Women Writers

The literary genius and intellectual Bidisha had a piece on her blog the other week (I daren’t link to it; you can find it for yourself) about women writers and how come they don’t win literary prizes when men are winning them all the time. It was apparently also published in the actual Guardian, but not online – possibly because they were worried it lacked her usual incoherence and came across in places quite reasonable. And she did slip into old prejudices a bit when she blamed women for awarding prizes to men, betraying the sisterhood etc. From my analysis of the Booker Prize (which has now sadly been lost on a broken hard drive), I seem to recall if the jury were 3:2 in favour of men, then they’d almost always award the prize to a man; but when it was 3:2 in favour of women, the sex of the recipient was about 50:50 – demonstrating that woman are, if anything, just being reasonable – showing no inclination one way or the other.

I’ve been aware for a while how few novels by women I read – though still, probably more than most men. The figures from Books Read for the last two years are:

  • 2009 – 8 books out of 97 (8%) – novels by women averaged 6, against an overall average of 5.04
  • 2010 – 11 books out of 100 (11%) – novels by women averaged 5.09, against an overall average of 5.58

None of this surprises me in the least: I don’t read many books by women, but when I do I don’t find them significantly better or worse than those written by men. (The standard deviation in 09 is much higher than 10 though!). I think probably the percentage of Books Read written by women is also higher than the percentage not read: so yes, I don’t buy them, but when I do, I’m more likely to read them.

There is one area of my bookshelf though where books written by women suddenly leaps to 33%: – it’s books in French (and when I say “in French”, I mean, “actually in French”). Which leads me to posit various reasons:

  • I respect, or at least have greater expectations of, female French writers more than their English language counterparts
  • Society respects female French writers more than their English language counterparts
  • A higher percentage of the French language books which make it over to Britain and find their way to secondhand shops where they are purchased by Obooki are by women (possibly because a higher percentage of French language students are female, I haven’t really checked)
  • I see female writers as being, on the whole, likely to be less stylistically and syntactically complex, which suits my ill-formed knowledge of the French language
  • There is a small set of French female writers I really like (i.e. Colette) and whose books I buy.

Anyway, all this is to say, that I probably still won’t be reading any greater percentage of novels by women in the foreseeable future. (And it’s certainly not an excuse for another of my futile projects!).

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15 thoughts on “Women Writers

  1. I have a similar “issue” with novelists–i.e. I have about 5-10 male writers calling my name for every female writer calling my name for some reason. The gender balance is more even in nonfiction and in blog reading, though. Not sure what to make of that, but I’m not going to drop Bolaño and Onetti in favor of Isabel Allende just to even out my stats.

  2. Hi Anthony, and welcome.

    Thanks for the list. There are some wonderful names on it, writers I really like (Woolf, Paley, Dinesen), but the thing is, a lot of the writers I’ve heard of but never read and just for some reason I know I’m never going to read either. And beyond sheer prejudice, I can’t really suggest why. (There’s a couple of writers though (Belben, Olive Moore, Rebecca West) I hope to get round to soon).

    Can I add three other writers: Colette, of course; but two slightly less known writers I’ve been very impressed by over the last few years: Grazia Deledda’s La Madre / The Woman and the Priest; and Anna Banti’s Artemisia.

    Beauvoir will be the next up in French, I think: Une Mort Tres Douce (A Death Very … ah, hard to translate Douce, need to think about that [looks like the English edition goes for “easy”, but I don’t know][oh yeah, idiots, it should be “gentle”, the epigraph is Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, although strangely the French translation of the English epigraph translates “gentle” as “sagement”, which is an interesting translation]), which looks very simply written.

    Ah, I see you’re doing the Melville House Novella Challenge: I was smugly satisfied I’d read half of them already. Are some of them, like Kuprin’s The Duel (which I’ve got somewhere but never read) though really novellas? It seemed longer than that in my edition – pushing on for 200 pages.

