Women writers desperate for credibility, but not readers . . .
Published 25/09/2010 | 05:00
Interviewed last week on John Murray's RTE1 radio show, Irish author Sheila O'Flanagan said she resented her novels being labelled as chick-lit, while this week English novelist Allison Pearson expressed her outrage at the same labelling.
Both of these writers are extremely successful -- their novels sell by the hundreds of thousands -- but it's respect rather than popularity they crave, and seemingly they're not getting that. American novelist Lionel Shriver feels the same, penning an angry piece in the Guardian under the headline "I write a nasty book and they want a girly cover on it".
Meanwhile in the same paper, the grande dame of English fiction, AS Byatt, argues that women who write intellectually challenging books are regarded as strange and unnatural.
The main villains behind all this appear to be a macho-dominated critical establishment, which regards male writers as inherently more serious and important than their female counterparts -- Sheila O'Flanagan arguing that if Colm Toibin's Brooklyn had been written by Colleen Toibin it would have been dismissed as a girly book.
That's an amusing thought, though women writers aren't amused, Jodi Picoult recently expressing anger that female authors never elicit the reverence that's bestowed on such "white male literary darlings" as Jonathan Franzen -- the only flaw there being that, in The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen has written two authentic masterpieces, while Picoult's novels are shallow treatments of lurid subjects.
And anyway, women writers aren't the only ones who might have cause to feel aggrieved at typecasting. Elmore Leonard and Charles McCarry have been among the liveliest chroniclers of the contemporary American scene, but they're pigeon-holed as crime and spy writers. Yet when they contemplate their bank balances, somehow I can't imagine that they care.
Nor should Sheila O'Flanagan or Allison Pearson. Instead, they should spare a thought for those other women authors who, like most of their male colleagues, write books that are well received by the critics and sell a mere few hundred copies.