We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.
Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.
Before the tremendous success of her first published novel,Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.
But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feministauthorMary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.
The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.
Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.
This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recentWriting Friendshipsevent at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.
We were joined by writersSusan Barker, Ann MorganandDenise Saul– all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.
But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.
Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through herweb projectand non-fiction book,Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novelThe Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.
Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can readhere.
We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.
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.
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!
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.
During her talk at the second Something Rhymed Salon, Arifa Akbar, formally of The Independent, gave us an insider’s glimpse of life as a literary editor.
She has generously allowed us to share it on here so that you can mull it over at your leisure.
Until recently, I was the literary editor of The Independent newspaper. I worked there for fourteen and a half years, many of these on the book desk, and in a decision make capacity, so that I was choosing who wrote reviews for our weekly books section, where they were placed on the pages, what labels were put on them, and who was reviewed.
Part of this process involved the management of so-called women’s fiction, women’s genres, women’s writing. These categories have been helpful to me at times to ensure that equal numbers of women writers are represented, to make sure they are on the books pages of a national newspaper. And further afield, the categories are useful so that we have the Bailey’s prize correcting the bias against women’s fictions because we know statistically men don’t like to buy books by women authors (that’s why we have the likes of JK Rowling, who sell their books under ambiguous gender identities). The category of women’s fiction is also helpful to publishers – Virago was built upon the idea of making space for women’s issues.
But concepts of ‘women’s fiction’, and women’s issues in literature, can be trapping too, precisely because we have created a nice tidy category that can be devalued by the literary establishment! It can be ‘put in its place’, side-lined in its own ghetto. Margaret Atwood’s fiction is suddenly women’s fiction; it’s not SF or dystopic fiction. Elena Ferrante dramatizes female friendship so she writes female fiction A builder who was recently laying my floors at home was a voracious reader and I saw that he was reading Paula Hawkin’s bestelling debut, The Girl on The Train. I asked him a few days later what he had thought of it and he said he enjoyed it but that it was ‘more a woman’s book’. Having read it, I had considered it to be a crime thriller so I asked him what he meant and he said it was ‘a book about a woman, so women would read it’. This made me think – when women read about men’s experiences through fiction, we so often universalise them, while the reverse doesn’t always happen. It’s certainly what I do with my favourite male authors such as Dave Eggers and Michel Faber – I extrapolate a universal story from their books, and their male protagonists.
Conversely, the domestic novel is only called the domestic novel when a woman writes it. Not when Philip Roth writes American Pastoral, all about one American family, or when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about looking after the kids and wiping their noses in his series, My Struggle, or when Jonathan Franzen writes Freedom, about middle-class American life. These are considered to be state-of-the-nation-novels, but not when Anne Tyler writes them, or so many other women. And so-called women’s issues aren’t devalued either when they’re written about by men.
In 2011, Granta brought out an edition of the magazine called The F-Word. I wrote a long piece on women’s fiction at the time to mark this publication, asking what it is, and studying the sexual politics of storytelling. When I asked some writers and thinkers who I regard as staunchly feminist, and hugely aware of the issues, they told me they didn’t want to be part of that article. It seemed to me as if they didn’t want to be hounded by the same old questions – what are women’s issues, what is women’s fiction, what is a woman’s way of writing…
These questions can corner you as a woman in the same way that questions of race and writing do – some writers I know are forever having to answer the question, ‘are you an Asian writer or a writer?’ The ones who are sick of being seen as Asian writers, rather than just writers, have every right to be sick of it, but I would argue that they can’t escape being Asian writers. Just as women writers are both writers and women writers, dealing with universal issues, and also grappling with women’s issues.
So I would return to the central Catch-22 – once the categories of women’s writing, and women’s issues in fiction, are created, some use them as an excuse to take women out of the universal spectrum. I have a recent example from The Independent: we had a section called ‘Round-up’ in which five or six books under a specific category were reviewed together – so this month’s crime fiction, or romance, or historical fiction, or debuts. One week, we had a crime fiction round up that happened to feature five books by five women writers. This was flagged up to me by a sub-editor, and then, when I ignored it, by a more senior editor, and I was asked how this had happened, why it had happened that the reviewer hadn’t even included one man, and please could I make sure it didn’t happen again? It was even suggested to me that we should change the category name to ‘women’s crime fiction’. And yet, how many times had the reverse happened – that all the authors mentioned in so many lists and round-ups, are all men? And how many times is it queried?
I want to end by drawing back to my article on The F-Word, on how relevant feminism was to 21st women’s fiction, in which I quoted several acclaimed female writers, some of whom would say they write about women’s issues, and some who wouldn’t. I was struck by the broad range of opinions and differences between them and I thought their opinions might add to our discussion tonight.
Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who is constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices, said that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: “Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a ‘model’ for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.
“In the short run, something like a ‘political’ vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant…. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.”
Kate Mosse, founder of the then-Orange (now Bailey’s) Prize, reckoned that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers of female fiction in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are “freed up” she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink.
Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagreed, but added that “I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question ‘are you a woman writer?’ People hardly ever ask that question of men.” The statement “I am not a woman writer” need not be anti-feminist either, she said. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the “other” enclave.
Urvashi Butalia, an Indian activist, writer and feminist, said: “Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination”. And Margaret Drabble said she so often chose to write about women because “I write about what is important to me… I haven’t felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me.”
The Ghanian-American author, Taiye Selasi, said that she had not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters in her fiction. They just “emerge on the page that way”, and Emma Donoghue said that she felt no obligation to represent women’s lives, yet a feminist consciousness remains: “I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.
“So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women’s lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women’s. But I would argue that I’m being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I am just as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them… I certainly don’t feel as if I’m working within a distinct tradition of women’s writing.”
Lastly, I want to quote Virginia Woolf, who believed in the ideal of literary androgyny. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, she suggested that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”
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