The narrator of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highlands’, the rambling, meandering conclusion to his Time Out of Mind, 1996), faces this question during a strangely distracted encounter he’s having with a waitress. For all that her line of enquiry is unexpected – they’ve been discussing his order and sketches until then – the narrator’s response fits a standard, familiar pattern: How would you know, he asks, and what would it matter anyway?
It matters, of course, because the neglect of women writers and women’s writing continues to distort our sense of the critical landscape, and to impoverish our imaginations. (There’s a more pressing problem for women writers, too: it must be trickier for them to end up making money than it is for their male counterparts). Figures from VIDA, a US organisation for women in the literary arts, released in March make for depressing viewing. Pie chart after pie chart shows big slices of red (the blokes colour) across the ‘quality’ and intellectual presses: The Nation, the New Yorker, Atlantic, TLS and London Review of Books all printed far more articles by men – and articles about men’s writing – than they did articles by or about women. Parity isn’t the slogan these statistics suggest; getting women’s presence towards 40% would represent considerable progress.
What’s shocking about VIDA’s numbers, though, and about similar figures Alison Flood produced examining the books pages of the Observer and Guardian in the UK, is the fact I was shocked by them. I read or skim through most of these publications regularly, and hadn’t noticed the gaps until they were drawn up in colours stark enough they couldn’t decently be ignored.
How are we in this situation? The position of women in publishing must have something to do with it, and yet can’t account for the consistency of women’s under-representation. The London Review of Books ( ‘consistently radical’, according to Alan Bennett) has particularly galling sums: in the LRB in 2011, 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed were women (58 out of 221). Yet its editor is a woman, and Mary-Kay Wilmers commissions pieces from prominent UK feminists and authors, including Jenny Diski and Jenny Turner. The stuffier and politically more conservative TLS does rather better, with 30% of reviewers and 25% of books reviewed being by women. Women are as capable of neglecting women’s writing as men and, although my own experience suggests they’re not quite as neglectful, I don’t detect any noticeably different attitudes or research patters among my female students than with their male peers.
This is a case of neglected writing and not, as perhaps with earlier eras in publishing, of lost opportunities for women who wished to write but couldn’t get published: the Scotsman reports that half of all bestsellers in Britain since 1998 have been by women. So vehemence is unlikely to help us much here, and is, besides, of dubious value. (I’m reminded of a dreary and too-common situation in left-wing meetings, where a man will stand up and ask indignantly why there aren’t more women speaking, thus adding his own male voice to the chorus, and brow-beating the women present in the process).
What of the weight of tradition? Willy Maley, a puckish critic from Glasgow University I’m normally very fond of, is quoted in the same Scotsman article as describing Scottish literature as a ‘gendered landscape’, where writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman contribute to a ‘male-dominated liteary lineage’. His choice of examples is unfortunate, though: important women writers in Scotland, most obviously Janice Galloway, have cited Kelman as an influence, and both Gray and Kelman pay regular tribute to Agnes Owens, their fellow writer and occasional collaborator. Despite both Gray and Kelman championing her work, though, Owens – unaccountably, if my overwhelmed response to her superbly crafted prose is at all typical – remains a neglected and marginal figure, while her male comrades are internationally recognised and celebrated.
Denise Mina – a Scottish crime writer with talent, political seriousness and perfect sentences of a kind that means she ought to have eclipsed Ian Rankin in the popular mind – ascribes the situation to readerly prejudice. ‘Readers are prejudiced against woman writers,’ she told a session at Writers and Readers week in Wellington, ‘publishers will ask women to use a masculine version of their name or their initials.’
The value of Betty Friedan’s slogan of a ‘problem without a name’ is that it allows us to pay attention to situations like this, situations with no easy – or readily explicable – cause. Decades of feminist activism and scholarship; increasing numbers of women in publishing and editing; regular exposure of the neglect of women’s writing; and, still, the situation continues. It’s about all the things I’ve listed, to be sure, but isn’t a product of any one of them. We don’t read women authors, do we?
What is to be done?
Mina’s allegation of prejudice is an uncomfortable one; the prejudiced, as we usually prefer encountering them, are other people. I had my own ‘Highlands’ moment a few years’ back, and the encounter was painful. A friend accused me of literary chauvinism. I responded indignantly. The absence of women authors from my shelves settled the argument. I work in a job that ought to involve me keeping up with all sorts of literatures, and teach feminist literary theory in a few different settings – how was it, then, that my own choices were so blind, and so blokey?
