Press, launched July 18th 2016
• Commissioned essay ‘Shade’ by Salena Godden will be included in ‘The Good Immigrant’ / Twenty-one authors writing about what it means to be BAME in the UK in 2016, edited by Nikesh Shukla, published by Unbound Books and released September 22nd 2016
‘Salena Godden is a powerhouse.’ Sabotage Reviews
‘Godden writes about a past that is at once deeply personal yet also belongs to the everyman figure; her descriptions of childhood are timeless.’ The Literateur
‘Her writing is urgent and detailed, colourful and clamorous. Like all love stories, her memoir is intense and intimate.’ The Times
“Salena Godden is an absolute master of, knowing your assumptions, playing to them, and then flipping them completely.” Write Out Loud
“Salena Godden follows up her recent poetry anthology with a lyrical and witty memoir painting a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Springfield Road tells the wide-eyed tale of Godden’s childhood as the daughter of a jazz musician and a go-go dancer set against the lovingly rendered backdrop of 1970s Hastings. Springfield Road’s prose wavers effortlessly throughout, from tender poignancy to raw, gritty realism and this lovely book serves to remind us that however much the world has changed in the last forty years, in many ways it is still exactly the same.” Loud and Quiet Magazine
Longstanding readers of Something Rhymed will remember that novelist Maggie Gee wrote a piece back in 2014 about her friendship with poet Salena Godden.
You will now have the opportunity to meet Maggie in person at Something Rhymed’s literary salon on Thursday April 28th at New York University London, 6.30pm.
Along with Harriett Gilbert, Maggie will be discussing the problem of gender inequality in the literary world. Together with input from the audience, our speakers hope to come up with some positive solutions.
Maggie has written twelve novels, including The White Family, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the International Impac Prize, The Ice People (revised edition 2008), and two linked satires about Britain and Uganda, My Cleaner and My Driver (2009), which were called ‘worldly, witty, enjoyable, impressive’ by Doris Lessing. She has also written an acclaimed writer’s memoir, My Animal Life, 2010, (‘exceptionally interesting and brave…a wonderful book”, Claire Tomalin) and a collection of short stories, The Blue.
Maggie is Vice-President of the UK’s Royal Society of Literature and was its first female Chair of Council, 2004-2008. Her books have been translated into 13 languages including Chinese, and she is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Though her themes include war, ecological catastrophe, global warming and racism, her books are always funny as well as serious. In 2012 there was an international conference about her work at St Andrew’s University.
Maggie Gee’s latest novel, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, is a comedy that brings Virginia Woolf back to life in the 21st century in Manhattan and Istanbul.
We are delighted to announce that we have each been awarded a Grants for the Arts from Arts Council England.
Part of this grant will fund a series of salons where writers and industry professionals will discuss the problem of gender inequality in the literary world, and come up with positive solutions.
Please click on the image below to enlarge the information:
Whatever your gender, you are invited! Come alone, or, in the spirit of Something Rhymed, you might want to invite a literary friend. Either way, please do join us for drinks and fruitful conversation. We’ll look forward to seeing you at one or more of our Something Rhymed salons.
A shared sense of a female literary tradition fired the epistolary alliance between this month’s profiled writers: the reserved George Eliot and the ebullient Harriet Beecher Stowe. And so we asked authors Maggie Gee and Salena Godden to tell us about their similarities and differences, and the role in their friendship of the written word.
Maggie: When I first met Salena I found her lively and funny but also quite dauntingly and dazzlingly young – she’s a quarter of a century younger than me. When I heard her perform for the first time, reading a piece of short prose that was as much poetry as story, I really sat up. Wow – she could write – my memory of that piece is of a wide golden field: a sort of dizzy sweep of perspective; and realizing that she was unafraid to be lyrical about the world – a risk most writers won’t take in a culture where irony is king.
I think we share that innocent eye. I do satire but the presiding vision I have is love. I think that’s true of Salena too, in among the outrageous humour and belly laughs. And maybe we recognized that innocence in each other, though we each in our different ways have shells that prevent most people from seeing it. I knew Salena would like the radiant David Hockney Yorkshire landscape show at the Royal Academy in 2012: we went together (it was about the 9th time I had seen it actually!).
Salena: I’ll never forget that day we met and went to see that Hockney exhibition, in my memory it is a film. We had a sunny afternoon tea and shared ideas and gossip. Afterwards I remember walking all the way home, through Regents Park and up into Kentish Town, utterly inspired by the colours and the art, but mostly the company, the listening and the sharing and the fantastic conversations we had that afternoon.
I think we share a love of language, colour and light as much as we share a capacity to imagine the worst and the darkest of outcomes. I also think both of us have had to work (and still do work) bloody hard and have hardly ever taken no for an answer. I might be the naughty one or more hedonistic of the two of us, but there is nothing wilder than having an idea and digging your heels in, there is nothing braver than keeping on keeping on, especially when the chips are down or the odds are against you. I think we share an old fashioned sense of fair play, a willingness to fight your corner and a mischief – these are some of the things I’d say we share. If we had gone to the same school I would have probably nicked sweets and pens from Woolworths to give to Maggie to woo her to be my friend and tell me all about writing.
Maggie: How are we different? Well, my father stuck around and gave me different problems to Salena, whose father left. I had more formal educational chances, and she has had more crazy fun. She sang, for heaven’s sake, and had two bands (at least), and ran cool things like The Book Club Boutique! What did I get: degrees. Oh, and she still writes, performs and publishes poetry, whereas my early drive to write poems compressed itself into prose. She’s a fine, bitter-sweet poet – I wish I had written her new collection, Fishing in the Aftermath: it’s intimate and wild and tender, but the words are worked and reworked like a Toledo blade.
