So, as I said in my last post, I discovered on my return to Australia after a month away that the conversation about women’s writing continues. Which I think is a very good thing – and exactly the reason that I applaud initiatives such as the Stella Prize, Meanjin’s Tournament of Books and Elizabeth Lhuede’s Australian Women Writers: 2012 Challenge. They bring to our attention the possibility of oversights and biases in our literary culture and in our own reading practices.
I liked Jane Sullivan’s thoughts on the subject – ‘A woman’s place‘ – where she called VS Naipaul’s dismissal of women writers (as ‘unequal to me’ with their ‘narrow view of the world’) ‘the tip of an enormous cultural iceberg that’s been floating about for centuries and shows no signs of melting’.
Sullivan then ran through the much discussed statistics published by VIDA, ‘The best American Count‘, which show the bias against women in US book reviewing. What I particularly liked was Sullivan’s response:
‘These figures disturbed me. They cast serious doubts on my complacent assumptions that though there was undoubtedly prejudice against women writers, somehow the worth of their work would shine through. They had me turning inward, examining my own experiences both as a writer … and as a cultural gatekeeper through my work as a former literary editor, journalist and occasional judge of writing prizes. Had I experienced marginalisation without even realising it? Or worse, had I displayed unconscious bias in my judging?’
The possibility of one’s unconscious bias against women’s writing is also addressed by Elizabeth Lhuede in her fascinating blog post ‘Because I was invited … Or, why looking for a kangaroo isn’t going to cut it for Australian Women’s Writing‘. Here she discusses how Tara Moss’s blog ‘Are our Sisters in Crime (still) fighting against a male-dominated literary world?’ inspired her Australian Women Writers: 2012 Challenge.
Lhuede begins with some background: her own literary education. She talks about her PhD research, which focused on an anthology of 24 new Australian poets. Only 2 were women. She asks why such a statistic was transparent to her at the time. ‘Why wouldn’t it be?’ she replies. She’d been taught that English literature was written by men. ‘So it wasn’t exactly obvious to me that I was deliberately choosing to discuss a male-dominated canon of Australian poets … Australian women, I assumed, didn’t write much poetry.’
But by the end of her PhD research Lhuede had found that Australian women did write poetry and were published. So she’s acutely aware of how biases against women’s writing can be systemic and inadvertent. Her response was to set up the Australian Women Writers: 2012 Challenge to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing Australian writing by women.
Another response to gender bias is the Stella Prize. I think Kate Grenville’s experience of winning the Orange Prize for women’s fiction should be enough to convince anyone of the Stella’s worth for writing by women:
‘My life was transformed by winning the Orange Prize. I won it for The Idea of Perfection, a book that wasn’t shortlisted for a single important Australian prize. As a result, sales were dismal.’ A year later it won the Orange Prize, sales soared and her next book – A Secret River – was taken seriously by publishers.
Last year while posting here the early chapters of my first book, Classics, I realised I was writing my seventh post and they’d all been on men. (That the eighth was to be Jane Austen’s Persuasion – up next – did nothing to rectify this.)
This, prompted by the discussion around the Stella, made me examine my own possible biases against writing by women. Especially as when writing Classics I’d deliberately included women overlooked in the traditional canon, such as Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Smart and Christa Wolf. I now realise they came exclusively from the post-Austen era. While I’d been aware of earlier women writers, especially Sappho and Aphra Behn, I really had no idea of the extent of women’s writing before, say, 1800. And so I decided to redress this gaping chasm in my reading and dedicate 2012 to LOOK, to reading Lost Or Overlooked Krackers by women writers from before 1800. (Excuse the naff title.)
I said I’d start with The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, said to be the first novel, and several people posted suggestions of what else I should be reading.
Kerryn Goldsworthy said Aphra Behn and pointed me to two excellent books to guide my reading: Reading Early Modern Women’s Writing by Paul Salzman and Expanding the Canon of Early Modern Women’s Writing edited by Salzman.
Kirsten Tranter said Margaret Cavendish. Jane McCredie said The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon from the same period as Genji. Martin Bayliss said Sappho. Thank you for your suggestions, I’m planning to take up all of them.
At first I wasn’t planning to include Sappho, because she was a poet and I was aiming to focus on prose, ideally novels. But then I realised I’d included in Classics several epic poems from the ancient world, so I’d have to open LOOK to early poets and include Sappho. This made me look more closely at women writers in the ancient world.
And I discovered something I’m appalled to say I’d never known, despite my lifelong interest in the ancient world: the earliest author and poet in the world that history knows by name WAS A WOMAN: Enheduanna, a Sumerian High Priestess of Nanna (or Sin, the Moon God), who wrote 42 hymns around 2300 BCE.
So LOOK is expanding every day. As Susan Hawthorne commented ‘it’s going to take more than a year’. She’s right. It’s looking like years of work (especially given I’m also doing a PhD on a completely different subject, as my supervisor kindly reminded me when I proposed LOOK).
I now have The Tale of Genji and will be reading it first up. But given it’s a giant book of some 1,000 pages, I suspect that before I’m able to write about it here I’ll be blogging more generally about ancient women writers, starting with Enheduanna.
And last but certainly not least for this post on women writers are Kerryn Goldsworthy’s BRILLIANT legendary bad girls of literature. Her first ten bad girls were so popular that she posted 10 more. I’m hoping for 10 more and 10 more and … Thanks Kerryn!