Tuesday 25 November 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

You might think that 28 million quid is a lot of dough these days but apparently it ain’t. Well, even two million quid is not a lot, according to Mylene Klass. You can’t even get a decent garage in London for that kind of money to live in, as she reminded the hapless leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband recently. But £28m is not a lot of money either, especially if you are a female artist like Georgia O’ Keeffe. Her Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 sold for that figure last week in New York. However, when compared to her male counterparts, O’ Keeffe’s auctioned piece is dwarfed by the prices fetched by works of art by the likes of Picasso and Pollock. In a sort of journalistic hara-kiri piece, The Guardian’s chief arts critic, Jonathan Jones, blamed men like him who have long championed male artists over female ones.

Jonathan’s article made me think that there were parallels here between female artists and female writers. Even as the landscape of publishing has drastically altered in the last ten to fifteen years with the advent of the internet and all technological developments related to it, the field of literature, prizes and recognition remains very male, and I would dare say, very white, middle-class and middle-aged.  “Field of literature” refers in this case mainly to the perception of it, rather than the output. When it comes to output women might actually outnumber men, although I have not got any figures to back that statement up. It just feels that way. The internet and self-publishing, especially, have served well the female of the species. Yet, here is the crux of the matter. Prolific female writers are still judged on the genre in which they write rather on the transcendence of their work, unlike their male compatriots. Occasionally women are given the keys to the club, but on the whole the Picassos and Pollocks of the written word still guard the entrance. An example that comes to mind is the excellent short-story  writer Alice Munro. Profiled everywhere, from The New Yorker, to The London Review of Books, Alice should be seen as a game-changing writer in her own right. Yet the language most critics use when focusing on her work seems to imply that Alice Munro is a niche or even a cult author. Contrast that with Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The phrase “The Great American Novel” is never far behind.

Does any of this matter? No, it doesn’t, and it probably wouldn’t if writers were judged solely on merit. But that’s not the reality. The knock-on effect of this perception of some male authors as epoch-making and female writers as niche-creators (chick-lit anyone?) is that literature becomes a marketing playground on which readers are easily duped with shiny toys. Not all readers, granted, many of us can still think for ourselves, but gender division and its implications is a dream scenario for a publicity company. If you want proof of this, how about this: you may think you know who I am but you are wrong. In reality I am a 60-year-old woman who has a disposable income of more than £1,000 a month. My favourite food is Vichysoisse soup (I had to look that name up, by the way) and I enjoy going to the theatre. Oh, and I have a cat. Obviously, you probably know that I don’t have any pets and that I am forty-three years old. Oh, and before I forget, I am a bloke. How did we arrive at that description? Through my love of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels and the few short stories by her I have read in other publications. It turns out that fans of Mantel’s fiction fit the category I mentioned first. According to a YouGov Profiles service we, readers, can be labelled according to the writers we follow. The reality is more complex, as we know, but isn’t this “boxing-in” attitude a consequence of the same phenomenon I explained before? Do you think that fans of Ian McEwan have to worry about being stereotyped? Not a bit, because the author they have been identified with is one of those game-changers, who has been trying to write “The Great British Novel” with his mates Amis and Rushdie since the 80s. Meanwhile Sarah Waters gets on with what she does best: writing brilliant, best-selling novels, but apparently, no epoch-making ones.

Hilary Mantel: reading her makes me change my sex and age
Maybe I am just letting off steam. After all, it’s not every day that I open the paper and realise that someone has changed my sex overnight without my permission, adding a few more years in the process. The irony is that the article about the YouGov Profiles service came straight after one about a campaign gaining ground currently in the UK in which readers want to “let books be books”. This means that books should not come with a tag attached to them that says they are either for boys or girls. I quite agree with the campaign. I’m willing to start another campaign called “Let Readers Be Readers”. My gut feeling is that it would probably change the perception we have, not just of readers, but also of writers and their transcendence. Maybe we could start with a donation of 28 million quid. After all, apparently that’s not a lot of money.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian website

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Thursday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. our labels make us feel safe i think...i dont want to be safe...i read books for the sake of their stories...regardless the genre of the book...so i am probably a middle aged/teen/senior shemale of completely mixed race...i need to go look in the mirror before this changes...smiles.

  2. Check out VIDA for some sobering statistics and writing about women in the literary arts.

    Great post, Cuban -- whether male or female, you rock.


