Men Who Read Women

After attending all three Something Rhymed salons, which he wrote about here, the male novelist Leslie Tate offered to write us a piece on why he values the writing of women.

Since I met my wife Sue Hampton ten years ago, she has helped me to appreciate several wonderful women authors, especially Marilynne Robinson, Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. In return I’ve helped Sue enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

For me, the appeal of these writers follows from a lifelong interest in people, relationships and psychology, but also a delight in inventive language. ’Stripped down’ Hemingway-style prose seems to dominate the thinking of most creative writing schools today, but I’m more interested in the range of effects to be found in women’s writing. My problem with minimalist prose is that it’s an orthodoxy that often leads to a kind of ‘objective’ approach where the main characters remain distanced in a typically male, heroic (or mock-heroic) fashion.

I call this the minimalist fallacy.

I’ve always wanted to enter the minds of characters, so I find female writers who do that can take me to unfamiliar places/points of view. They see things from the other side, taking the road less talked-about. It’s an adventure – and, as a man I welcome the challenge!

Illustration by Hugh Thomson of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who protested that he never reads novels. This image is in the public domain.

Superficially, my experience as a novelist has confirmed gender stereotypes. So during bookshop signings I’ve noticed how the non-fiction sections seem to exert an irresistible gravitational pull on some men. In schools you might well think that all boys read comics while the girls study only novels. And when Sue and I talk to groups, it’s often the men who probe proofing/timeframe ‘inaccuracies’ whereas the women look for in-depth characterisation and developed relationships.

I believe we need to become conscious of how gender stereotypes are being transmitted, in order to resist them. In the minimalist fallacy the majority of readers have been persuaded to focus on plot-twists, mystery and action. A book is praised for being ‘clever’ and the selling-point is usually the story or ‘how it grabs you’ (notice the laddish metaphor) or its relevance to something in the news. And in academic circles we are warned to avoid sentiment because writing needs to be hard-edged and rigorous.

Personally, I don’t rate a book by its narrative devices or lack of stylistic ‘mistakes’. I know the ending to a Shakespeare play but that doesn’t stop me watching it again. And I really don’t care who leads the race, wins the battle or stands out from the crowd. What counts for me is the feeling tone, and that needs to be deep, complex, authentic, relevant to our society but also universal. I don’t believe writers are there to simply entertain, stage fight scenes or keep the reader guessing.

I’m not alone in this. Many men are more interested in relationships than action or technology. They might be good with computers or sound-systems but they also wheel buggies, play music, hug, and support LGBTQ. So rather than play to the well-armoured men, we need to talk about women’s writing to the other men who don’t necessarily identify with the stripped-down action male ego. That means talking about relationships and the internal view, about passion and commitment, but also characters with varied feelings that match what they’re going through. We have to say no to ice-cool Bond-types or Punch and Judy in our books. It also means re-evaluating the minimalist fallacy in our own reading habits, our creative writing courses and our reflective/critical thinking.

Leslie Tate, is the author of Purple.

 

 

Poet and Memoirist, Salena Godden, on Women in Print

At the first Something Rhymed Salon, Salena Godden read from an essay that was originally published on For Books’ Sake – a site that champions writing by women. She has kindly given us permission to re-blog it here.

She originally wrote the piece in 2014 to tie in with the Women in Print campaign by the innovative publisher, Unbound, which tried to tackle the wider gender imbalance in the publishing industry.

 

hero-fbsI feel a little nervous writing about this campaign as I’m only just now in print after over two decades of rejections and near misses. The poetry collection Fishing In The Aftermath poems 1994-2014 came out in July with Burning Eye Books and the childhood memoir Springfield Road was published in October with Unbound.

It wasn’t intentional to publish both books in the same year but that’s the way the cards fell and I followed the bread crumbs up the path to find myself here today.

I began work on Springfield Road in 2006 – but before that I wrote poetry, short stories and songs in my band SaltPeter. Back in the early 1990’s I was idealistic and fearless. I’d been working on a novel and I thought I finally had something worth reading. I boldly booked a meeting with a well-known publisher.

I remember bowling into the glass offices alone, with no manager or agent, just me and my manuscript. I also gave him a beautiful mock-up of the book, complete with images, artwork and layout, which a designer friend had been working on with me. After he’d read it, the publisher was kind about it. Looking back, he was very generous, but then he said something I’ll never forget… he told me it was ‘too brave’ for a first novel.

The publisher closed that meeting by suggesting I read Bridget Jones and try writing chick-lit and then come back to him. That was the summer Bridget Jones’s Diary was buzzing like an incessant vibrating lipstick. I have never attempted to write a chick-lit, but that first rejection and those words ‘too brave’ stayed with me.

