A profound deafness to the female voice

There should be no need for all-female anthologies, distancing women from the hallowed hall of Irish literature, but the word writer had a default meaning: man

Sinéad Gleeson: ‘There is good writing and bad writing, and every writer’s work should be considered on many more things – form, individuality, aesthetics – than gender’

Sinéad Gleeson: ‘There is good writing and bad writing, and every writer’s work should be considered on many more things – form, individuality, aesthetics – than gender’

 

On a mild September evening in 2015, The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers was launched in Dublin. Anne Enright, who contributed a story to the book, agreed – by metaphorically bash a bottle of champagne against its spine – to say a few words.

Many of her remarks have remained seared into my brain. Standing in front of the large crowd in a too-hot room, she attempted to address how people view male and female writers. The audience were asked to consider the line: “The cat sat on the mat”, and how those words change and acquire a different meaning, depending on whether they’re written by a man or a woman. An instance of male utterance suggests the universal, the political, the human condition for god’s sake! A woman’s appropriation of the same sentence renders it small and domestic, lacking the philosophical enquiry that a male writer would bring to it.

This concept has been repeated as fact and presented as the way things are for such a long time that we really believed it. Women who write have been conditioned to view the female voice as lesser, insubstantial and never something that engages with serious issues. For a writer to be taken seriously, visibility is crucial.

Profile, recognition from peers, inclusion in anthologies, but this – for a variety of reasons – did not occur for many women writers.

One line in particular from that launch night stood out and has stayed with me. Whenever I talk about The Long Gaze Back on panels, at arts festivals, or to US students about all the women writers they’ve never heard of, the line rises up, a flag in the wind.

Looking at older anthologies, I found some examples that contained no women; another whose sole female inclusion was Mary Lavin, with her name misspelt as 'Lavan'

Enright suggested that there is a “profound deafness” to the female voice. As though the voice of a woman speaking, writing, or expressing an opinion is emitted only on a certain frequency. A Galton’s whistle of female articulation existing in a vacuum and only heard by some. A cursory glance at Irish short story anthologies over the last eighty years – even from editors like the great Frank O’Connor – doesn’t require a reader to spend too long squinting at the table of contents, to find a disproportionate handful of female names.

I am equally familiar with the feeling of my eyes moving down the list, and my heart sinking along with it as I count how few women there are. In my research for The Long Gaze Back, by looking at older anthologies, I found some examples that contained no women; another whose sole female inclusion was Mary Lavin, with her name misspelt as “Lavan”.

David Marcus was the kind of brilliant advocate for the short form that is always needed. His early anthologies vary from one-quarter to one-third representation of women, but later work displays an understanding of that and an attempt to rectify it: The State of the Art: Short Stories by the New Irish Writer (1992, Sceptre) has a 50:50 split of stories by each gender.

In secondary school, Soundings was the requisite Leaving Certificate poetry anthology. Just one woman was represented, and the fact that she was not even Irish only salted the wound. No disrespect to Emily Dickinson, who I am convinced, used her staccato dashes to demonstrate on the page the way men interrupt women. Soundings was edited by a male academic who taught me English in my first year in UCD. On that syllabus, the core text for shorter fiction was The Oxford Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by William Trevor. It’s a fine anthology, by a brilliant writer, of 39 stories. A canonical classic for some, but contains only seven women – all already established names – including Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien, Somerville & Ross and Mary Lavin.

No one with an interest in Irish literature could have missed the Field Day anthology debacle. An important and landmark publication, it subsequently had to add two additional volumes as a mea culpa for the lack of women in the first three. Then there are the all-male prize lists. The books of the year round-ups where VIDA have shown that men mostly recommend books by other men, while women select books by both genders. That only 14 out of 114 Nobel literature laureates are women. It has been nothing, if not consistent, this imbalance. This is, as Enright says, just the facts.

As recently as 2017, The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, a collection of interrogative essays on Irish poetry, managed to pull off a double-snub: four of the contributors are female, and only four female poets are considered, out of a total of 30.

It prompted dismay and disappointment, leading to the establishment of the female-collective, Fired Irish Poets. It also demonstrates how, once again, it is up to women to use their time to respond, to do the corrective work of calling out male editors, and how this eats up their creative time, steering the focus away from their own work.

