Last year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a group of friends and I listened to several prominent writers and editors talk about the gender gap in the Western publishing industries at a Readings bookshop in Melbourne. We’re all aspiring authors and the evening was a sobering look into an industry that seems to sideline books by women writers, both in the small number of reviews they receive compared to their male counterparts, as well as prizes. The event was informed by a survey by VIDA (an organisation representing women in the literary arts) published earlier that year, which found that ‘prestigious international literary journals reviewed far more books by men than by women, and used far more male reviewers than female reviewers’.
None of this, sadly, is new. In 1971, Margaret Atwood took part in a survey at York University, where she discovered that
most books in this society are written by men, and so are most reviews
… likewise women reviewers tended to be reviewing books by women rather than books by men.
Forty years have passed since Atwood’s observation – years which have apparently opened the world up to women in new ways – and while more women might be writing now, the discrepancies between how male and female authors are regarded continues to blight our literary landscape.
Why should this be so? Many women writers write books of great emotional resonance and intellectual rigour. Think Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, both renowned for their innovation. Or more contemporary writers such as A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Anne Enright, Arundhati Roy, Alice Munro, Maya Angelou, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. Think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, widely regarded as the most significant historical fiction by a contemporary woman author, or Carol Shields, who was labelled ‘a miniaturist of fiction,’ by one reviewer but managed to snag the Pulitzer for The Stone Diaries, the Orange for Larry’s Party and was shortlisted for the Booker for her last book, Unless.
Bringing the focus closer to home, writers like Gail Jones, Kate Grenville, Janette Turner Hospital, Helen Garner, Sonya Hartnett, Joan London and Drusilla Modjeska continue to impress with novels that are broad in topic and in scope, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in fiction. However, despite any long list of impressive authors (and all their impressive literary achievements), women’s literature continues to be misread by certain critics and reviewers. This has certainly been the case when Lionel Shriver reviewed Siri Hustvedt’s 2011 novel, The Summer without Men.
It’s important to note that Summer has been well received by many other critics and readers, with Hustvedt’s previous novels What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American attracting critical acclaim by male and female critics alike. Hustvedt, who lives in New York, has a reputation for being a writer of great intelligence, and Summer has, in my mind, demonstrated her ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with the authors mentioned above. As well as writing fiction, Hustvedt has written a book about the history of psychology and neurology (The Shaking Woman, or a History of my Nerves), cementing her reputation as a writer who manages to capture the cerebral within her work.
It was expected, then, that Summer would be well represented – if not well received – in the American and international review pages, though the book was, as is the trend, reviewed by more female critics than male. One of these reviewers, Lionel Shriver, another excellent woman writer, wrote a curious critique of Summer for the Financial Times. The review, which skimmed the surface of the book and failed to take into account the strong feminist undercurrent in Hustvedt’s novel, is emblematic of the long-held and tiresome belief that short novels by women are somehow light fiction.
After a long preamble about the magic of fiction, Shriver’s review launches into a bizarre section about Hustvedt the writer. While Shriver notes that Hustvedt is an ‘intelligent, intuitive, talented writer’ she feels compelled to add that Hustvedt has ‘distinguished herself in her own right, emerging from the shadow of her literary luminary husband Paul Auster’. I didn’t know (nor do I care) that Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster and I haven’t read any of his work. Why does Shriver think it’s necessary to make note of this at all?
Summer begins at a crisis point. The main character Mia has her world shattered when her husband of many years requests a ‘pause’ in their relationship, so that he can pursue a relationship with one of his co-workers. ‘Sometime after he said the word pause,’ Mia recalls, ‘I went mad and landed in the hospital’:
The pause comes in the shape of a French woman with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.
Boris’s request devastates Mia, and after leaving the hospital, she retreats to her hometown of Bonden, to spend time with her mother and to teach a summer workshop on writing. It is from the sanctuary of Bonden that Mia is able to reflect more fully on her relationship, and to ponder the ways in which society continues to ignore or misrepresent women’s lives and their experiences. From the way neuro- psychologists are still trying to point out deficits in women’s intellects, to how young women are categorised by culture and older women are dismissed, to the limitations that have been placed on women in literature, Summer is clearly concerned with the place of women.