    Richard: Allende, another women writer I’ve never read, and never intend to, having heard bad things about her (possibly just from Bolaño). I’ve got a few books by other Latin American women to read though: Josefina Vicens, Nelida Pinon (a name with too many accents for me to cope with), Rachel de Queiroz (no relation to Eca), Elena Poniatowska.

    I must admit, I did notice my non-fiction percentage for women is higher than for fiction, whatever that means.

  3. Thank you.

    Names duly added to the list; can’t think how I forgot Anna Banti, whom I discovered ages ago via Susan Sontag. I suspect my non-fiction percentage is higher for women that for fiction, skewed by Sontag.

    I’ve been reading Rebecca West for the first time this year, and intend to read more, particularly her magnum opus.

  4. A quick scan of my own lists reveals that so far this year 12% of the books I’ve read have been by women – last year it was an even feebler 4%.

    I’d be hard pushed to give a reason why that’s the case. I want to believe it’s not conscious (i.e. I don’t use gender as a criteria). But I suppose it must be at some level for such an imbalance to prevail. Hmmm.

    I’ll add one name to Anthony’s list: Sybille Bedford. I read her non-fiction account of a Mexican journey last year, and her novel A Legacy just recently. I’m pretty sure I’ll read everything by her (3 more novels and an autobio as well as collected journalism I picked up second hand).

    I’ve not read them but Ann Quin and Anna Kavan are also (from a distance) interesting.

  5. I didn’t like Ann Quin (not sure now what the book was called) but I did like Anna Kavan (Ice). – Yeah, it’s all those Virago Classics: Rebecca West, Sybille Bedford, Dorothy Richardson: – I don’t know why I’m so hesitant ever to buy them.

    Re, the French: perhaps less flippantly, the French do seem to love books (and indeed films) about triangular (rectangular) relationships: a few women, a few men, a camera, the background of Paris etc – and you have a work of art. It’s a recipe for both male and female writers – and I find it endlessly pleasingly.

  6. Was it Berg by Quin?

    I started West’s Balkan opus there a while back but had to abandon it as I never got the chance to read it properly: it’s too big to take anywhere and I don’t often get to read at home. It was pretty interesting though, I’ll go back. What I’ve read of Bedford has been very good. Richardson I admit I don’t know.

  7. Yes, that was it: Berg; – I can’t remember now what I didn’t like about it.

    Richardson: pre-Joycean stream-of-consciousness.

  8. Yes, Billy Mills seems to have a very long list of early c20th female writers whom we should read more of.

  9. Never read Patricia Highsmith, obooki? Or Ursula Le Guin? Dorothy Parker? Djuna Barnes? Zelda Fitzgerald (over-shadowed by her husband but a fine writer nonetheless)? Angela Carter (I prefer her non-fiction but a good writer)?

  10. Mish: Oddly, no, I’ve not read any of those writers (I did try Angela Carter once; and Djuna Barnes is one of those writers who’s always up next). Le Guin I shall probably get around to soon.

    MM: I have certainly overlooked her, to the extent that I don’t know who she is or anything she’s written.

  11. I can recommend Highsmith, who, I think, has a unique voice. Her ‘Ripley’ novels are a good place to start. The tales of the sensitive, moralist, aesthete and sociopathic murderer, Tom Ripley, are very entertaining and a little bit disturbing; start with The Talented Mr. Ripley and see what you think.

    Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the only work of hers that I’ve read (about 25 years ago) but I remember thinking it very good.

    What about Mary Renault? I remember liking her works when I read them as a teenager. Not sure what I’d think now.

    I read Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy a few years ago and enjoyed it.

  12. I might read some Highsmith then. I seem to remember my father being rather unconvinced by her.

    I read a non-fiction book by Manning – I think it was about Stanley; something like that. It was ok, but nothing that encouraged me to read anything further.

    Mary Renault I’ve not read. As a student of classics, for some reason I’ve always avoided novels about the ancient world.

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