Tag Archives: Emma

Women and Fiction

Dispirited? Moi? Well yes, a little. It seems that women’s works will always, always be neglected in favour of men’s. Despite excellent fiction written by women, despite the situation being exposed again and again and despite our best efforts. I am dispirited.

In the lists

200 Middlemarch coverTake the Telegraph’s list of 100 novels everyone should read, for example. Good start – first on the list is Middlemarch by George Eliot. There are, count them, another 18 novels written by women in the list. There is, of course, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and on through Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley to Harper Lee. I wouldn’t actually disagree with any of the 100 novels, they should all be read. And more too. People should read. But 19% is not a good representation of women’s writing in a list with that title.

Bit of a girly cover?

Bit of a girly cover?

Same again in the list of 100 best novels written in English from Robert McCrum, published in the Guardian in August 2015. 22% books were by women. Emma by Jane Austen was #7 on the list and the first by a woman. The list was criticised for its lack of diversity (including women, people of colour, the Irish). Readers added another 15, of which 6 were by women.

If the proportion of women rises above 17% in Hollywood crowds people believe that women are in the majority, according to Caroline Criados-Perez author of Do it like a Woman. In lists of fiction the threshold appears to be about about 20-25%.

Perhaps the problem is the lists. The idea of the 100 best in fiction is subjective, and reflects the compilers’ tastes, prejudices, knowledge, experiences. Guess who compiles the lists!

The Vida Count

Research is undertaken annually by VIDA Women in Literary Arts and can now show the picture of women writers in a number of categories in leading literary journals over 5 years.

The 2014 VIDA count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color. Women Authors and the Media.

VIDA looks at the journals and counts, by gender, its reviewers, the authors reviewed and the bylines of its journalists. Here are the charts for two UK based journals: Granta, which does comparatively well and the TLS, which does not. The men are in red, the women in blue.

200 Granta Overall1

200 LRB Overall6

And here is a particularly depressing chart if you are a woman author trying to get attention for your books from New York Review of Books. At least it improved at the last count.

200 NYRB Authors-Reviewed6

More than numbers

And it’s more than numbers. Meg Wolitzer wrote about the women’s fiction question in the New York Times in an article called The Second Shelf: on rules of literary fiction for men and women.

She uses the term ‘women’s fiction’ to refer to literature written by women, but acknowledges that it is used to describe

a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.

All fiction by women gets lumped into this category, especially by some men, as ‘one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them,’ she argues. She looks at reviewing, Amazon categories, book jackets, book length, the gender of the main characters which all indicate to readers what one might call the gender of the book. And that there are exceptions (prize winning books by women for example) does not indicate an approaching literary idyll. As poet and literary critic Katha Pollitt says

For every one woman, there’s room for three men.

The eminent historian Mary Beard has shown how women in public spaces have always been silenced by men, from Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey onwards. Her LRB lecture was called The Public Voice of Women.

Here are more exposes of how women writers are treated.

16 things sexist male writers say by Christine Stoddard in Huffington Post 29.7.15

Gendered travel writing How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review 20.7.15 ‘Men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery’

Women know your place by Tracy Kuhn on Women Writers, Women’s Books 3.7.15

Women in Translation Month Biblibio 21.5.15 who followed up the introductory post with 31 daily posts in August.

What to do?

189 Do it coverCaroline Criados-Perez (Do it like a Woman) ascribes male domination to the male default. This is the attitude that women are the exceptions, men the norm. Only exceptional novels make the lists, are reviewed, are published. We must expose it, show it up for what it is and for how it deprives everyone.

Go on counting, and go on publishing the figures. Go VIDA!

Follow the example of #Readwomen, not necessarily to read women only but to be conscious of the proportion of women writers and take some corrective action if necessary. I posted about #Readwomen in June 2014. It was my 100th post on Bookword.

159 BWPFF 2015 logoTake account of the long and short lists from the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. It is likely that we will need a women’s prize for the foreseeable future. I wrote a post about the need for such a prize in 2013 called Who or what are literary prizes for?

Promote specific initiatives, such as Women in Translation Month. This twitter focus -#WITmonth – brought many great translated works of fiction to readers’ attention. My contribution was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Bookword includes a series that highlights older women in fiction, nearly all written by women. I believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people.

Talk about the obstacles, and praise the breakthroughs and advances. Publishers, editors, list compilers, bookstore buyers, judges panels – they all need to be aware of the bias towards male writers, and be prepared to justify it when they continue it. And they need to know about all the great novels by women and how we want to read them.

And it matters because …?

