Women’s Writing Month Wrap-Up

As a final post after a month of women’s writing, Dark Puss and I considered the experience we’d had and the points that had come out of the discussion on the books we read. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who commented and gave us so much to think about, in so many productive ways. It’s been fun to revisit the gender issue over the course of a whole month.

DP: I thought it might be interesting to say a little about the experience of commenting on a book while in the middle of reading it. I suspect that’s not a new experience for you, but the last time I remember doing it was at School in the 1970s! I’ve contributed to most of the Cornflower Book Group reads, but there we are reading to the end and then commenting. I must say I found it a very rewarding experience though there is a “risk” that ones views might be influenced by what the other person says. I found the questions you asked me were very helpful in making me think more deeply about the book I was reading – you are a good tutor! I certainly think that if we had gone away, read the three books and then come back to compare notes I would have got a lot less out of the experience.

L: I began quite wary of commenting as we went along, because the last time I did it was when I read Lolita. I wrote a post after about the first 50 pages, and bitterly regretted it.  I felt I’d written a lot of daft stuff that was disproved or undermined by later developments. Fortunately, I didn’t feel that happened this time! The books we read were very coherent, in retrospect. I really appreciated the way that your emails offered me new and different insights into the reading. You always came out with questions or points of view that hadn’t occurred to me at all, and I love that. There’s a bit in an Adam Phillips essay that really sticks in my mind, when he asks the question ‘What are other people for?’ and answers it ‘To make a difference.’ It’s what I’m always looking for in reading, I suppose – the different way of viewing life and experience. I think it’s a sane and balancing thing, to be able to see beyond your own claustrophobic perspective.

So maybe that’s why I actively like the idea of gender difference – I want there to be other points of view; it’s one of the great saving graces for me. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the same things, but sharing opinions makes the experience itself richer.

DP: I thought the debate on the Piercy about whether it was realistic and how (if) things have improved was interesting.

L:  I was really interested to read in the comments about the Piercy that it had made you so angry. What you termed ‘casual enslavement’ of women, I think. I didn’t realise that properly at the time. But it was an angry-making book, wasn’t it? I felt knotted tight at times when reading it, feeling how close I had come at points in my life to falling into similar self-defeating patterns.

DP: On Black Milk I was surprised how people concentrated on answering primarily the question about name changing and interested to see that many of them on reflection either didn’t know why they had done it (if they had of course) and in some cases seemed to regret it to some extent.

L: The name-changing issue smacks to me of cultural ideology – which is to say something that has been made to look natural and inevitable but that is in fact arbitrary and artificial. Ideology is cultural wallpaper – what surrounds us every day but we just don’t see any more.

DP: I note (if we believe the names people might be hiding behind) that nearly all commentators are female. Perhaps that’s a feature of literary weblogs in general (I only read a few) or perhaps it is a feature of yours in particular. It’s a shame more male voices were not heard in the discussion.

L: It was a very heavily female-dominated discussion, wasn’t it? Pete and Bookboxed stood up for the men (thank you, guys!) – can’t recall any others. I’ve seen the same thing happen when I review a book that is marketed for women – only well-known authors can avoid triggering an instinctual aversion to the covers. I should have asked much earlier about your willingness to read books written by women. What do you think you read for? As in, is it the story, or the quality of the writing, is it to learn about something new, or to find solidarity?

DP: For fun but yes certainly to broaden my mind. I more-or-less stopped reading novels a few years ago (don’t know why) and my friend Karen (Cornflower) was the person who got me going again. I read about 45 a year I guess these days. Some I read because they are on the Cornflower Book Group list, a few I have sought out deliberately (e.g. recent Murakami) and some are chosen randomly from the library. I think quality of writing is important but so is a good story too.

L: Do you think that having to be so involved in your son’s upbringing has broadened your mind? Has it brought you closer to understanding the woman’s perspective? Or have you always been a ‘bridge brain’ and interested in women’s writing?

DP: Hard to answer! I guess I have been interested in “women’s writing” from quite early in my life. As a teenager I read de Beauvoir, Colette, Nin and Mansfield for example. I have however NOT read much of Austen, nothing by a Bronte and only very recently Middlemarch. My parents had a large library with most of the classics of C19th and C20th literature so I did have plenty to choose from.