Salena: My first impression of Maggie was of a sensation of being drawn into her fantastic inquisitive mind, what I mean is, she asks the most interesting questions of her surroundings and coerces people into revealing their mysteries. It is important to question and notice the tiny details in things, but these moments seem to spring golden when you are talking with Maggie.
When we first met back in 2002, I felt I was a rough boozy ruffian next to her, I was in awe. I could tell right away that Maggie was quick and smart, she uses language beautifully, there’s a magnetic pull and a magic in Maggie, she’s a bold heart and a true believer.
Maggie: I think we really like each other’s work. I read an early draft of Springfield Road, her brilliant memoir, which has just come out this summer. I was so pleased when she asked me to introduce her at the launch.
Salena: I took Springfield Road to Maggie feeling that I could trust her with it. My confidence was pretty shaken at the time, but I knew Maggie would ‘get it’ after I finished reading her beautiful and vivid memoir My Animal Life. Memoir is another kind of writing, you have no armour: you just have your truth and your ghosts.
Maggie: We both had problems with the same very big, mainstream publisher. Maybe my cynical view of how big publishers operate was helpful (my being lyrical about human life does not preclude being pretty cynical about most commercial publishing): and I could tell her, hand on heart, that I thought Springfield Road was a stunning piece of writing just as it was.
Salena: It was Maggie’s letters and words of encouragement that gave me the confidence I needed to persevere. Then I met John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr who signed me on the Unbound label and together we all successfully crowd funded Springfield Road. My memoir would still be in a box under my bed if it weren’t for Maggie.
Maggie: Looking at the other side of the coin, Salena gave me a shot of new creative life by inviting me into a world of young writers and artists that I loved and felt happy in. Also, when I recently got a slightly demented Guardian review, Salena was the first to tweet in support.
Salena: As for that review, it missed the point, the romance, beauty and comedy in the book. I loved the concept of Virginia Woolf In Manhattan. I ate it all up, loving every imaginative word and page, it made me laugh and cry out loud. I mean imagine getting drunk with Virginia Woolf, what a wicked and wonderful dream that is…
Maggie: At significant moments in life, I have received wonderful long emails from Salena that are full of the texture of her days. They probably took a few seconds to write, read as naturally as breathing and are cousins of her confessional poems. Then I’ll write back in a kind of mirror writing. I notice my emails always reflect the style of the email that comes to me. Yes, Salena’s a very stylish lady, as well as a sweet one.
Salena: Maggie’s letters are a light beaming out of my inbox. She is a true comrade. It’s a funny old game writing, as you know, it is a lonely and competitive sport. Maggie has been so generous. I don’t know what I would have done without her this past decade or so. Some people bring out the best in you, they make you want to do good and aim high and dream bigger and Maggie Gee is that person to me.
If we’re honest, we both felt some trepidation on 31 December 2013. On the day before we launched Something Rhymed, each of us had the same questions. Would anyone, other than our nearest and dearest, want to visit this website? Is the subject of female literary friendships one that interests other people?
We’ve been delighted to discover that it has struck a chord with so many of you: 3000 hits on the site so far, the majority from the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia, but from other corners of the globe too. We’ve heard from emerging and established authors, readers, academics, literary bloggers, editors at publishing houses and literary magazines, agents, publicists, owners of writing retreats and more.
The Independent on Sunday featured our website in their Between the Covers column, and Book Oxygen, Books by Women and Writers’ Centre Norwich all asked us to talk more about Something Rhymed in the guest blogs we wrote for them this month.
There have been hundreds of tweets about the site, and many more of you have got in touch, by sending a message or leaving a comment, to add your thoughts to the discussions we’ve started and to recommend pairs of writer pals we could profile.
Some suggestions focused on friendships we’d already heard something about, but others were entirely unknown to us. We’re keen to explore all of your ideas, so do please keep them coming in.
We were also delighted to learn that some of you had joined us in this month’s letter writing activity.
Elaine, who wrote to to her long-standing friend Frieda, seems to have shared some of the same feelings that we encountered, noting that ‘In these days of e-mail and Facebook we have instant if rushed communication on tap, but my rambling missive penned whilst enjoying traditional afternoon tea on a winter’s Sunday afternoon, gave me a chance to experience a much less frequent pleasure nowadays’.
Novelist Sarah Butler and screenwriter Tessa Nicholson used their letters to talk about the business of writing itself and to give each other advice. Sarah told us how much she appreciated her friend’s wisdom, singling out two tips in particular: ‘Your competitive streak is like a motor. Don’t be ashamed of it’, and ‘You’ll have to learn to put your blinkers on and write more for you’.
It seems that, for some of this blog’s readers at least, letter writing is not such a lost art after all. As author and journalist Erina Reddan pointed out in a comment on the site, ‘Letters pull you down and into a place that conversation does not take you’.
On Saturday, we’ll be saying goodbye to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf and letting you know about the next pair of famous writing pals.
Sarah Moore was the first to mention Maya Angelou when she left a response to our first post of the year, which mentioned the author’s friendship with Jessica Mitford.
But this was followed by separate suggestions on Twitter from the writers Wendy Vaizey and Salena Godden. They cited Angelou too, but it was another one of her friendships that they thought we should consider.
And so, after much deliberation, we’ve decided to go with that duo next: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. If you return here on 1 February, you’ll find lots more information about that relationship and also details of the month’s activity. And if you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this pair, do please get in touch. As always, we’d love to hear from you.
Don’t forget, if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on any Something Rhymed updates, you can sign up to follow us via email using the tab on the right of the screen.