Take, for example, the situation in Mia’s (all-female) writing class. Mia is forced to confront the cruelty towards women from other women when her student, Alice, is ostracised by her classmates. Mia pauses to reflect on this episode:
Despite its particulars, Alice’s story is particularly depressing. Its basic structure is repeated, with multiple variations, everywhere, all the time.
Mia details the differences between the cruelties inflicted by boys and those perpetrated by girls. She writes that the male tradition of direct physical violence, whether in the form of a schoolyard rumble or the duel at dawn, ‘are all granted a dignity in the culture that no female form of rivalry can match’:
A physical fight between girls or women is a catfight, one characterised by scratching, biting, slapping, flying skirts, and a scent of the ridiculous, or, conversely, of erotic spectacle for male enjoyment, the delectable vision of two women ‘going at it’. There is nothing noble about emerging victorious from a squabble, there is no such thing as a good, clean catfight.
Mia’s encounter with the cruelty of the girls in her class allows her to turn her critical and authorial eye towards a culture that still belittles or ignores the complexities of the female experience. Her other experiences with the women of Bonden also give her similar pause for thought. In her mother’s elderly friend, Abigail, Mia encounters an unexpected subversion of gender stereotypes. Hidden within Abigail’s craftworks, table runners and quilts, are panels – ‘private amusements’ or ‘undies’ as Abigail calls them. A small blanket of roses hides a picture of a woman sucking up the town of Bonden with a giant vacuum cleaner. Another piece of craftwork opens up to a view of women masturbating. Abigail’s ‘private amusements’ have been secreted within appropriate feminine forms, but nonetheless give voice to Abigail’s dissatisfaction with her society’s limitations on female artistic expression.
In her review, Shriver concedes that an almost all-female cast is ‘not a bad idea’. She also writes that ‘Mia’s mother and her care home friends also blur into a geriatric gaggle’ and notes that ‘it’s a bit of a relief when one of the old girls dies: one fewer name to keep track of ’.
It bothers me that Shriver dismisses the women so easily. Last year, Sophie Cunningham suggested in her article, ‘A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests and Dreams of a Common Language’, (Kill Your Darlings, Issue 7) that ‘Women continue to be marginalised in our culture. Their words are deemed less interesting, less knowledgeable, less well-formed, less worldly and less worthy.’ This kind of attitude is especially evident in Shriver’s casual remark that the novel ‘feels made up’, not once acknowledging the fact that the metafictional impulses in the text are pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do, and the kinds of commentary it can provide.
The value of women’s words and their worth is eloquently explored in Summer. Mia draws our attention to the way Jane Austen has been contested as a ‘serious’ author:
Both loved and detested she has kept the critics hopping. ‘Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen,’ said America’s literary darling Mark Twain. ‘Even if it contains no other book.’ Carlyle called her books ‘dismal trash’ but today, too, she is accused of ‘narrowness’ and ‘claustrophobia’ and dismissed as a writer for women. Life in the provinces, unworthy of remark? Women’s travails, of no import? It’s okay when it’s Flaubert, of course. Pity the idiots.
In pondering her mother’s book club, Mia also suggests that ‘reading fiction is often regarded as a womanly pursuit’. She elaborates:
Lots of women read fiction. Most men don’t. Women read fiction written by women and by men. Most men don’t. If a man opens a novel, he likes to have a masculine name on the cover.
Despite the safety of a masculine name on her books (Shriver switched from Margaret Ann to Lionel at the age of 15), Shriver does not consider what Mia or Hustvedt has to say about the gender bias in literature. Mia points out that distinguished neurophysiologist Dr Renato Sabbatini (a real person) still insists that men’s minds are more mathematical, while ‘human females tend to be higher than males in empathy, verbal skills, social skills and security seeking, among other things.’ Following this logic, it is with heavy irony that Mia wonders if this is why ‘women have dominated the literary arts for so long, nary a man in sight’. She returns to Austen, and uses the conversation between Anne and Harville in Persuasion. When Harville enumerates the ways that women’s ‘inconstancy’ and ‘fickleness’ has been represented by books, Anne retorts:
Please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much a higher degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
Mia reminds us of the struggle the woman writer has faced in telling her story in a literary culture still dominated by the works of men. In an essay on the merit of women-only writing prizes in The Independent in 2010, Lionel Shriver infamously classified women writers as a rung below their male counter-parts – ‘not B-list exactly, but A-’, and has issued a challenge to her female contemporaries to ‘write great books. Any of my colleagues offended by that “A-” crack is welcome to pick up the gauntlet.’ Shriver argues her point, saying that
A.S. Byatt remarked at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August that women who write intellectually demanding novels are perceived by critics ‘like a dog standing on its hind legs’. [She was alluding to Samuel Johnson’s famous quip, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”] Yet surely her observation was hyperbolic. Critics often admire intellectually demanding novels written by women, as Ms Byatt should know. Plenty of critics have admired her own novels for their intellectual content. So the problem is subtler than that.