L: There were several comments from people wishing more men would read so-called ‘women’s’ fiction. What would you say to encourage more men to leave their gender comfort zone behind?

DP: To quote my lovely Morgana “Don’t talk about it, just do it!” I’m not a great believer in anyone having comfort zones for reading. It would be really good to have anonymous brown covers on books so that people didn’t say “oh it’s rather pink” or “it’s got a man with an AK47” or whatever it is that immediately puts people off. I have big problems with “genre” as it seems to me to be very much in the eye of the beholder (creator, publicists, reviewer etc.). How come so many people who will praise Ian Banks’s novels will not consider reading a book by Ian M. Banks? Why is Frankenstein considered a “proper novel” and not “science fiction”? Is Colette just for girls? Why? Why did so many people assume (for decades if I remember correctly) that The Story of O MUST have been written by a man? I have a real issue with ascribing little pigeonholes to books. In some sense there is no “women’s fiction” any more than there is “men’s fiction”. There are imaginary landscapes created by people and some are male and some are female and some heterosexual and some homosexual and some bisexual and some (sadly perhaps) have no erotic desire at all. So what? One of the things that really irritates me about my otherwise excellent public library is that we have a set of “fiction” shelves, a set of “LGBT” shelves (but you won’t find Radclyffe Hall or Jeanette Winterson there), a set of “crime” shelves (but no Dostoyevsky) and a set of Horror (and SF) and you won’t find Gormenghast there either.

Dark Puss adds – I must say that this has been a fantastic and challenging experience for me. I guess I waded in with comments on “Tales From the Reading Room” posts with my opinion of “books for women” and after a while Litlove bravely took me up (if only to shut me up perhaps?) Readers will appreciate fully that she really DOES know about reading and reviewing literature and all I know is how to set up an interferometer or an oscilloscope or to simulate the interactions of high energy electrons in glass. [Ed: I don’t even know what those words mean! I doubt these are negligible talents!] Reading three books with her has been an immensely rewarding experience for me and I’m flattered to hear that she has got some new insights out of it too. Litlove is absolutely right that the Piercy made me really angry; let me finish by saying that I hope all of you (male or female) strive to never let those attitudes prevail in reality again!



20 thoughts on “Women’s Writing Month Wrap-Up

  1. Greatly enjoyed these posts, sorry not to have had time to read along. Lots of things to think about and I still have no answers – which is no bad thing.

  2. I’ve enjoyed this discussion, though I think I only commented once as I hadn’t read any of the books. I would guess that I read more books by men than by women, but not hugely more – I would guess about a third of my reading is by women. Interested that you comment that perhaps Dark Puss’s role in childcare has made him more open to women’s writing – I am a single parent, and I wonder if this has had an impact on me too in terms of helping me move away from gender stereotyping.

    • Neil thank you for your comment. I don’t think that childcare has had any effect on whether I’m more open or not to women’s writing. A great deal of what I have read since my teens has been written by women and I don’t think that has changed since my son was born. Of course part of our discussion revolved around the issue as to whether “written by a women” = “written for women”.

    • Of course, Neil, you may well have had your perceptions widened by the experience of childcare. That may not be Dark Puss’s experience, but it could well be yours. When I think of all the ways my character changed by being a mother, all the skills and qualities I had to learn (or at least fake!), I can definitely say that being the prime carer had a huge impact on me. Being a single parent is a tough job – kudos to you for doing it.

      • Just back to say that my perceptions were indeed changed by childcare! I am just not convinced it made me even more open to women’s writing. 🙂

        Being a parent (one of two) is tough; doing it on your own – I can’t really imagine what a dramatic change that would have been for me.

      • That’s very interesting what you say. It makes me realise just how much – for me – life and literature are intertwined. I really do count reading as a striking experience, and as my life experience has changed, it’s definitely altered my reading. I’m sure this is a purely personal thing, but it’s a distinctive facet of my relationship to books.