Springfield Road was initially sold to a major publishing house. After four years we went our separate ways, and now it seems that bravery was what was required. It was frustrating to watch my story chopped to bits in order to try and make it fit into another commercial genre, the misery memoir.

The bravest thing I could do was to take my book back, re-write and publish it my way and to never, ever give up. I think of 2006-2010 and being signed to a major publisher as my writer’s training ground; I learned how to fake that I had a thick skin, I learned some patience. Most importantly I learned to read my own compass and to be sure to stay true and tell my story my way.

Working with Unbound I have the sense of being in a team whilst also still being independent. Writing is hard work, the crowd funding process was hard work and now spreading the word about both books is hard work too.

But I have my Unbound family and editor Rachael Kerr behind me, I adore our working relationship and friendship. Burning Eye’s Clive Birnie has great passion for publishing, Burning Eye Books is boldly setting out to show us that ‘spoken word’ does work on the page.

Springfield_Road_COVERThey also publish an above average number of women. My golden rule has always been to go where the love is, there is a real love for books here.

When I was a little girl I spent much of my time upside down or spinning in circles. I have always had an awareness that there is more, ok to put it bluntly, I have always had an interest in getting out of my head to get into my head. As a teenager I was drawn to literature of a hedonistic nature.

I devoured books like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, the work of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, the Beats and Jack Kerouac.

I searched high and low for women’s stories, I read Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road a miserable account of the reality of rent and babies, depression and poverty, whilst her husband Neal Cassady is On The Road with Kerouac enjoying orgies of pot and LSD.

Next I discovered Joyce Johnson’s book Minor Characters about 1950’s New York, she writes about her time with the beats, Allen Ginsberg and William and Joan Burroughs.

Again this is a portrayal of being an observer, of not being of any importance to the party, the movement or the revolution. As for William Burroughs, his wife Joan was shot, it was an accident, a trick that went wrong, but she is now listed as not much more than a footnote in the weird and wonderful Burroughs experiments.

These curious and curiouser worlds of experimentation and hedonism it seems have always been narrated by men and from the male perspective. I want to read about female ejaculation. Ha! Seriously, I want to read books by women about women on the front line and in the trenches.

I want to read books by women about the passion and the sacrifices we make living this writing life, writing this living life. I want to see more places set for women at that great table that is the feast of books.

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.

It is no accident that I mostly read men when I was a teenager, back then it seemed to me that was where the party was. It took me years to stumble upon the great Jean Rhys and her vivid 1930’s boozy Paris.

One of my all-time favourite novels Good Morning, Midnight was hidden from me, overshadowed by the likes of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Celine.

Writing Springfield Road I realise now I was trying to narrate a time and place in childhood, to capture it and hold it up in a jam jar for us to see the wings, as you might a butterfly, and then to set it free and watch it fly. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read in the library, so I wrote it, to paraphrase Toni Morrison.

I wanted to write a story from how the world looked to me as the half caste kid, the alien with the green eyes in a brown face. Both Fishing In The Aftermath and Springfield Road burn with the frustration of longing to belong, of being invisible, yet pull on strength found in the freedom of being an outsider. I am wary of labels and boxes and lists, I feel they only serve to distract and divide writers.

A writer must only concern herself that what she writes today is better than yesterday, she must compete with the better work of her own making tomorrow. Every morning, man or woman, we surely all begin with the same fight: Writer V’s Empty Page.

Today there are millions of mixed race, cloud bothering, daydreamers, little girls spinning in circles getting dizzy in playgrounds all over Britain – And as I write this I say hail to each and every one of them, may they all be too brave.

If any of you have stories about your struggles to be accepted by the literary establishment, please do share them using the comment facility below.

Harriett Gilbert to Speak at First Something Rhymed Salon

We are delighted to welcome Harriett Gilbert to Something Rhymed’s first literary salon on Thursday April 28th at New York University London, 6.30pm.

The salons are aimed at writers, reviewers, bloggers, editors, journalists, agents and others who work in the literary industries or who are simply interested in this topic.

You are invited! Come alone, or, in the spirit of SomethingRhymed.com, you might want to invite a literary friend. Either way, please do join us for drinks and fruitful conversation. To get your name on the guest list, please email SomethingRhymed@gmail.com.

 

Harriett Gilbert

Harriett Gilbert presents A Good Read on Radio 4 and World Book Club on the BBC World Service.

She began writing fiction in her twenties, when she was not long out of drama college and had just been touring the primary schools of England with an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories; she played the Mother Elephant. It was winter; the only job on offer was a small part in an Agatha Christie one-acter, for no pay. She owned an Olivetti portable. Authorship suddenly seemed attractive.

