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On Women Writers

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

So, this story broke while I was on holiday. Racist, colonialist, misogynist, Islamophobic and nobel-prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul declared in a Guardian interview that no woman writer was his equal (not even Jane Austen):

Quote:
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the "greatest living writer of English prose", was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so." Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".

He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.

He added: "My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way."

Francine Prose, author of the wonderful essay published in Harper's in 1998, "Scent of a Woman's Ink" revisited her famous essay in light of Naipaul's laughable claim in this blog post:

Quote:
When “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” appeared, it stirred up a storm of debate. I was denounced and discussed in many newspaper book sections that no longer exist. I will always be grateful to Harper’s for hosting a dinner party a few weeks later at which I could be pleasant to some of the editors whose publications, I’d noted, too rarely published or reviewed women—and thus could salvage what remained of my career. Now when the subject of “women’s writing” comes up, as it periodically does, the result is more of a dust devil than a typhoon. Women are distressed and disheartened all over again—and then the subject quietly, politely disappears.

 

I suppose a writer should be happy when a piece she wrote more than ten years ago seems as fresh and as pertinent as if it had been written yesterday. But in this case, I don’t find it a reason for celebration or self-congratulation. Honestly, I’d rather that “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” seemed dated: a period piece about a problem women no longer have.

Here is an excerpt from the brilliant original essay, linked to above:

Quote:
How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write? Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear — especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women — or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important — anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.

Of course, unlike small boys who don’t yet know better than to say that girls’ books are “sappy,” serious readers, male or female, would never admit to thinking that fiction by women is inferior. Male writers and critics have learned not to express every demented thought that crosses their minds, and besides, in most cases, they sincerely believe that they don’t esteem writing according to the writer’s gender. So one searches mostly in vain for current ruminations on the subject of “why women can’t write.”...

 

Another charge often leveled at women writers is that our work is limited to the rather brief run “between the boudoir and the altar.” Men write sweeping, phone-book-size sagas of the big city, of social class, of our national destiny, our technological past and future. They produce boldly experimental visionary fiction that periodically revives the moribund novel. Women write diminutive fictions, which take place mostly in interiors, about little families with little problems. And it’s no wonder, since our obsession with “feelings” blinds us to the larger sociopolitical realities outside the tiny rooms in which our theaters of feeling are being enacted.

How odd, then, that the Hemingway story should take place mostly on a cot outside a tent, between a man and a woman in the midst of an upper-class sports-adventure entertainment. Caught up in his feelings, unaware of the colonial fallout around him, Bwana can write home from the safari with zero awareness of how he wound up giving orders to his “personal boy.” There is talk of money, but the subtheme of economics doesn’t get much broader than a few insults leveled by the dying writer against the “rich bitch” who has supported him, the “destroyer of his talent.” At one point he tells her cleverly, “Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour.” For all his Big Subjects — men at war, men and peace, men without women — Hemingway wasn’t a Big Picture guy. It’s possible to read For Whom the Bell Tolls and remain clueless as to who was fighting, or why....

 

In the end, of course, it’s pointless to characterize, categorize, and value writing according to its author’s gender, or to claim that women writers fixate on everything that irritates gynophobes about our sex. The best writing has as little to do with gender as it does with nationality or with the circumscriptions of time. A novel such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina, a story such as Mansfield’s “Prelude” or Kleist’s “The Marquise of O,” transcends not only the facts of its author’s life but the manners and customs, the superficial gloss, of the era in which it was written. There will always be categories into which fiction falls, standards that have less to do with stereotype and preconception than with originality and revelation, with the ability to translate life — in all its simple and endlessly mysterious complexity — onto the printed page. But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian. If, in the future, some weird cataclysm should scramble or erase all the names of authors from all the books in all the libraries, readers may have trouble (and progressively more trouble, as more women join the professions and the military and more men immerse themselves in the domestic) telling whether Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne were created by women or men. The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing.

 

 


Comments

MegB
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Joined: Nov 28 2001

The best women writers tell us the unvarnished truth about ourselves - our weaknesses, motivations, etc. - in ruthlessly honest prose and verse.  Anyone who is of the opinion that so-called "women's writing" is somehow more sentimental and therefore weaker than men's is a walking anachronism.


ygtbk
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Joined: Jul 16 2009

Rebecca West wrote:

The best women writers tell us the unvarnished truth about ourselves - our weaknesses, motivations, etc. - in ruthlessly honest prose and verse.  Anyone who is of the opinion that so-called "women's writing" is somehow more sentimental and therefore weaker than men's is a walking anachronism.

