• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 4, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    Words and women

    Fiona McCann

    Feminist Open Forum marks International Women’s Day tonight with readings from Catherine Cullen, Claire Kilroy, Medbh McGuckian, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Enda Wyley among others at the Central Hotel tonight at 7.30 p.m. Billed as a “celebration of women’s writing”, the event raises the question of whether identifying writers by their gender is even helpful or necessary in this day and age. After all, A.S. Byatt has rejected any identification of herself as a “woman writer”, publicly denouncing the women-only Orange Prize in Britain as sexist, and refusing to have her novels ever submitted for consideration for the prize. “What is it about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man when it comes to picking up a pen?”  Alain De Botton famously asked when the prize was first established. Anyone care to answer?

    • John Self says:

      “What is it about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention…?”

      Readership, and male readership in particular. Nabokov declared himself to be “exclusively homosexual” in his literary tastes, which is a trend that continues for many male readers: they read very few books by women writers. A quick scan of my own records shows that last year, only 15% of the books I read were by women. (This year, so far, I’m doing only slightly better at 30%.)

      Why this should be is open to interpretation. But what it definitely means is that for most men – even ‘reading men’ like me, who are a minority – books by women clearly need an extra boost of attention. So the Orange Prize is indeed, by definition, sexist, but it does valuable work in giving a brief burst of publicity to books which might otherwise go unnoticed among the tidal waves of publishing.

    • Tom Farrell says:

      Of course it’s sexist but, more importantly, it is political/ideological and, in that sense, distracts from the value of the work. Twenty or thirty years ago I would seek out women writers because they seemed to be less mainstream. Now a whole mainstream genre of ‘books by women’ seems to have grown up and I find that I have developed a subconscious antipathy to such books. I just like a good book.

      Tom Farrell

    • Fiona says:

      John Self: A well made case for ‘sexist’ prizes, though I find it hard to believe that women writers make up such a small percentage of your reading. Writers like Marilynn Robinson, Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold and Joan Didion are surely gifted and current enough not to require a separate categorisation?

      Tom Farrell: If by ‘books by women’ you mean that abominally named ‘chick lit’ category, I think it’s best to categorise it less by gender and more by, er, literary merit.

    • clom says:

      “If by ‘books by women’ you mean that abominally named ‘chick lit’ category, I think it’s best to categorise it less by gender and more by, er, literary merit.”

      A laudable sentiment, but one that is encumbered by the publishing industry’s unending mission to make any book by a young contemporary female author look like luxurious bath soap, and the attendant dismissal of said novel on the basis that if it looks/walks/quacks like chick lit, it must be, like, you know, chick lit.

      The blame for the ghettoisation of modern, popular fiction written by women lies at the door of unadventurous readers (or readers who base their antipathy on spurious criteria they would never apply to self-consciously “literary” authors), unimaginative publishers and gaudy marketing.

      That sounds a bit cranky.
      What about: “A female author is more likely to have their book marketed to a popular audience. This locks them out of a more self-consciously “literary” market. Which isn’t necessarily as lucrative but deals in the currency which is most valuable to writers (that being kudos/respect from other writers).”

      Um, yes. There’s a point in there somewhere!

    • Yes, women who write decent work need to band together to promote that work, otherwise we get lost under a tidal wave of pink goo.
      I hate that Irish women’s writing is synonomous with chick lit.
      One of our own won the Man Booker, for God’s sake.
      I could go on and on and on but I’m writing on article on this topic so I will save my thoughts/ire for that.

    • John Self says:

      “Writers like Marilynn Robinson, Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold and Joan Didion are surely gifted and current enough not to require a separate categorisation?”

      Agreed (though I don’t rate Sebold, and think Smith has yet to reach her considerable potential) – and to that list I’d add Jeanette Winterson, Jill Dawson, Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, Jhumpa Lahiri, Cynthia Ozick (read her!) and others. But the prize is primarily a marketing tool, to promote books which might otherwise be overlooked (through prejudice or simple laziness) – in the same way that the Saga Prize does for black writers.