Since then, she’s published six novels, including Hotels with Empty Rooms and The Riding Mistress. In 2004 she founded the MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University London, and was course director for four years.

For many years Harriett also worked for the press, reviewing and writing about books and authors for Time Out magazine before becoming literary editor of the New Statesman. She’s published non-fiction books on journalism, feminism and sexuality.

Since the early 1990s she’s presented arts programmes for the BBC, including interviewing a wide range of authors: from Toni Morrison to Marian Keyes, Doris Lessing to Malorie Blackman, Arundhati Roy to PD James

  • Salon One: VIDA Count 
  • Thursday April 28th, 6.30pm-9.00pm 
  • New York University in London, 6 Bedford Square (Gower/Bloomsbury Street side), WC1B 3RA
  • Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road. Holborn, Russell Square, Goodge Street and Warren Street are also close by.
  • Disabled access and facilities. Please do let us know if you have any access needs.

RSVP: SomethingRhymed@gmail.com

Harriett will be joining a panel of other writers and industry professionals whom we’ll introduce over the next few days.

 

 

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

A Year of Hidden Friendships

When we first launched Something Rhymed, a year ago now, concerned well-wishers expressed scepticism about whether we’d discover twelve pairs of historic female writer friends to profile each month over the course of 2014.

Thanks to our close-knit community of readers from around the globe, the reverse has in fact been true. You’ve helped us to unearth many more female collaborations than we could possibly have envisaged at the beginning of the year. With such a treasure trove of hidden friendships still to explore, we intend to keep sharing our findings here in 2015.

Old treasure chest
Creative Commons License

The collaborations we’ve explored so far were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring. And so, we’ve increasingly found ourselves asking why they have been consigned to the shadows.

To mark the end of Something Rhymed’s first year, here are our top ten ideas on why the friendships between some of our most famous female writers still have a cloak of secrecy about them:

  1. Women writing in the past had more opportunities to converse in the parlour than in the pages of literary magazines.
  • For reasons of propriety, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that she could not write an obituary in the Atlantic for her long-time friend and confidante, George Eliot.
  1. The marked harmony and lifelong endurance of many of these writing partnerships cost them copy.
  • Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell bonded over their shared experience of infamy since they had both become mired in scandal for daring to pen biting social criticism. However, this enduring friendship often gets written off as a mere acquaintanceship. Could marked harmony also account for why so few of us have heard about the unlikely friendship between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson?
  1. Friendships between women are often neglected in favour of a female author’s intense or turbulent relationships with men.
  • On January 1st we will reveal an intimate friendship that fits into this category…
  1. The literary status of some of our writer heroines has suffered because their genre, style or subject matter was particularly associated with women.
  1. Some of the pairs shared an alliance so radical that others refused to believe that it could possibly have thrived.
  1. Other collaborations challenged core mythologies about female authors: the well-bred lady; the solitary eccentric; and the suffering genius.
  1. Popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to allow for the kind of rivalry embraced by some of our writer forebears.
  1. Rumours of lesbian affairs sometimes actually seem easier for commentators to accommodate than the possibility of an intellectual partnership between women.
  1. Close friendships between girls might be all well and good but, after marriage, women have traditionally been expected to devote themselves primarily to their husband and offspring.
  1. Historically, female collaboration was considered subversive and therefore taboo.
  • And yet, the subversive nature of these friendships between women makes them powerful sources of transformation: Maya Angelou’s Nobel party for Toni Morrison, for instance, both celebrated the achievements of a fellow African American author and challenged their government’s failure to do so itself.

Working together on Something Rhymed this year, we have experienced some of the most jubilant moments in our own friendship (as well as some of the most fraught!). But, from Eliot and Stowe – who taught us the importance of candour – to Mansfield and Woolf – who showed us that rivalry can be a positive force – we are learning how to keep our own collaboration on course. And, with your support, we will continue to celebrate the secret sisterhood between our trailblazing forebears, finally bringing it centre stage.

A Friendship Important in So Many Ways

'A rainbow in somebody's cloud' - Maya Angelou Image taken at the Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)
‘A rainbow in somebody’s cloud’ – Maya Angelou
(Image taken at Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)

We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.

We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.

It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.

When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.

Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’

As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.

Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’

But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.

Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.

Celebrating Each Other’s Successes

NotebooksUnlike Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, there was a huge disparity in the worldly successes of this month’s featured writers.

Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.

We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.

It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.

What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.

It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.

It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.

Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’

As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.

When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.

Other news

We’re currently enjoying the BBC Radio 4 series Five Hundred Years of Friendship – episodes available to listen to on-line.

We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.

We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.