Case in point:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Tiptree,_Jr.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

How 25 National Magazine Award Nominations Went To 25 Male Writers

Quote:
Last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors released its list of nominees for the 2012 National Magazine Award. In the so-called "brass ring" long-form categories—reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism and columns and commentary—all 25 of the writers nominated were men.

For an organization that usually gets talked about exactly twice a year—once when it announces the nominations, and again when it declares the winners—suddenly people had a lot to say about ASME.

"Women can’t write, says ASME," went theDaily News headline. David Carr called it a"sausage-fest." Disdain for the organization manifested in the Twitter hashtag #ASSME.

 


Freedom 55
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Joined: Mar 14 2010

After glancing at the quote above I had assumed the main problem lay with who decides the nominations. Having read the piece, it appears that in designing their nomination process, ASME had attempted to prevent this very thing from happening. Given that it has happened, they probably should go back and rethink things. However, it appears that the larger share of the blame should go to the editors within the publishing industry.

Quote:

One plausible explanation for this lopsidedness is that there are fewer women writing long-form journalism in general, particularly at those publications that tend to get nominated for National Magazine Awards. At the New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic and The Atlantic, for instance, less than thirty percent of the stories published in 2011 were written by women, according to this year’s VIDA Count, which did a gender breakdown of bylines in each magazine.

"The thing about the National Magazine awards is that the byline gap's symptomatic of the overall problem in assigning to women," said Ann Friedman, the executive editor of GOOD magazine. "It just sort of nicely forces a conversation that we should be having anyway.”

Magazines with mostly male editors often have more male writers in their networks, a factor that influences how many editors assign pieces. And women who write long-form pieces for the most prestigious magazines can have a hard time getting editors to connect with certain topics.

“I think that on an idea level, being a woman does work against you,” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award winner. “Because what you’re interested in is not what your editors are necessarily interested in. Right? They’re baby boomers living in Manhattan. They’re interested in something different.”

Quote:

As far as the ASME awards go, women are unlikely to see a huge jump in nominations unless editors either start changing the process through which they assign out pieces, or more outlets exist for general interest long-form journalism targeted at women.


Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

ASSME responds to criticism:

Quote:

Sid Holt, the chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors, says criticisms about how few women were named as finalists for this year’s National Magazine Awards are “kind of silly.”

Oh, okay, that explains it.  Thanks!


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

I knew we could get to the bottom of this. Thanks for clearing it up, Sid!


Ghislaine
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Joined: Feb 15 2008

This thread is seriously infuriating, but not surprising. I had missed the original op last summer, and it especially galls me as I am on a Jane Austen kick. What an arrogant, sexist pig that guy is. I have never read any of his writings and I now have no intention of ever doing so. 


Jacob Two-Two
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Joined: Jan 16 2002

Yeah, really. You just fell off my list buddy. Mind you, you were pretty far back as it was.

Shall we discuss our favourite female authors? I have a longstanding love affair with Ursula K. Le Guin, to the point of quasi-religious worship. Her stories transcend all conventions of genre and make the fantastical personal. No matter how outlandish the setting, the humanity of her characters is undeniable, making it impossible not to be drawn in and wholly convinced. I do not think she is capable of writing a single sentence that feels contrived or inauthentic.

In addition to writing a number of my favourite Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels, she also devoted herself to a lyrical and deep translation of the Tao Te Ching, superior to other versions I've read, despite the fact that she doesn't read or write Chinese. I tell you, the woman is some kind of prophet. If nothing else, she's been one for me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_6lQbNG2P8 


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Yes, Le Guin is awesome! Thanks for that tidbit about Tao Te Ching. Truly amazing.

There are too many women writers I love to mention them all, but I suppose lately I've been enjoying Fanny Hearst, a prolific genre writer from the early c-20 and I've always had a soft spot for Anita Loos, author of the rip-roaring hilarious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

As for secret crushes, Zadie Smith is coming out with another novel soon. I still can't believe she wrote White Teeth  when she was 21 years old. What a monster.


MegB
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Joined: Nov 28 2001

I'm a huge Le Guin fan.  I first read her Earthsea Trilogy (no longer a trilogy) when I was a teenager, and loved it to bits.  The Left Hand of Darkness was a more difficult read, but a pleasure.

There are writers whose prose is gendered, and those whose prose is not.  I think it's not so much the gender of the author, but rather who they identify with and how willing they are to step outside their personal experience.


Jacob Two-Two
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Joined: Jan 16 2002

Yes. This is one of the main things I love about Le Guin. Like Shakespeare, she seems to have no dominant perspective, able to adjust her mindset to nearly any character she can dream up. She fluidly adapts to other genders, philosophies, species, and planets and never seems to be forced or unnatural.