I sat in a Dublin library with a full house, it was not lost on us that there was only one man (staff excluded) in the audience

At a recent panel for One City One Book, writer Niamh Boyce pointed out that if a book features all or mostly men, it cannot represent a huge swathe of experience – lived, or thematic – of a large percentage of readers. That is not to say that women only write about female experiences, but many male writers – unless they’re prepared to ventroliquise or write from a female perspective – never do.

To support writers, we need to read them. At another panel, Lia Mills pointed out that men are more likely to read male writers, arguing that women are omnivorous readers, flitting between books by both genders. As Lia, Bernie McGill and Éilis Ní Dhuibhne and I sat in a Dublin library with a full house, it was not lost on us that there was only one man (staff excluded) in the audience. The imbalance extends to readership: of who gets read, and who doesn’t. The 30 stories of The Long Gaze Back scour the heart of what it is to be human, of navigating a life, and the pitfalls therein. Any committed reader of the short story could recognise this – and talent within its pages – immediately.

Even now, writing this, I pulled the Irish anthologies I have to hand off the shelf to recount, to double-check, to make sure that I didn’t imagine all of the neglect. Once you notice these absences, they are difficult to unsee. Like an accident, or an unsolicited graphic image sent by a stranger on the internet. There is an unshakeable feeling that unnoticing is not an option, and that once one starts to check for gaps and silences, they are all around. It comes with its own lexical bingo; the same brightly coloured balls sucked up the chute of patriarchy. Exclusion. Discrimination. Imbalance. Omission. And now – deafness.

Seven weeks after the autumn launch of The Long Gaze Back, I found myself sitting in Abbey Theatre one lunchtime. The occasion was the first public meeting of Waking the Feminists, a collective set up in response to the Abbey’s Waking the Nation, a celebratory year-long programme for 2016 to commemorate 1916. It included only one play by a woman. One by one, women walked up to the microphone and for one minute each told micro stories of silencing, of lack of representation, of concern for their careers because of speaking out. Sound designers, actors, stagehands, writers, wardrobe staff . . . the women kept appearing. An army who had mobilised quickly, tasked with distilling years of hurt, fury, and disappointment into 60 seconds. Some spoke of being expected to take what they were given and be grateful to even be there; others of money worries, of juggling a family with an actor’s peripatetic life. Two weeks later when The Long Gaze Back won an Irish Book Award, I thanked these women in my speech. I was grateful for their courage, but mostly for their action. Because it’s easy to seethe, or to just say nothing. Speaking up has a price, and silence does not necessarily equate to complicity. I did not want to complain quietly, fire up the whisper networks that have become so vital to women, while I searched frantically for female writers in the table of contents. Instead, I wanted to try and right the good ship of Irish anthologies, which had been listing in one direction for too long. I have had too many collective conversations about what women have to do to be taken as seriously as male writers; to never have to bargain to be visible in the canon, to not be asked who is minding their children while they write; how female experience is blanketedly transposed onto every woman, cis or trans, or the accusation that a woman’s fiction must automatically be autobiographical. The insinuation that even in fiction, women don’t have the imaginative rigour to just make it up and therefore, must be merely transcribing their own lives (Rachel Cusk, for one). It is easy to fulminate, to hashtag a thread of and-another-thing! tweets. Or you can do something else. There are other ways to respond.

Books come into the world for a number of reasons.

Apart from graft, or what Mary Heaton Vorse called “the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”, there is often both luck and chance involved. After the publication of the first anthology I edited, Silver Threads of Hope, I had a catch-up meeting with the then commissioning editor of New Island Books, Eoin Purcell. In his office, over his shoulder, I spotted a book that I hugely admire, and one that has become even more important to me in recent years. Cutting the Night in Two edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser was positioned just above Eoin’s shoulder. Its spine is the same shades of night sky as the title suggests. I’d know it anywhere. When it landed on my desk as a young journalist, it was like opening a door. 34 stories by Irish writers past and present – but all women. Nearly every anthology I’d encountered before that had made me assume that there were not enough worthy women to fill a volume. Many of the writers included were names that were new to me, and they had rarely, if ever, been anthologised. “You should do an updated version of that book,” I said blithely pointing, unaware of what I was walking myself into. Eoin Purcell, an astute editor with finely tuned literary radar, did not miss a beat. “You should do an updated version of that book.” And in the most random and planet-aligning way, a book was born. If I had been standing anywhere else in that room on that day, there is a strong possibility that The Long Gaze Back may have remained a wistful daydream.