  3. Thank you both so much for sharing your thoughts on this process. I agree with DP that Litlove is an amazing tutor/teacher and she always makes me look at a book in a way I might not have otherwise–which is what I love so much about ‘meeting’ other readers online–and reading along with them when I can. It’s such a wonderful way of seeing a book/story from a different perspective. I know I talk sometimes of having a comfort zone of reading, but it’s just a habit of picking books I think I will like–a sort of regular sort since there are just so many books out there to choose from and where to start? But I also love reading books that make me think about the world in a different way, too, which is why I try to read in groups, or with Cornflower to be exposed to books I might not otherwise pick up. I also wonder what it would be like if books came in plain brown wrappers and didn’t have that image in mind–since it is often the first thing that hits you when looking at books. Anyway-I thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts and listening in to your conversation–and you even tempted me to order the same books you’ve discussed so I can see for myself–can’t wait until they come in the mail. Thanks!

    • Danielle, you read amazingly widely, and I don’t think I know of another blogger who will read such various books on the gender scale. I’ve seen you cover the whole gamut from romance to the most hard boiled thriller, with everything in between! I readily confess to being influenced by covers. I love having a book with a gorgeous cover in my hands, and it is a very different experience reading novels in French, say, where they DO have just plain covers. I can’t wait for you to read our books too – I am longing to know what you think of them!

  4. I very much enjoyed the discussions of the reading you two did! I like the idea of books having plain brown wrappers though I suppose artists and book designers would all lose their jobs. I wonder though if publishers wouldn’t still find a way to gender books? It would be an interesting experiment to just have a neutrally written plot summary and see how men and women choose what to read based on that. Would more men choose “women’s books”?

    • Hello Stefanie, to some extent the original, and much lauded, post-war Penguins were “brown wrapper-ish” Regarding plot summaries, one of the things I really avoid are the “blurb” on the back (or on the dust jacket) of books. I hate them, they are so often completely wrong about a book (at least my view of it).

    • Stefanie, the novels I read in French mostly have perfectly plain covers. And when they do have images, like Gallimard paperbacks, then it’s often an artwork, which is very ungendered. I’m trying to think how much of a difference it makes. There seems to be a lot more literature written in French, with fewer genre novels (most of which are bought in in translation). But that could just be my perception due to the sort of novels I’ve been reading. Thinking about it, I find it both more exciting as you never know what you’ll get, and more taxing, as browsing a table of new books, you never know what you’re getting. It’s an intriguing issue!

  5. Thanks to both Lilov and Dark Puss for including us all in your discussion. It’s great and I hope you are some one does something like this again.

    I totally agree with Litlov’s comment about liking gender difference in writing and her enjoyment in variety. I think the reading books by and about people unlike ourselves is the one of the best ways to expand ourselves and to be able to understand others. That goes not only for gender differences, but also for differences or race, nationality, sexual perferances, whatever.

    Also. I like starting a review as soon as I get well into a book. Privately, of course, because I am often proven wrong. But it helps me feel in conversation with the author to put my thoughts down as I go along.

    • MD – how interesting that you begin your review privately as you go along. I love that idea of being in conversation with the author and might have to try that myself. I think I read widely in terms of gender, but I could do a lot better when it comes to nationality. My speciality is European authors and I tend to hang around Europe too much, but when I read Francophone authors from the Caribbean and Africa, I very much enjoyed them. It goes to show how good it is to stretch yourself.

  6. Again, sorry that I didn’t join in with commenting at the time, but thank you for this fascinating summary! Who’d have thought I’d find myself agreeing so wholeheartedly with Peter? Maybe you only comment on my blog with alternative viewpoints because you agree with me when you’re keeping silent? 😉

    Victoria – I love your comment that anything that changes one’s life experience also changes one’s reading. I think that has to be true, to some degree, whether we notice it or not.

    And Peter, I am very much in agreement about curious shelving in bookshops! My least favourite are the Scottish shelves in Scotland, Welsh in Wales etc., because it seems a curious ghettoisation of books which have essentially nothing in common. And if I’m looking for Muriel Spark (which I often am) I want her to be under fiction, not some bizarre local interest shelf!

    • Oh your comment about DP did make me laugh! I think you can take it as read now, Simon. Silence is definitely consent. 🙂 As for the bookshop shelving, how intriguing. I would imagine that booksellers think such books will be of big interest to tourists holidaying in the region. But not having Muriel Spark in both special interest shelves and ordinary fiction shelves does seem a bit bonkers.

    • Great to read your comments, I never mind comments that come in “late” as I don’t think weblogs are only “of the moment”. I’m quite happy to come back and comment on a post from a year ago. In fact perhaps I’ll return and put my claws over some of yours where I have been silent! :-))

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