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!