There should be no need of all-female anthologies

Thankfully, there have been some all-female literary anthologies published, and The Long Gaze Back builds on the work done by others. In the past it often fell to feminist presses or small, independent publishers – The Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement, Arlen House, Attic Press – to produce all-female anthologies. At a time when it would have been even harder than today to convince a publishers to take on such a project. Editors like Eavan Boland, Ailbhe Smyth, Ruth Carr, Janet Madden-Simpson, Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, Katherine Hogan, Maeve Binchy, Caroline Walsh and Louise deSalvo. They sought out names that were both familiar and those that had slipped into history, no longer known, or read. Caroline Walsh, former books editor of The Irish Times, put together various Irish anthologies of both male and female writers. One, Modern Irish Stories (1985) is possibly the only example I have yet to find that tips the balance slightly – at 16:14 – in favour of women. If examples of imbalance persist, there is a necessity to recall Evelyn Conlon and Hans Christian Oeser’s words in the introduction to Cutting the Night in Two:

“It is believed by some that we have reached a stage where it is counter-productive to have an all-women anthology, but we feel that this is far from true. Despite some improvement in anthological representation, there has been an unfortunate fragmentation of the female voice coming from Ireland, leading to an internal exile. We get some of these writers, some of the time, at the party. Next time we get a different view. This continuous scattering dilutes the overall voice and ensures that we cannot compare the work of the individuals who contribute so uniquely to the whole.”

Of course there should be no need of all-female anthologies. No dividing line between writing by either sex. Gender should be as inconsequential to a writer’s acumen as whether they are experimental or realist, or favour the linear novel over the fragmented essay. Labels – always labels, so readily plucked and hastily affixed – are by their nature isolating. They have worked particularly against women. In attempting to elevate their own work – which is not the same as insinuating themselves into the so-called canon – “woman” becomes a sub-category, a niche, and a means of identification, whether an individual wants to be part of that group or not. There is no “male writer” or “men’s writing”, but you’ll find women’s writing has its own Wikipedia category. Herded into this club is another way of distancing women from the hallowed hall of Irish literature. Women, who happen to be writers, want to be spoken of as practitioners of a specific craft, not constantly be reminded of their gender within a certain framework. But the word “writer”, as has been repeatedly inculcated to all, has a default meaning: man. There is good writing and bad writing, and every writer’s work should be considered on many more things – form, individuality, aesthetics – than gender.

Lavin’s   In the Middle of the Fields is an incendiary piece of writing, impossible to ignore

The stories that women tell are often subjected not just to the male gaze, but to one that infantilises and minimises their work. When a man writes about relationships or the home where he lives, this is parsed as work of profundity, an unpacking of the existential. When women wrestle with the same subject on the page, the consensus is that it never elevates itself above cosy domestic.

Mary Lavin has written volumes of stories, many of them progressive in their social examination, like Sarah, or the claustrophobic menace in her Long Gaze Back story. Collectively, much of Lavin’s work of a certain era is referred to as her “widow stories”. Not only reducing her to a societal title that only exists in relation to her dead husband, but to a figure that in Irish society of the time, would have been subjected to pity and certain invisibility. Their voice, like those of many neglected and lost female writers, audible only on a certain frequency, railing against the same deafness.

Lavin’s Long Gaze Back story In the Middle of the Fields is an incendiary piece of writing, impossible to ignore. A young woman whose husband has died, lives in a lonely farm with her young children, and who dreads coming downstairs in her own home at night, or “a knock after dark”. The village – and the local men – know that she is isolated. When Crossan comes to visit at night, it’s not just inconvenient and inappropriate, it is deliberate, and creates an immediate sense of dread; one that any woman reading the story will recognise the scent of. A tone that brings to life the full horror of the MeToo movement; a movement that has demonstrated that there is only so long that you can keep women from speaking up and speaking out, for asking for redress, for wanting things to change. There will be more anthologies of Irish writing (Faber & Faber are to publish Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, the sixth in the series founded by David Marcus, in 2019, edited by Lucy Caldwell), and with them, more balance and more diversity.

On the eve of a historic referendum with women at the centre of it, it’s time we heard the voices of all women, tuning in to what they say, and what they write.

  • Sinéad Gleeson is the editor of ‘The Long Gaze Back’ and ‘The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland’. Picador will publish her essay collection, provisionally titled ‘Constellations’, next spring
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