Is it, though? Hustvedt’s Mia is not shy about her dissatisfaction with the way women writers continue to be marginalised, and the theme is repeated throughout the book. The problem seems to be that Shriver doesn’t recognise the depth of women’s writing (despite her own position as a woman writer), and instead clings to an archaic gender-divide that she seems to want to dispense with but cannot quite shake.
Summer is the best book I’ve read in a long time; easily my favourite read of 2011. But then I’m particularly interested in women’s novels that use the domestic sphere to cleverly undermine the old gender biases of the world around them. It seems to me that women writers who continue to write about the every day are taking a risk that their work will be misread or, more troublingly, dismissed. And despite its damning social critique, Hustvedt’s novel is set within the domestic sphere – a sphere typically occupied by women. That women have been shackled to the domestic has been one of the central concerns of Second Wave feminism, but that they write about the domestic has been seen as a weakness of women’s literature. As Atwood stated in 1986, ‘when a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it’s realism; when a woman does, it’s an unfortunate genetic limitation’.
Hustvedt’s novel is not the only book to receive such confused commentary. The same thing happened to Carol Shields’ last novel Unless, published in 2002, in which the central character Reta is forced to confront the place of women in our world, when her daughter Norah drops out of university to sit on a busy street corner, wearing a sign labelled ‘goodness’. The reviews for this novel were extraordinarily varied. In New Statesman Rachel Cusk wrote that ‘Unless is a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction and hurls it to the floor.’
Surprising, then, that some reviewers categorised it as a funny book – yes, the subject of women’s lack of entitlement is hilarious! Like Mia, Reta is focused on the way literature still marginalises the experiences of women:
I thought of my three daughters and my mother-in-law, and my own dead mother. … Not one of us was going to get what we wanted. I had suspected this for years, and now I believe that Norah half knows the big female secret of wanting and not getting. … Imagine someone writing a play called Death of a Saleswoman. What a joke.
Reta also understands that, in the world of fiction, there exists a hierarchy in which women writers and, by association, women themselves, are viewed as ‘unimportant’. In response to her classification as a miniaturist of fiction, Reta argues that the focus on ordinary lives, to which so many of her female writer contemporaries are accused of limiting themselves, is of great significance, especially since readers and writers are themselves
‘small individual lives’ [who] apprehended the wide world in which they [swim], but their gaze [is] primarily locked on … how each separate person makes sense of all that is benevolent or malicious.
The perplexing thing about Lionel Shriver, who deservedly won the Orange prize for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, (yes, a prize dedicated to the celebration of fiction written by women) is that she has been able to show how serious and interesting women’s lives are in her own book. Yet in her essays on the very subject (and there are many), Shriver’s benchmarks for great literature have men’s names carved all over them.
As we all know, writing is a tough gig in this country, and few writers make enough money to work solely on writing. As a friend recently pointed out to me, The Miles Franklin Literary Award was set up by a woman to liberate writers from their other work, and so far a lot more men than women have been liberated.
While the figures are still stacked against women, I’m optimistic. There’s a backlash in the air, and a determination from women to re-position their work on the literary stage. As I write this, Summer has recently won The Prix Femina, a yearly French literary prize decided by an exclusively female jury which is open to both male and female writers. The creation of the Stella Prize here in Australia is another step in the right direction.
Ultimately, what’s most important to remember is that inherent in literary prizes just for women, and publications and publishing houses that focus on women’s writing, is not only the assertion that women need to be more visible in the literary world, but the belief that they deserve to be.
Natalie Kon-yu lives in Melbourne and teaches creative writing at university. She is currently working on her first novel the list of missing things, with Susan Hawthorne.