Half a year of social distancing has lent us a new perspective on our writing, our friendship and the future of both…
Emily and I enjoyed an alfresco Vietnamese lunch recently – the first time we’d seen each other in person for over six months. Even during those periods when we lived in different countries or continents, we’d never let more time lapse between meetings than this.
Back in December 2019, Jonathan and I moved to a new house, closer to Emily and her family. Early in the new year, Emily came over to this new house, and here we workshopped a draft of her new book, and later had dinner with another writer friend. Not long afterwards, I babysat eight-month-old Lola so that Emily and Jack could go out for dinner on their wedding anniversary.
On each occasion, we marvelled at the newfound ease of train travel between our homes, and we were looking forward to spending even more time together. Never could we have predicted that the short distance between us would become so difficult to bridge.
When we did eventually manage to meet again, we talked for hours over bowls of pho and duck curry, and it felt almost possible to forget the pandemic. But socially distancing across our outdoor dining table was a far cry from the desks behind which we so frequently squeezed as we looked at the same age-faded letter or shared the same screen while working on A Secret Sisterhood.
Much as we both miss those days when we occupied ‘a room of one’s own to share’, as we once called it, the past months of enforced separation have also given us the space to look at our writing lives with a new sense of perspective.
We’ve come to appreciate just how much our joint work on female literary friendship has shaped the separate projects that engage each of us now.
Much as our current literary ventures may have sprung from the same source, they are taking us in new directions, separately and together, as writers and as friends. And so, during these months of sequestering ourselves away in our individual studies, we’ve immersed ourselves too in different psychological spaces.
Something still rhymes, of course: between the writer friends featured on this site; between its community of editors, contributors and readers; between Emily and me. But during that meal we shared, between sips of green tea, we agreed that we needed to give this new stage of our writing lives greater space to grow. Just as important, we both want to nurture this next phase of our friendship – and we want to do this offline. And, so, after much consideration and with not a little regret, we have decided to bid this site farewell.
As we say goodbye, we’ll leave you with the words of Jane Austen – one of the first authors we featured on Something Rhymed:
“But remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state. Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience; or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.”
We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the writers who have contributed to Something Rhymed, all its readers who’ve created such a vibrant community, and, especially to our editors Kathleen Dixon Donnelly and Clêr Lewis, without whom we could not have kept Something Rhymed going for so long. You can join Kathleen’s own literary community over on her site, Such Friends. And do watch out for Clêr’s first novel All the Captured Shadows, which she is in the midst of drafting.
We’ll be keeping this site online to maintain an archive of female literary friendship, and you’ll still be able to post comments.
It is a particular pleasure, therefore, to welcome Pascal to Something Rhymed.
Who has been my most important female literary friend?
It was 1990. I was writing a drama about the Nuremberg Trials. Someone told me Martha Gellhorn had attended them. I knew of her fame as the most important female war journalist of her time but I had no idea that she had seen the architects and perpetrators of the ‘Final Solution’.
I called her, introduced myself and asked her to lunch. I don’t lunch, she told me, I drink.
She invited me to her Eton Square apartment. Everything was white. The sofa, the carpet, her sleek hairstyle. She immediately harangued me about my wild curls. Can’t you do something with your hair? We drank whisky. She smoked. She spoke about war, travelling, writing. And, of course, the man she hated being associated with, Ernest Hemingway. After a few meetings, she told me that Hemingway was a lousy lover. She talked about marriage as a terrible idea. Don’t. You end up quarrelling about the gas bills.
Gellhorn would send me postcards in those days when letters were written and stamps were bought, and I saw her intermittently as I was conducting my own difficult love affair with a man in France. Yes, we did marry. No, we did not quarrel about the gas bills.
But in other ways I followed her lead. What did she teach me? There were forty years between us. I saw a woman who was unafraid of offending. I saw a woman in her eighties still madly in love with the craft of writing even though her sight was limited by macular degeneration. I learned from others who knew her that she was both feared and admired, and I liked her say-it-as-it-is attitude.