I’ve no idea how to answer that question but propose a banal, but, I think, important solution: quotas. Not institutional quotas, necessarily, but personal reading lists. For the last four of five years I’ve kept an order in my bedside pile that forces half the books there to end up being by women. There’s no logic to this beyond a gendered sequence in the piling. If there’s a new John Tranter collection waiting to be read it needs to be followed by an old Judith Wright. The Stranger’s Child gets followed by There But For The, and so on.
A few months into this plan, two things became obvious. The first was that friends started getting irritated at how long it took for borrowed books to be returned. (The pile needs pursued in the order it’s laid out, otherwise older gendered reading patterns re-emerge). More interestingly was the fact that finding the next book by a woman to read required more reflection. Three-quarters of the reviews I’m reading are about books by men, after all; finding women’s writing takes more effort. This has a pleasure of its own, though: I’ve discovered books in the last years I never would have read had I not been looking to plug a gap in my sequence and, having discovered them in order to fill the quota, their literary merits mean I want to get them circulating among other readers.
The method’s crude, artificial and all the rest no doubt. What does it matter anyway, Dylan’s narrator asked. A few lines later, though, the only author he could list was Erica Jong. We can do better than that. To start you on your quota-filled book piles, I want to end by listing five loved works I’ve found through my method, and that I hope might start you on yours:
Tawada won the Akutagawa Prize – Japan’s equivalent of the Booker – for this tale, a strange and unsettling variation on the fantasy. Now based in Germany, and fluent in German, Tawada is a poet as well as a prose writer, and her work manages to be ‘poetic’ without dragging in all the irritating mannerisms that adjective suggests. (She’s also lucky to have her works presented for English-language readers in superb translations by Margaret Mitstani). The Bridgegroom was a Dog involves a narrative within a narrative, at once creepily whimsical and jarringly scatological.
Miyabe’s thriller was published in the early years of Japan’s post-Bubble confusion (I was looking for something to follow the quota after finishing David Peace’s Occupied City). The centrality for the plot of pieces of paper, posted files and the detritus of pre-Web 2.0 make this a curiously retro page-turner, and yet her characters’ primary fears – debt and identity theft – give All She Was Worth a Global Financial Crisis resonance.
I’d avoided Enchi’s The Waiting Years for a long time, for the stupid and ignorant reason that it was boring, but, having finished A L McCann’s Subtopia and needing to meet my quotas, I was lucky enough to discover one of the great novels of post-war Japan, Masks. This is a novel that smashes two conceits in one go: it’s a novel of ideas that has actual, complex ideas in it, mostly to do with aesthetics and art history, and it is a piece from the 1950s that reminds us everything we know about that decade is wrong. This particular reminder involves a conspiracy masquerading as a love triangle of painfully vague dimensions, and engineered by a widow’s mother-in-law. How many critiques of the nuclear family manage that level of intensity?
Park was one of the south of Korea’s best-loved novelists (I read this work in Yu Young-Nan and Stephen J. Epstein’s 2009 translation), and Who ate up all the shinga? is a fictionalised memoir of her early life, through the colonial period and into the Korean War. The shinga of the title is left untranslated by Yu and Epstein as an estranging device – it’s a herb unlikely to be familiar to Korean readers now and stands as a sort of forlorn detail, an indicator of the social and natural worlds the war and occupation destroyed. Park’s understated, offhand style attempts representations of an historical catastrophe –one Australia and New Zealand took part in – that remains our ‘forgotten’ war.
Adam’s stories combine the political and representational ambition and seriousness journals like Overland used to praise as ‘realism’ with the formal experimentalism and innovative style of the modernist greats. There’s so much in this collection that is normally neglected in prose fiction – from the ambience of Dili under ANZAC occupation to women’s jails to the underwhelmingly overwhelming senses in maternity wards after birth –and a carefulness and deliberative reticence from sentence to sentence that demands re-reading.
These five I’ve taken from my shelf more-or-less at random. The only way to manage any sort of balance in reviewing pages is for us to read and write about fiction by women. It’s a simple conclusion, but it isn’t happening nearly enough.