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
Photo taken from The Guardian website
Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Thursday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)