      The Orange Prize was originally set up as a reaction to that most of the literary prizes in the early 1990s were being won by men (though ironically, the Booker was won by women in two of the three years after the Orange was set up). Perhaps the books by men were simply better? But it has a good track record of choosing good literary fiction – better probably than the Booker. In 2004, Andrea Levy’s Small Island – in my view one of the best British novels published in the last 5 years – won the Orange but wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker (while pisspoor stuff like Cherry by Matt Thorne was). For that sort of decision if for nothing else, the Orange will always be justified in my eyes.

    • Fiona says:

      Clom: I couldn’t agree more about “the publishing industry’s unending mission to make any book by a young contemporary female author look like luxurious bath soap, and the attendant dismissal of said novel on the basis that if it looks/walks/quacks like chick lit, it must be, like, you know, chick lit”. And yes, there is a serious attempt to shoehorn many female writers into the chick lit category to sell more books. It does appear to depend on content, though, with many others (e.g. CLaire Kilroy) avoiding such categorisation through her obvious subject matter. Chick lit aside, there is a substantial body of work being produced by women, for readers of both genders. Not sure what my point is here either, mind.

      WRW: I really don’t think women writing IS synonymous with chick lit. I think Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy etc are proof.

      John Self: Fair point (and I agree that many more, including Winterson, Lahiri etc deserve a mention). The Booker has come in for some criticism for a lot of reasons, and has meant many gems were overlooked. It certainly shouldn’t be taken as the definitive word on literature, so maybe the point is the more prizes which turn up more books, the merrier. I have yet to read Levy’s Small Island, and will hop to it now, given that glowing recommendation.

    • Fred says:

      I can understand why A.S. Byatt would be offended by the idea of a women-only literary prize. Some people find affirmative action patronizing because it suggests they need extra help to succeed. Paradoxically it gives credence to the perceived inferiority it is supposed to combat. There will always be a market for PS I Love You as much as there will be for Bravo Two Zero. Serious artists and truly imaginative storytellers have nothing to fear of this. If I were to win a major award I would feel better about it if the competition had been open to all comers. I think gender segregation works well in professional boxing and the prison system but beyond that I’m not so sure.

      I’m a bloke by the way.

    • John Self says:

      “If I were to win a major award I would feel better about it if the competition had been open to all comers.”

      Well that rules out almost all major literary awards including the Booker (open to UK, Ireland and Commonwealth authors only), the Pulitzer (for a book by a US author “dealing with American life”), the IMPAC (only for books are available in English), and so on. Only the Nobel would pass that test, probably, though as it has been awarded to only 11 women out of 105 recipients, it’s not quite a standard-bearer for gender equality.

    • @FIona
      “WRW: I really don’t think women writing IS synonymous with chick lit. I think Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy etc are proof. ”

      As a female literary writer, it feels like it is. Anne E, Claire K et al are seen as exceptions. Tons of money is poured into publiishing and promotong chick lit to the detriment of Ireland’s Irish female literary writers. Most of us have turned to the UK to publishers there who seem to like literary writing by Irish women and NOT chick lit.

    • John Self says:

      Claire Kilroy: I keep meaning to read Tenderwire, though now that I missed her appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, it’s looking less and less urgent again. I keep confusing her with Claire Keegan, whose Walk the Blue Fields I bought recently. Both called Claire K, both Irish, both published by Faber. I have the same conflation issues with Penelopes Lively and Fitzgerald, and Tims Parks and Pears.

    • Fiona says:

      WRW: Perhaps it is true that publishers conflate being female with a particular genre, but I can only assume that readers aren’t making the same mistake.

      John Self: Both did the MA in creative writing in Trinity too, I believe. let me know what you think of Walk the Blue Fields. . .

    • John Self says:

      Well I read the first story when I bought the book and thought it very effective and beautifully written. It put me in mind a little of John McGahern, though that’s probably rather superficial, from the rural setting than anything else. Plus I’m speaking from a position of no authority on McGahern, having read only one of his books. Amongst Women, of course – aptly for this thread.

