Anne Enright: ‘There is so much mediocre work by men around’
Laureate of Irish Fiction highlights gender imbalance in publishing, theatre and book reviews
Anne Enright, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction: “The spiral of male affection twists up through our cultural life.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Author Anne Enright has criticised the perception that creative work by women “isn’t good enough”. “The argument about excellence ... is incredibly hurtful given that there is so much mediocre work by men around,” she said. She had seen some “wonderful, and some truly excruciating” plays at the Abbey – “I would fall out of the theatre afterwards thinking there was no point in being high-minded: what we needed was more – or at least some – ghastly plays by women,” she said.
Enright made the remarks at the National Gallery on Thursday evening during her final lecture of her three-year term as Ireland’s Laureate of Irish Fiction, which carries an annual stipend of €50,000 a year from the Arts Council.
In a wide-arranging address, which is published in the current edition of the London Review of Books, she also drew attention to the gender imbalance in publishing, theatre and book review pages of Irish newspapers, including The Irish Times.
Enright pointed to the difference in how writing by men and women is perceived. “If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we admire the economy of his prose; if a woman does, we find it banal,” she said.
She pointed to the ease with which men praise books by other men, and the failure of men to engage with women’s work. “The spiral of male affection twists up through our cultural life, lifting male confidence and reputation as it goes,” she said. She recounted the many “hurtful” arguments over “whether women’s work is any good” and the work done by women in universities to prove that. “It always seemed to me a double burden that women should suffer the discrimination and do all the work to fix it.”
Her final lecture as Laureate was titled “The Count: What the figures say about being a female Irish writer today”. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, so these remarks are fairly carefully considered,” Enright said by way of introduction.
Early in 2013, she had begun to count the number of books by women reviewed by The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, and found that books written by men were featured more frequently.
Enright presented a series of statistics based on a formal analysis by Dr Ken Keating of University College Dublin of those newspapers for 2013, revealing that 29 per cent of books reviewed by The Irish Times were written by women while in the Irish Independent, the figure stood at 37 per cent.
The 2013 figures for The Irish Times were broken down further. Books written by women featured in only 24 per cent of large feature reviews, yet featured in 41 per cent of reviews of approximately 150 words in length. “Women worth noticing were not worth noticing at length,” she remarked.
She also looked at gender interaction; women reviewers wrote nearly half of the shorter reviews, and two-thirds of the standard reviews. Women also reviewed 80 books by men, with men reviewing only 28 books by women.
Throughout the course of her lecture, Enright, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 with The Gathering, pointed out other shortfalls. For 10 years in a row, until 2016, One City, One Book, a publicly funded programme which promotes a single book across Dublin, chose books written by men. The International Dublin Literary award – formerly Impac – a €100,000 literary prize for a single work of fiction in English, is sponsored by Dublin City Council, and has been won by a man for 16 years in a row. Enright is on the 2017 shortlist for The Green Road.
Enright outlined a shift she noticed in 2015. A series of articles on Irish women writers appeared in The Irish Times, alongside a poster of Irish women writers similar to the popular one of male writers “seen on pub walls”.
More progress was evident in the Waking The Feminists protests at the Abbey in November 2015, where hundreds of women gathered to demand an explanation for their exclusion from the 1916 commemorative programming. Enright noted statistics on gender representation in Irish theatre between 2006 and 2015 that “found that the more funding an institution received, the more male it became”.
Returning again to newspapers in 2016, Enright noted that figures were up 10 per cent at The Irish Times, with a total of 39 per cent of books reviewed in 2016 written by women, and up by 3 per cent at the Irish Independent, which despite some all-male weeks still came in ahead at 40 per cent.
“This matches, more or less, what we know about the gender balance in published books,” she said. The increase was also seen in larger features, which ran two to one, male to female. The imbalance remained in gender interactions. Men reviewed 48 books by women, while women reviewed 86 books by men.
She looked at questions of who owns our past, why women have been excluded from public storytelling, and the style of the Irish male writing voice: all these things that form critical culture and authority. She recalled a placard at a Trump march which read: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this f**king sh*t.”
However, she said she felt a new sense of momentum; a stream of commended debut novels by women that have run alongside those by Irish men, and the balance that is being redressed on stage and in newspapers. “I hope we will finally sit side by side. There is plenty of room,” she colcluded
Introducing Enright, Arts Council director Orlaith McBride said that over the course of her laureateship, Enright “has used the platform of this annual lecture to interrogate and to challenge contemporary issues through the lens of writing and words”.
The first annual lecture in 2015, titled “Giving Voice, Antigone and the Dishonoured Dead”, examined the need to face the past as a State and the treatment of women and children. Enright’s second lecture in 2016 examined the life of author Maeve Brennan, and was delivered during Enright’s time teaching in New York University.