In my new play Blueprint Medea, there is an unexpected female friendship. Set today, Medea, a Kurdish soldier flees imprisonment in Turkey and arrives in Heathrow on a forged passport. She works illegally as a cleaner in a gym where she meets Jason-Mohammed, the son of an Iraqi taxi-driver. They have a similar Muslim background but their cultures and philosophies are different. Medea, a Kurdish Muslim, has become politicised by the PKK. She is an atheist and a feminist. Jason believes himself to be a secular Londoner but, during the action of the play, is sucked back into conservative Middle Eastern values.
When his father forces him to marry his cousin Glauke, Jason is made to believe that Medea, as a Kurd, is the ‘wrong tribe’. Euripides’ play Medea kills Glauke by sending her a poisoned wedding dress. In my version, Medea deflowers Glauke and, in doing so, suggests that she is freeing her from the strictures of Islamic patriarchy. By placing her finger in Glauke’s vagina is Medea committing violence or freeing Glauke from the Islamic marriage market?
Did meeting Gellhorn provoke me to write this unusual scene?
Gellhorn and I did once connect in the most visceral of ways. I was at her apartment once when I felt menstrual blood seeping through my skirt. I excused myself. But before I could finish cleaning myself up, Gellhorn was forcing me out of her bathroom. Making straight for the toilet, she fished out the tiny offending tampon. As I looked on from the hall, it struck me as extraordinary that the great war correspondent was touching the tampon that had just been inside me, that she was plunging her hand into the essence of my womb.
Her aggressive yet liberating act did not mark the end of our friendship. The last of her communiqués was Come over and tell me how your career is going.
I was busy with a production and did not reply. I did not realise this was her last postcard to me. I did not know that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was years after her death that I learned this command was her way of organising goodbyes to friends before her carefully planned suicide.
No longer would I go over to her white flat, taking with me packets of smoked salmon – there was never food in her apartment. No longer would I see her watch television and shout at the injustices of the world or hear about her snorkelling in Eilat with her brother. Until long after her death, I didn’t even know that, like me, she was Jewish. Why did she never mention that?
I was brave when I met Gellhorn: her influence has made me braver. This has led to a kind of wildness in my writing of female friendships. I like to think that Gellhorn would have enjoyed Blueprint Medea and the two huge female characters I have created. I wish she were still alive to be there on the first night.
She would tell me that women don’t behave that way. She was no feminist and female solidarity was not her world. And yet, because of our friendship, my impulse to write strong female characters has intensified.
For me she is not dead.
Julia Pascal is a playwright and theatre director. She was the first woman director at the National Theatre with her adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s prose and poems in the Platform Performance Men Seldom Make Passes. She has been produced in the UK and internationally and is published by Oberon Books. In 2016 she completed her PhD at the University of York. She is a Research Fellow at King’s College, London University. Currently she is researching a new play on a meeting between American philosopher Hannah Arendt and German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in France 1940.
You can book tickets for Blueprint Medea via London’s Finborough Theatre, where it will be running from 21 May to 8 June. We’ve already got our tickets, so do say hello if you spot us there.
If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.
Jennifer told us about a thesis project she’d completed at university about nineteenth and early twentieth-century books for American girls. As she researched, she told us, she kept stumbling upon literary friendships between the women who wrote these books. But since this was tangential to her thesis, she had to set these notes aside – until now.
Few writers owe as much to their university experiences as Jean Webster. Not only is her most famous novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, set at a woman’s college much like Jean’s beloved alma mater Vassar, but the main character draws heavily on Jean’s adventures with her best friend at university: her fellow writer Adelaide Crapsey.
Although Jean wrote stories while Adelaide focused on poetry, the two lively, rambunctious young women had much in common. When they weren’t collaborating on plays – in their sophomore year, their gleefully melodramatic comedy won a college drama competition – they careened around the countryside on their bicycles, debated vociferously in favor of women’s rights and socialism, and dreamed of spectacular literary careers.
