I happened to catch the tail-end of Jennifer Byrne’s Tuesday Book Club/presents/whatever, it was about books on ABC1 and there was some chat about if an why the Orange Prize for women’s literature was important and how many (or few) women win or are shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
“Do women write as women?” it was asked. And a good point consequently made about the Orange Prize; once you take gender out of it (as in all the books are written by women) then you are just judging books. By authors. Not books by women and books not by women.
The under-representation of women in the Canon, in major book prizes, in publishers’ stalls is indicative of the struggle women have had it everywhere, in every nook and cranny of private and public life, in every vocation, in citizen’s rights, in life. Things are slowly righting themselves to recognise women as basically half the population, with things to say and shit to do, Tulsa.
Anyway, there was debate as to the prevalence (or not) of the “woman’s voice” in literature; namely, can you group women’s literature into one neat bundle because authors with vaginas tend to write about womenly, feminine, emotional things?
The long and the short answer to this is no. No, you cannot. Of course you can find some similarities, born of experience, many, in fact.
But let’s compare Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Male protagonists and not a squishy feminine inauthentic blubber to be had here. (insert: could have been written by men).
And then the men who write women so well it is astounding: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair, W Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and Raymond Carver’s short stories.
Or the ones who write them badly; Clelland’s Fanny Hill, Alan Warner’s The Sopranos and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. Books that so badly misinterpret women’s sexuality, their consciousness of their own bodies and lives and desires and reduce them to a crudely-drawn caricature invented by an unimaginative and clearly male mind. Unless they were satire. Bad satire. Which they are not.
One could say Scottish authors have more in common (dreich, Presbyterian, wonderfully, beautifully honest and grounded, yet ultimately depressing) than female authors.
Birds of a feather do, in many cases, flock together. But much of that is due to culture, generations, landscape, language and experience. I had as much trouble finding female authors who wrote male points of view well in my bookshelf as I did finding male ones who wrote females voices well. So like the robin, or the starling or the itty-bitty little birdies who settle on my mother’s bird-bath in winter, alone, finding their own way, so do authors eventually.
We all write about what we know, but male or female, sometimes the best of writers can place themselves in an alternate body, reality and experience so well, they shock us (by knowing the gender of the author) into submission.
For me, part of Gibbon, Maugham and Carver’s absolute charm is that they write women so well. They are students of the world and its inhabitants. They have empathy and understanding. They simply know women (although in Gibbon’s case I think his wife and editor may have had a hand, but nonetheless, there has NEVER been a book, or trilogy in fact, written by a man that so completely expresses perfectly the depths of what it is to be female (and he does it against the harsh peasant life, Scotland, war, communism, love and fortitude under all things) than he).
My heroes are Jessie Kesson, Nan Shephard, Willa Muir – women from the north and north-east of Scotland at the turn of the century whose beautiful novels were the very few to make it into print in a harsh time and an even harsher area of the country.
We need the Orange Prize so that all the books shortlisted are considered merely books. Because George Eliot wrote under the name of a man. Don’t give me your 50 Shades bullshit or your Harry Potters. These are authors cornering a niche market (Disclaimer: I have never read 50 shades and Harry Potter is Awesome). But literature has been a hard struggle for women. We applaud those who have made the grade so loudly, we forget that hitherto, men have had a much easier ride.
Asking if we need the Orange Prize is like saying “why do we need an International Women’s Day?” Because you have all 351 other days of the year, fuckers, that’s why.