    • Fred says:

      “Well that rules out almost all major literary awards including the Booker …”

      Point taken, Mr Self. I have no idea why those bodies would have geographical and/or linguistic entry criteria. It might be because they want to reduce the amount of books they have to consider each time around or to save money on hiring translators – basically for logistical rather than ideological reasons. There is always the possibility that the Booker and Pulitzer people make a concerted effort to limit the proliferation of foreign language or non-American literature. I seriously doubt the awards are there to help the under represented English speaking writer or all of those American authors who have to queue up outside the nation’s only publishing house every Monday between 12 and 3.

      My point was not that literary awards should have no entry criteria whatsoever, just that certain types of segregation are patronizing and can be counter-productive. Maybe the Orange Prize people just hate the big clumsy envelopes that men send their books in or the smell of lager they get from the pages. It is more likely that they are trying to correct an imbalance in the gender profile of award winners or that the sponsor is trying to manipulate its female customers. If I were a woman I would find that patronizing. My happiness after winning the Booker Prize would not be diminished in the slightest by the knowledge that I only went up against writers who publish in English.

    • Tom Farrell says:

      I think there is too much snobbishness about Chick Lit. At least the people who are reading it are reading books. It’s a bit like Joanna McMinn complaining about frivolous newspaper articles aimed at women. A predisposition towards frivolity and unliterary books doesn’t preclude a serious and discerning mind in other matters. I think there may also be a hint of sexism here – I seldom read patronising comments about thrillers which are read mainly by men – I think.

    • clom says:

      I agree strongly with Tom here and would argue that the same double standard is at work in terms of popular books read by teenagers.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      So Tom Farrell thinks there is too much snobbiness about Chicklit? Ditch snobby then and call it for what it is,sh t lit! ;Thats non gender defined, factual and negates the literature reference in chick lit,when theres no Literature to be found there but pulp, As for the current fad for police, detective novelettes,what not call them Hit lit for idiots !!

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Novels for teenagers Zit lit
      Novels for porn addicts Tit lit

    • John Self says:

      Perhaps the (undoubted) snobbery over chicklit stems from the fact that it is more prominent than its male equivalent (which isn’t so much thrillers, I think, Tom, as ‘ladlit’, as produced by the likes of Tony Parsons, Mike Gayle etc). The reason for that is probably that women buy and read more than men (’70% of books are bought by women’, is a stat that sticks in my head from a few years ago, possibly distorted by memory).

      It’s interesting though that both genres are the offspring writers who aren’t that bad, Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby respectively. It’s not their fault that so many hundreds of chancers have sailed along in their wake with substandard merchandise.

      Anyway to say that chicklit is mostly rubbish is a bit misleading, since to quote Sturgeon’s Law (from sci fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, when challenged that 90% of sci fi is crap), “90% of EVERYTHING is crap.”

    • John Self says:

      Oh and a small synchronicity moment – I mentioned Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island earlier – and have just discovered that a TV adaptation is currently being filmed in Portaferry! No doubt Strangford Lough is a double for 1940s Jamaica for the Empire Windrush scenes.

    • Women writers, male writers, we’re all brothers and sisters so does it matter in the end? I say it does not. I’m a writer as are many of my friends and we learn from one another. It’s gorgeous.

      Mary Jane Hurley Brant, M.S., CGP
      Author of When Every Day Matters:
      A Mother’s Memoir on Love, Loss and Life
      Simple Abundance Press, Oct. 1, 08

    • John Self says:

      In case anyone’s still reading this, the longlist for the Orange Prize 2009 has been announced.

      http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/show/feature/home/orange-prize-2009-longlist

      I’ve read three of the books: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is quite good (from what little I can remember of it, only a month or two on!), The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser is very good, and Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold is not very good. A few of the others (Ellen Feldman, V.V. Ganeshananthan) were sent to me by the publishers but ended up in the charity shop pile as I didn’t see myself getting around to them anytime soon. Also I tried Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day, which I’ve heard good things about, but couldn’t get very far into.

      I’d be interested in reading the Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson (though I found Gilead a touch religiose for my tastes) and most of all Deirdre Madden, as she’s been one of those corner-of-the-eye presences for years but I’ve never actually bought any of her books. Also I was amazed to see Curtis Sittenfeld on the list, as I’d assumed she was a man. You know, like Stigers.


Search Pursued by a Bear