But their paths diverged after they graduated in 1901. Jean swiftly met success. Her literary reputation built steadily novel by novel, until her seventh book Daddy-Long-Legs catapulted her to literary stardom in 1912. The novel, which is still in print today, is told through a series of letters written by a young woman much like Jean or Adelaide: a sprightly aspiring writer with feminist and socialist sympathies and a well-developed sense of fun.
Meanwhile, Adelaide’s career stalled. Although she continued to write poetry, family troubles and then ill health made it impossible for her to give single-minded attention to her work. Finally she received a devastating diagnosis: tuberculosis.
At the time, tuberculosis was considered a poet’s disease: a sign that the creative fires within were burning away the poet’s physical frame. But Adelaide had wanted to be a new kind of poet, just as she and Jean were New Women: robust and hearty, precise and scientific, not at all like the stereotype of the languishing early Victorian maiden or the sickly, emotionally overwrought Romantic poet. The diagnosis flew in the face of the identity she and Jean had built together.
Perhaps for this reason, Adelaide told neither Jean nor her family of her diagnosis. Instead, she joined in the celebrations of Jean’s meteorically successful new book. Their friendship remained strong despite their different life paths: the two friends decided to spend the summer of 1913 together.
They made ice cream, stayed out late (‘Adelaide and I nearly slept out-of-doors the night of the 4th,’ Jean wrote exuberantly), and worked together on a play, just as they had at Vassar. But this time, rather than writing a college drama, they were transforming Jean’s book for Broadway.
But the pace proved too much for Adelaide: she collapsed. Jean rushed her to the hospital, but at first she remained optimistic.‘I think at last – after 4 years of silly tonics and rest & fresh air & everything else that didn’t work – we are going to cure her up!’ she wrote.
But soon Adelaide could no longer hide her fatal diagnosis. Jean let go of dreams of curing her friend, and focused instead on making her last months comfortable: helping her family find a sanatorium, visiting her, and trying to find publishers for her poems. She knew, as only a fellow writer could, what comfort it would give her friend to see at least some of her work in print. When she managed to place Adelaide’s poem ‘The Witch’ in the magazine Century, Adelaide wrote to her in gratitude: ‘the thinnest blade of an opening wedge is the thing that counts now, and the times are all against us’.
The times were even more against them than Adelaide knew; barely a month after Adelaide wrote that letter, Jean rushed from the production of Daddy-Long-Legs to be at Adelaide’s deathbed. After Adelaide’s death, Jean fulfilled her final promise to her friend: she presented Adelaide’s book of poems to her parents. Adelaide had not wanted her parents to see the poems earlier because so many of them dealt with Adelaide’s suffering and approaching death.
Jean hoped to find a publisher for Adelaide’s poems, but within two years she too was dead: felled, like Charlotte Bronte, by complications of pregnancy. Instead, one of Adelaide’s former suitors shepherded the collection into print under the simple title Verse, complete with an introduction that described Adelaide as exactly the sort of sickly romantic poet she scorned.
Despite the inappropriate introduction, critics noticed the brilliant concision of the five-line cinquain form that Adelaide had invented, which she wielded to great effect in poems such as Niagara. Her poems are still reprinted in anthologies, just as Jean’s paean to their college days remains in print to this day. Despite their truncated lives, Jean and Adelaide fulfilled their most important Vassar dream: their words are still read over a century after their deaths.
In London tonight we plan to celebrate together with a glass of bubbly and a home-cooked meal. We’ll be raising our glasses to the US edition of A Secret Sisterhood, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are publishing stateside today. And we’ll also be toasting all the readers of Something Rhymed who encouraged us to write a book on female literary friendship.
It won’t be long before we get to help this edition make its way into the world during our US book tour.
We’d love to meet some of you in person at the following engagements in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles:
We long ago promised each other that we would try our best to enjoy the process of getting published, because we knew all too well that chances to celebrate can be few and far between. Today seems a good time to reflect on A Secret Sisterhood’s publicity highlights to date:
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.
Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm
With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.
The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.
We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.
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.
New Zealand-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.
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.