Sunday, November 29, 2009

Is the short story female?

This year's Short Story prize shortlist is an all female affair, which prompts the question "is the short story female?" I don't want to answer it particularly, but I have been struck that whether its a prize list, the new publications announcement from a small press, or even the much talked about new novel, let alone the cream of the blogging crop, the longstanding gender imbalance in favour of male writers seems, finally, to have tilted. Of course, gender is no symbol of quality or otherwise, but I do seem to have encountered quite a bit of art recently that could only be female. "Angels of Anarchy" at the Manchester Art Gallery I blogged about earlier, but yesterday, on blogger Katherine Woodfine's suggestion I went to the Whitechapel to see Sophie Calle's exhibition. The centrepiece exhibit is "Take Care of Yourself" where over a hundred females are asked to interpret a "Dear John" email that the artist had received following the end of the relationship. Highlights include a female shooter using it for target practice, and a female parrot tearing it apart with her beak. However its a textual work, and many of the responses are textual, analyses of the act. In a packed room, the constant repetition of this one small piece of personal history gets louder in the retelling. It would be impossible to take in all the responses, and as a result, what begins as a playful exploration becomes increasingly unnerving. The original letter from an unnamed man "X" can't really cope with the weight of the explication. This "going over" of why a relationship has ended is disconcerting, like an outtakes reel from a particularly intense episode "Sex and the City." I'm reminded of the approbation Robert Lowell received for incorporating personal letters in his later poetry - and this using of something real and personal, but depersonalising it, then amplifying it, creates a sense of discomfort. The exhibition is a retrospective, though this piece is recent, and this discomfort comes through in many of the other pieces. I think its a remarkable show, but I can't exactly say I liked it.

But going back to that original question - I think in an age where "feminism" doesn't speak with one voice, its fascinating to see a certain female colonising of spaces that were once seen as more male. The writers on the national short story prize shortlist are no more speaking with one voice than a group of male writers would - and Hilary Mantel won the Booker with a book about a very traditionally male subject - yet I do wonder whether what we are seeing, as no particular generation comes up to challenge the alpha male postures of Amis, Boyd et al, there's a gap in the market for a particular type of robust masculinity. I read and enjoy a lot of female authors, but the ones that I don't like tend to be the ones who are clearly not speaking to me. For instance, I can appreciate that Carole Ann Duffy is a good poet, but she's not for me. Her poetry seems directed elsewhere - not necessarily just to a female audience, but certainly, not at me personally. If a poet or story writer has an ideal reader, we have to sometimes be aware that it's not us. (I'd say the same for Salman Rushdie or Seamus Heaney, so its not just a gender thing.)

I can't find the link but there was an article in the paper last week that certain universities, I think Oxford and Manchester were mentioned, where there are now "male support groups" being set up to conquer a "crisis in masculinity." In typical newspaper fashion they asked the editor of Loaded magazine what he thought of it, and you can probably guess the rest. Yet, given that men are still routinely criticised for not being communicative enough or not sharing their feelings, perhaps we should applaud any thing that is not quite so either/or. The "X" of Sophie Calle's exhibition wrote a long, sometimes self-justifying, sometimes awkward letter - a communication that ended with the somewhat unfair request that she "take care of yourself" - the artistic response seems an amplification of "talking it over with your girl friends". At the same time Martin Amis has fanned a few flames (flames that weren't actually there, until he brought the subject up), around his new novel, where he blames feminism and the sixties for his sister's early death. These gender divides remain unhelpful, yet we play at erecting the barricades, "Sex and the City" to the left, football and beer to the right. Social media, Twitter and the iPhone seem to have, in a way that's been somewhat unheralded, broken down a few barriers between technology (that male obsession) and communicating (that female one), so the two are intertwined.

The short story, I'm sure, is neither one gender or another; yet there remains a challenge for publishers - and writers - in that male readers, that small, vanishing group, tend not to read books by female authors. Partly its marketing (just look at the typography on Kate Atkinson's back catalogue, for instance, or Salt's "for mothers and lovers bundle"), but it might also be about intention. J.K. Rowling chose to go by her initials to encourage male readers of her boy wizard books; I'm sure "Wolf Hall" will break out of the book groups to male readers. (After all there's a wolf in the title.)


Elizabeth Baines said...

Hm, I notice your implication that book groups are mainly female affairs. I know it's largely true, but the one I'm in is split down the middle between men and women.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Whoops, I expressed that wrongly. It's not a divided group at all: I should have said we have equal numbers of men and women. Though having said that, I must say the men are less keen on books by women than the women are on books by men.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I was in Lass O'Gowrie the other night and there was a "microbiologists" monthly book group! Didn't catch the gender mix though. :)