Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lets Not Talk About Sex

Something's been niggling me over the last couple of weeks regarding "gender and writing." Firstly, why am I even interested in this "old chestnut" again? It's come around again, though. Silly old Naipaul thinks no women are worth reading, easily offended Bidisha gets her calculator out and adds up the X and Y chromosomes of recent literary prizes; the Guardian runs a "guess which gender" game and in the midst of it all, there's another Orange Prize winner.

Nothing sees opinions solidify so quickly into camps as this one, it seems. It was the same a few weeks ago when Philip Roth won the "international" Booker to much chagrin from Virago founder Carmen Callil. Yet, what have we learnt over the last week or so? That we only discuss the issue when the Orange Prize is on the horizon? That Bidisha's got a point (as always) but its so predictable as to be ignorable? That V.S. Naipaul hates everything?

The original Orange came about for a very valid reason; the all-male shortlist for the 1991 Booker list. Its notable that Bidisha no longer includes the Booker in her list of Prizes that doesn't recognise women, after all 3 of the last 5 winners were female, even if only one of those years had a majority of women on the shortlist. I'm not sure what one can say about prizes - other than that the "Orange" is a good thing. Its not as if it takes all the air out of the literary system, allowing no men a look in. It seems to me that the Orange, by virtue of its internationalism (it admits American women, which Booker doesn't), has done a good job. Its the only British prize that a writer of Barbara Kingsolver's calibre, for instance, will be mentioned in - surely a service to the British reading public?

What has concerned me about these various discussions of women writers, male winners, is that the arguments seem to no longer hold water. I haven't the stats to hand, but aren't more books bought by women? Aren't more novels now published by women writers? Weren't there more women than male poets in "Identity Parade?" Don't girls do better at school? To criticise Roth or Heaney or even, god forbid, Naipaul for being male seems to be attacking the wrong targets. None of those formidable figures have slipped from their perch yet; but though I only like the first of these, its their writing not their gender that has kept them there. Are there are any female poets of Heaney's generation that we equally revere? Perhaps not, but then he was always the "famous" one; but go on a generation - we have a very popular poet laureate, who probably sells more tickets to more readings than any of her male peers. We have a female editor at Poetry Review. And, if we are looking for a list of British contemporary writers who might appear to have staying power, its surely as likely to include Nicola Barker, A.L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and Sarah Waters as David Mitchell, Tom McCarthy and Hani Kunzru.

In other words, are we choosing our arguments selectively? I certainly don't envisage - or want - an "all male" prize to rival the Booker, but if a random male finds himself at a random railway station looking for a book, he may look in vain, unless he's got a particularly liking for Wilbur Smith or Chris Ryan. The rest of the book jackets are aimed at the female traveller, even if the books themselves aren't. For a variety of reasons, the book trade has increased, rather than decreased, the likelihood that a man will only read male authors. Us literary types, particularly those of us brought up in the egalitarian 80s, are as likely to be picking up the new Atwood as the new Amis. A "good male read" award might be a better idea - but if it does, then like a Labour party safe seat, a female quota might be advisable.

Is it true that women writers only write about certain "female" subjects? There's a bias, certainly, towards inward narratives and domestic dramas, but then again there isn't - depends where you look. I think its just that men rarely write about these things; or if they do, its freighted with intellectual concerns or billed as a Bildungsroman, or, as in the hospital scenes in McEwan's "Atonement", as much concerned with the mechanical as the human. And women also write about conflict and wars, whether its the Congo in Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" or Leningrad in Helen Dunmore's "The Seige."

The book - whether novel or poetry - is always in "crisis", but there plenty of new writers. Last night I went to a talk by the American artist Judy Chicago, who has just written a book about Frida Kahlo, entitled "Face to Face", where she looks at the whole of Kahlo's life and work, but with the emphasis on the latter. It was a fascinating talk, and the book is lavish. Despite only having an oeuvre of around 140 paintings, many of the ones shown were new to the audience. For Chicago, this unwillingness to look at the "whole work" of a female artist is detrimental. She herself suffers from having one work, "The Dinner Party", revered above all others. An interesting problem for any artist; but she makes the point that with artists from the past, if we know so little of their work, then chances are that little of the work will have been preserved, or collected. Many of the pieces that were exhibited in Manchester Art Gallery's "Angels of Anarchy" surrealist women artists, were from private collections. Chicago also pointed out that for women artists to move on, and to not keep repeating the same ideas or images, they need to know the lineage of women artists that may not be part of the canon.

It was this last idea that stuck with me. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," we say, knowingly, about politics, but surely it is also true of art? The drug novels of the late 20th century that came in the wake of "Trainspotting" seemed to be unaware of a rich history, and added little to it. (Welsh's book, in contrast, was well aware of a lineage of Scottish writers, using Scottish idiom and dialect.) There's a very real sense, that because the overriding narrative remains patriarchal, that even those "gains" that have been made in entering women writers into the canon may again be lost. We are lucky, in other words, that Lessing and Atwood and Drabble and others are still writing.Chicago's audience was a mix of those who knew her work well, and those who didn't. The audience was, predominantly female; perhaps the audience was predominantly male when Amis was discussing Larkin? The rediscovered women writers of Virago's green-spined list now seem to be in every charity shop. The appetite for those books, those writers, which was clearly there thirty years ago, now seems on the wane. The many women writers who have been published over the last 30 years or more, some, I'm sure, have long gone out of print, or have stopped writing.

The market for novels is increasingly a female market, and its no surprise that writers such as Kate Atkinson or Suzannah Dunn have moved from general fiction to more marketable genres, such as crime or historical novels. Male writers have always done this, even if sometimes under different names. A writer of my age, of either sex, could not, I think, ignore female writing. Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood are more acute influences on me than David Lodge or William Boyd. But I think what Chicago said, and what Bidisha hints at, is that it is not just the gender of our contemporary writers or readers that we need to consider, but the gender-bias of the culture. It was, as I say, impossible to ignore female writing in the 80s, just as it was impossible to ignore gender politics. It formed me, it formed my peers. Whether it had the same trickle down effect on people who had not been to university is harder to say. The majority of the city's women were enjoying the spectacle of the 5-man Take That last night, not a talk by one woman artist about another. The men may well have been at home looking after the children last night, which in itself would be some kind of triumph.

It seems to me that the "dog whistle" gender politics makes headlines but it not helpful. Wise feminists realised that their struggle was part and parcel with the class struggle, whilst more than aware of feminism being an achilles heal for an often male-dominated labour movement. Contemporary thinkers need to be wary of playing to a gender bias which will always find an audience, whilst ignoring the larger power games that are defining our contemporary world.

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