Because the job of fiction is to take people to worlds that are other than their own, worlds elsewhere, show different perspectives, understandings, experiences. Reducing access to the 51%’s other worlds makes no sense.

175 Womenppower symbolThis is my 200th blog post. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone who enjoys great fiction (which should be everyone, but that’s for another post!). So I shall stop focusing on the dispiritedness and go forth again, into the struggle.

Is there some action you can propose to promote women’s fiction?

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

We all know someone like Flora, popular, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but still everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre rubs off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such a creature can create. The title sounds a warning – the soul of kindness?70 Sof K

As usual the first paragraph reveals much of what Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel will explore.

Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either. (p7)

70 my copyThus we meet Flora on her wedding day. In the 1960s (this book was published in 1964) the wedding day would have been the culmination of the story for the heroine of many novels.  But in The Soul of Kindness we follow Flora’s life after this event. She assumed that she would marry and continue to receive the adulation and attention of her friends, her husband and her mother.

And so she does. They are always on call to keep her company, to look after her, to protect her, and ultimately to rescue her from the consequences of her misplaced encouragement and Kit’s failed ambition. It was Flora who had planted and nurtured it in Kit.

Here is the moment when she receives an anonymous letter following Kit’s suicide attempt.

‘Let me read it again!’ She took the letter and stared at it with revulsion. It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of paper torn roughly from a sketching-pad. ‘My interference!’ she said in horrified amazement. ‘Why do they blame me? I’ve tried and tried to do all I could for Kit. There’s no one I’ve tried more over. I’m so fond of him. I love him as if he were my brother not just Meg’s. And I know he wouldn’t do anything like that. Why should he? Why, I saw him only the other day. And who in the world hates me so much as to send me this dreadful …’ She dropped the letter, put her face in her hands and began to weep – with long, shocked gasping sobs. Richard sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms round her. ‘On my birthday, too,’ she wept. (p209)

Her husband comforts her, assures her that no one is kinder than she. But we have noticed that her concern is all for herself, none for Kit (notice the emphases). And we readers are already aware that Flora is as flawed as Angel in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, but perhaps Flora is the more harmful as she lives more sociably than Angel. There are more people to harm.

The list of people who get hurt is long:

She encourages her father-in-law, Percy, to marry his mistress, despite both being happy living separately. (One of the best scenes in the novel concerns Percy, who, when on his own, conducted very loud music, played on the gramophone. The Ride of the Valkyries and the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony are two of his favourites. Everyone’s favourites.)

Flora’s mother, finding her life empty after Flora’s marriage, took in a housekeeper, but the women are locked together as neither can admit to the other what she has written or read. It is Flora’s husband Richard who helps her see that her life is not over because her daughter has left home.

Kit is the brother of her school friend Meg. He is taken up by Flora and consistently fails to live up to her ambitions for him. He feels a failure.

In the character of Patrick Elizabeth Taylor was ahead of the time, for she makes it clear that he was gay, and she makes it clear that Flora has no idea, and no understanding of homosexuality. Homosexuality was illegal until 1967.

Richard, her husband, understands that his role is to protect Flora. He is also a force for good in the novel, as it turns out. But her demands mean that he cannot pursue a friendship with a lonely neighbour.

Flora’s school friend Meg is forever in her shadow, and perhaps suffers most from Flora’s actions. It is she who must deal with Kit’s disappointment associated with Flora’s inflated beliefs about his acting talents. Meg is in love with Patrick, and Flora is provoked by her failure to get it together with him, as she would approve the match. Meg blames Flora for Kit’s suicide attempt. When Flora is upset by the anonymous letter and craves reassurance from everyone only Meg withholds it. She sees clearly how Flora operates.

‘Other people have to live with the truth about themselves… She’ll go on and on until we rally round and build up the image again.’ (p215)

In the end … well you might know, or might guess what happens.

70 soul-of-kindness31

Elizabeth Taylor was at the height of her skill as a novelist when she wrote The Soul of Kindness, creating a central character who is attractive to the reader even as she reveals her flaws. Many of the other characters are studies in loneliness, almost Elizabeth Taylor’s trademark. The idea that she wrote about small, insignificant and cosy lives is unjust given that she is able to conjure up suffering, affection, and, in this novel, human failings.

I’ve picked two other blog reviews you might like to read:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer suggests that Flora is like Jane Austen’s Emma without her wisdom.

Heavenali considers the relationships in the novel and finds much to admire.

The next novel Elizabeth Taylor wrote (published in 1968) was The Wedding Group. It was her tenth. I will be rereading it in January.

 

And a blog footnote: bookword is a year old. 70 posts and lots of comments later I thank my subscribers and readers. Here’s to more in 2014!

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews