Monday 21 January 2019

Claire Cohen: 'Just for women: Why we still have a problem with female writers'

The assumption that women like Sally Rooney who write about relationships are penning 'chick lit' is patronising nonsense

Sally Rooney was
snubbed for the Man
Booker Prize shortlist
for Normal People. Photo: PA
Sally Rooney was snubbed for the Man Booker Prize shortlist for Normal People. Photo: PA

Claire Cohen

I seriously doubt that anyone who has read Sally Rooney's Normal People - which has just won the Costa Novel Award - would call it 'chick lit'. Yet, that is exactly how it was described on Radio 4's Front Row this week, when presenter Sophie Raworth - announcing the prize - said that on describing the book to her BBC colleague Jeremy Bowen, he had retorted: "Sounds like chick lit to me."

Raworth and presenter Charlie Brooker dismissed this out of hand, but Bowen's reaction spoke volumes about how we still treat female fiction - as a sub-genre or specialist interest.

It's why I was also annoyed to hear about the 'Reading Women Challenge', which is currently doing the rounds on social media and sees people pledging to only read novels by female authors in 2019.

Last year, American author Dana Schwartz criticised reviews of her books as sexist
Last year, American author Dana Schwartz criticised reviews of her books as sexist

How patronising can you get? Literature is a field that can, and should, be judged entirely on talent - not gender. Authors of both sexes can be successful and win awards. Some of the most highly acclaimed and decorated novels of recent years have been written by Donna Tartt, Hilary Mantel, Jessie Burton and Sarah Waters. JK Rowling is one of the world's bestselling authors.

At the time of writing, 33 of Amazon's top 50 fiction books were written by women. That's probably because women account for two-thirds of novel-buyers.

And, yes, some of them are chick lit. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with it as a sub-genre, just as historical, thriller, fantasy and romance are all worthy of their place on our bookshelves.

The problem comes when any book written by a woman - particularly one that revolves around a romantic relationship - is automatically labelled chick lit. The term has become derogatory shorthand in some circles, used to mean that a book is flimsy, thin, shallow; not the sort of thing a man might enjoy reading.

A colleague recalls how, a few years ago, she walked into a bookshop and spotted a table at the front labelled 'Literary but light'. It was stacked with - you guessed it - novels by female authors including, unbelievably, Hilary Mantel.

God forbid that, like Sally Rooney, you are a 27-year-old female writer - that leads to its own set of complications. I'm still smarting over the radio interviewer who asked whether she had conducted an affair with an older man, like one of the characters in her debut novel Conversations With Friends.

When was the last time anyone asked Bret Easton Ellis if he had butchered people while listening to Phil Collins?

"People are so unabashed about it," Rooney said later. "I come on [radio] to talk about my book and I'm getting asked about my sex life. It's so so strange. So definitely on that level. But I made the mistake, in my opinion, of responding by saying 'No', when what I should've said was, 'It's actually none of your business'."

How sad that part of navigating her well-deserved success has been developing a strategy to deflect questions that are, at best, too personal, at worst, sexist.

And it's not just interviews. Last year, American author Dana Schwartz criticised reviews of her books as sexist, writing on Twitter: "I can't remember the last time I saw a book written by a man called 'a guilty pleasure'. It's frustrating to work hard on a piece of art and felt it dismissed, compared only to other books by women, considered a 'beach read' for some reason."

It's no secret that there has long been a bias in reviewing. A study in 2014 found that The London Review of Books featured 527 male authors and critics compared to 151 women in that year (22pc), while only 58 books by female writers were reviewed, compared to 192 by men. Out of the 919 authors and critics featured in the New York Review of Books, just 26pc were female.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the bestselling Cazalet tetralogy, has said that little has moved on for female authors since the 19th century, adding that many are still encouraged to change their names to improve sales.

And who can forget VS Naipaul's interview with The Guardian in 2011, when he said that women authors were "sentimental" and wrote "feminine tosh". He was roundly condemned, after saying: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

Even the awards lot haven't got it totally sorted - research by American novelist Nicola Griffith found that between 2000 and 2015 "not a single book-length work from a woman's perspective or about a woman was considered worthy" of winning a Pulitzer. Even Rooney was inexplicably snubbed for the Man Booker Prize shortlist for Normal People.

We need to kill the notion that male writers carry more gravitas. It's why I find pledges to read only female authors deeply unhelpful. Yes, too many of our shelves suffer from dead man syndrome - partly the fault of our education system that has for too long favoured historical male authors, drumming in the message that male equals better.

But ghettoising women writers only sets them apart as a sub-genre rather than half the population.

Irish Independent

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