  3. I dismiss labels - as I do most stereotypes.
    And love the idea of letting books be books - and readers be readers.
    And note that only thirteen women have ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  4. I really try to keep my facts to myself just because of marketing. However, I do think there is much to be said for sterotypes because it seems to me there really are only so many different types of people and it is a rare thing to find someone who is truly different and marches to their own drummer. I'm particularly fond of Myers-Briggs. :)

  5. Your post prompted me to reflect that a lot of famous dead authors tend to be women (the Brontes. Jane Austen, George Elliot, etc.) Many of the best books of the past were written by women - and they were up against it back then too, often adopting male pseudonyms to cover their tracks! Plus ca change.

  6. While luxuriating in my modestly priced bungalow I am grateful that I am who I am and not someone aimlessly dreaming of recognition. So long as I have a book to read ....

  7. People should be who they are and read what they want. Easy as that.

  8. Hello, if someone tells 28 million quids is nothing, then that person should go and check their head. Something is wrong with them. These people are living in a different world and not the real world. They want all the luxuries of life without thinking of millions of poor people in the world. A few millions of their worthless quid would would buy food for thousands of starving people.

    These people are just greedy and want more and more. They will even change their sex to make more money. What a shame.

    I feel sad for these lunatics living in an imaginary world.

    Excellent post. Very thought provoking.

  9. i know that some female writers only became successful cause they pretended to be male.. what a weird world... i wanna stay open for any kind of literature - no matter the target group and no matter who's written the book

  10. I find it depressing that we even need posts like this. There's plenty of research to show men and women have an equal share of artistic ability, and yet the inequality of income feels so entrenched. And I think it goes even further - it's white men who are top of almost every tree, bestowing goodies on everyone else and with so little insight into the impact of their behaviour.

  11. Marketing tools generally are annoying or make me laugh or both. Essentially, I think they correctly fall under the category of a particular cliché. To paraphrase: "There is a sucker born every minute," and everyone is selling something, including themselves, in one way or another. I like to think I defy categorization, and work hard to be that way.

    In terms of economic or social or artistic or any other equality process/progress/success among the races or the sexes or the advocates of various religions, life has never been fair and never will be because some people are satisfied with who they are and what they are while other people never will be satisfied about anything -- especially about themselves and their conception of fair treatment. It is a mixture both of reality and personal insecurity. Some science fiction writers, for instance, claim they are treated as third-class writers, while others in the genre simply shrug it off and, as another cliché goes, laugh all the way to the bank.

    Reflecting on success in literature in terms of Nobel laureates, Jean-Paul Sarte is the only one who comes to mind who impresses me; he turned it down.

    I enjoyed your post, CiL .... thanks ....

  12. Thanks for your comments. When I look at my bookshelves I sometimes wonder if I should be reading this or that book. Fret not, it lasts only half a second. I read what I want, always have, always will. Glad that we're all singing from the same hymnsheet. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  13. Bravo! Well said. Did you see Jodi Picoult's interview in the Telegraph (no, I don't usually read it)? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11253940/Jodi-Picoult-Its-really-hard-to-love-America-sometimes.html
    She hit on these issues, although I'd still label her work more issue-driven commercial fiction than literary fiction. It is nonetheless condescending to call it chick lit.

  14. I'm outraged that they would try to profile Hilary Mantel's readers! As you say, they would never do that with a male writer!

    Just goes to show how imbedded into culture sexual inequality still is.

  15. Interesting and thought provoking post. Yes, let books be books and readers be readers. Thanks!

  16. Cubano,unfortunately, it does matter whether you are a male or female artist, writer or musician. Patriarchy and privilege dictates how the works of art will be perceived, labeled and consumed. There are recent articles lamenting how women who dare to write about relationships are labelled "chick it" or women writers, resulting in a narrow landscape for their books when the topics don't differ that much from male writer's, it's just the perception. All of my women artist and musician friend's struggle to gain half the visibility of their male counterparts. This bias has been going on for so long that many don't even realize it.

  17. Ha...you've really set my brain cells whirring (again!), CiL!
    Do you think that if I deleted my profile picture, replaced it with one of my father, and changed my name to a masculine one, then I'd suddenly be taken more seriously...and maybe have loads more comments on my blog?
    Now THERE is food for thought!!;)
    Come to think of it, though, that would mean I would never have time to read and reply to them all - and that would be a great loss to me.
    No. I am a woman, and whether or not my writing is taken seriously as such, I never want to change either who I am or how I write.
    People can take me or leave me. I just AM!

    I so enjoyed this post, CiL...thanks so much.:)

  18. I like and agree with Valerie's comment. I am a minimalist and am happier with less than too much. Today this seems to be a rarity, as the more people have the more people want. As far as reading goes, I like to read non fiction, mostly, encouraging and uplifting books such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, etc. Great food for thought here.

  19. Pretty crazy--thanks. k.

  20. ps--terrible to see a glass ceiling in literature too! k.



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