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

I admit to not having read many novels authored by women. But Canada's Linda McQuaig strikes me as being in a class by herself. I think she held back from making mince meat of Kevin O'Leary on CBC's The Amanda Lang Show with O'Leary sitting in at times as her straight man.


Catchfire
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What It Cost Eight Women Writers To Make It In New York

Quote:
In 1967, Patti Smith wrote in Just Kids, she was considering a move to New York City. "I had enough money for a one-way ticket. I planned to hit all the bookstores in the city. This seemed ideal work to me." Twenty-seven years before her, in 1940, Shirley Jackson and her soon-to-be husband Stanley Hyman graduated from Syracuse and moved to New York. According to this biography, "For quite some time they had known exactly what they were going to do: move to New York City, live as cheaply as possible, take menial jobs if necessary and wait for the Big Break. Not just wait—push for it."

And fifteen years before that: "The first week of January 1925, Zora Neale Hurston moved to New York City, as she recalled, with a dollar and fifty cents in her purse, 'no job, no friends, and a lot of hope,'" as one of her biographers put it.

The equivalent young female writer arriving in New York in search of literary success in 2012 (as calculated by the CPI Inflation Calculator) would have $19.51 in her purse, which could buy breakfast at Balthazar, or a pack of smokes and one Happy Hour cocktail, or about ten hours' rent.

We've looked at how much the costs of things like Reeses peanut butter cups and TV sets have changed over time—very specific items. Let's cast a wider net. For more than a century, the young flock to New York as the place to launch a career in the arts. Is it as expensive a proposition now as it always has been? Has the size of the potential rewards increased or decreased? And more importantly, just what was it like? In what ways was hanging at the Algonquin Roundtable just like (and not like) bumming around the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel? Let's look at the Bohemian set over time, as seen through the eyes (and pocketbooks) of some of the women writers we've been reading for decades, from Dorothy Parker and Hurston onward to today.

The list of authors discussed here isn't meant to be exhaustive, or even authoritative. There are many, many writers that could have been included in this survey, and any such omission is not intended as a slight (except to Ayn Rand, of course). Also different biographies are less forthcoming than others when it comes to specific dollar amounts, which was sometimes a factor in choosing subjects. Our intent here was simply to pick a writer or two from enough different eras to give a sense of what's been involved in moving to the Big Apple to make it (or otherwise) over the past century.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

The latest dinosaur waxing on how shitty women writers are (except for maybe Viriginia Woolf): David Gilmour

I teach modern short fiction to third and first-year students. So I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Yeah. Real-guy guys like F. Scott Fitzgerald. YOU IDIOT.

(no thanks to Kaitlin McNabb for the look)


Kaitlin McNabb
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Joined: Oct 19 2011

ugh.

I rode my caffeine high and hate wrote 1300 words on why this is not cool.

Do you have a penis? No? Well then you didn't make David Gilmour's reading list

This type of tacit sexist bullshit is soooo irritating. And unfortunately I'm giving it weight by responding to it, but WHATEVER.


bagkitty
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Joined: Aug 27 2008

I followed the link in post #14. I would like to quote this gem:

DGilmour wrote:

I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing.

Not terribly surprised to see that another asshat (and why am I so totally unsurprised he is another UCC alum) can't tell the difference between teaching and ear fucking.


Kaitlin McNabb
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Joined: Oct 19 2011

haha ear fucking.


Kaitlin McNabb
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OMG the link below:

The Life of Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist, As Told By David Gilmour via the Toast.

Virginia Woolf was a famous Chinese novelist. She was born in China, as is so popular among the Chinese, where she was born. She came in third during the Boxer Uprising, after which she wrote The Good Earth, which was about China, while being a woman novelist. She was born there and she lived there. She wrote all kinds of things about China, mostly in Chinese but also some in English too, I think probably, while also being a woman and all that that entails. Virginia Woolf was a hundred feet tall and menstruated knives, which was fairly unusual for Chinese women of her day.


 


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Serious guys? 

Guess he never read Bowles, Burroughs, or Ballard.

Nor, for that matter, Behn, Beauvoir, or Bowles.

The only thing his comment illustrates is his own closed-mindedness.

 


infracaninophile
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Joined: Aug 31 2011

Surely that segment Kaitlin quotes is a spoof?

 

 


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

I have a copy of this book:

I would not assume anything is a spoof.

 

 


Timebandit
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bagkitty wrote:

I followed the link in post #14. I would like to quote this gem:

DGilmour wrote:

I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing.

Not terribly surprised to see that another asshat (and why am I so totally unsurprised he is another UCC alum) can't tell the difference between teaching and ear fucking.

I've trained in television and film, know how to talk to a camera, have taught film studies and given lectures to a roomful of students. I also continue to make tv.

It's not the same.

Although I'm pretty sure I don't do ear-fucking.  Aural sex is not one of my preferences.

Gilmour is quite the asshole.


Kaitlin McNabb
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Joined: Oct 19 2011

I can't believe he is in charge of teaching students.

Yes, the article from the Toast was a joke, although it seems like it could be real.

 


Kaitlin McNabb
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Joined: Oct 19 2011
Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

You guys you guys you, uh, girls. He's actually really sorry (notreally):

This was an interview I gave sort of over the shoulder. I was having a conversation, in French, with a colleague while this young woman was doing this interview. So these were very much tossed-off remarks. They weren’t written down. It wasn’t a formal sit-down interview or anything like that. She said, “Gee, there aren’t a lot of women here.” And I said, “No, I tend to teach people whose lives are a lot like my own, because that’s what I understand best, and that’s what I teach best.” I can sell anything to anyone, but I have to be passionate about it. For example, I have a degree in French Literature, and I speak French fluently, but I don’t teach French Literature because I don’t feel it as deeply and as passionately as some of the other teachers here. So I actually send people down the hall to somebody who can teach it better. The same thing goes for German writers, for women writers, for gay writers, for Chinese writers. It’s got nothing to do with any nationality, or racism, or heterosexuality. Those were jokes by the way. I mean, I’m the only guy in North America who teaches Truman Capote, and Truman Capote was not what you’d exactly call a real heterosexual guy. So I really don’t know what this is about. And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something, because when I said “real heterosexual guys” I’m talking about Scott Fitzgerald [and] Scott Fitzgerald was not what you’d call a real guy’s guy, a real heterosexual guy.

 

I talked to Patrick Crean [publisher of his novel]. He was concerned that this was going to affect the general climate around the book, that some women might not like the book if they think that that’s my policy. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m apologizing. Normally I actually wouldn’t. But I think that there’s enough people here that there’s something in the tone of these quotes, these over-the-shoulder quotes, that has seriously offended people and just made them think that look, the only guys we’re teaching here are just big hard-on guys, and the rest of the stuff is featherweight. And it’s just not true. 

Phew! Good news that he isn't an insufferable blowhard who calls female journalists "little" and pays more attention to some French dude in his office for some reason while this little journalist is trying to interview him about literature.


Timebandit
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Joined: Sep 25 2001

If I was his publisher, I'd take away that shovel he's using to dig himself in deeper.

Nice not-pology.


Maysie
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Joined: Apr 21 2005

Patrick Crean wrote:
 big hard-on guys

Please, we're trying to talk about the most excellentist literature of, like, all time from the past 100 years from North America. You know, real literature, not your personal life dude. 


Maysie
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Joined: Apr 21 2005

Also, fuck you David Gilmour. That is all.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Why David Gilmour's advice to "go down the hall" isn't so bad

I could go into my own lengthy analysis of Gilmour's words. I find his attitude towards Emily Keeler to have been dismissive at best, his "surprise" at how people "take offense" to be narrow-minded and representative of his privilege, and his attempt at an apology to be wholly insincere. I could talk about how people with Gilmour's attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom.

I could talk about how Gilmour's views of the critical thinking skills of undergraduate students is not rare, and that many professors still believe that age and experience are the necessary gatekeepers to knowledge. I could talk about how Gilmour seems to privilege one type of literature, and seemingly condemns all other "2nd and 3rd-rate literature" (and the colleagues who study them) to occupy space "down the hall," far away from the intellectual enclave in which he works and thinks. I could talk about how Gilmour's ability to "teach what he loves" and his need to "only teach books he emotionally connects with or represent his interests" demonstrates a particular kind of privilege in teaching and a curious lack of empathy or interests in others, as if we should (or can) only ever teach the texts with whom we personally identify.

While I don't believe that equity in academia means that we can no longer specialize in a field, or that we all need to become generalists, I still find myself troubled by Gilmour's assertion that the literature he reads and teaches is "the best," and his inability to recognize that these longstanding works of well-regarded literature are framed by a long literary history that has often not consistently encouraged, published, or privileged other works, especially those by women, queer writers, and writers of colour.

 


MegB
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Joined: Nov 28 2001

Back when I was doing my undergrad, before there was an Internet to make everyone equal (snort), serious discussion of women writers was usually confined to the relatively new Women's Studies Program. Yes, guys would sign up to meet women, but they didn't last long. Women, of course, have their entire lives to become accustomed to living in a male-dominated world but, those poor guys, couldn't handle a few hours a week in a lecture hall full of women, even if it meant eventually getting laid. But I digress.

Not that I don't fully support academic freedom, but Gilmour shouldn't be allowed to teach anything more important than the operation of a jet ski.


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