The obsession that readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature separates the amateur sociologists from the true, indiscriminate readers of literature who are interested in nothing other than the work itself, writes Philip Cummins
A graphic from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which uses Google Books’ extensive collection of five million texts published over the last two- hundred years to track trends in literature
SOME YEARS AGO, I attended a twelve- week night- class in Dublin, which focused on American literature. I had finished my undergraduate degree and, during the summer months, I found myself craving for the intellectual stimulation that was severely lacking in my mundane summer day- job before I returned to university for postgraduate studies.
Effectively a reading group of twelve participants, a tutor led the night class. As a class, we assumed that the tutor knew more about American literature than we did. We read many books of fiction and poetry from various periods of American literature. One book that we had read as part of what was a diverse reading list was Mark Twain’s Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that I re- read, at least, once a year.
During the class on Twain’s novel, the tutor had diverted away from the core characteristics of the novel that the class were due to discuss: Twain’s brilliant use of American demotic, the colourful characters that Finn encounters on his uniquely American journey and the politics of the age during Twain’s time of writing.
Instead, the tutor indulged in what can only be described as a mildly coherent tirade about gender issues in literature, which the class were not expected to discuss and for which we weren’t instructed to prepare notes. Though it was totally out- of- kilter with the initial discussion of race politics in the novel, our tutor kept charging, despite confused glances by the participants in the room, before rounding off the pseudo- academic, albeit utterly erratic, spiel with a “Columbo moment”:
“…which begs the question (raises and wags finger, inquisitively, turns towards the class to deliver the killer question)...could The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been written…by a woman?”
Only during football matches and occasional editions of TV3’s The Vincent Browne Show or RTÉ‘s Prime Time have I had the impulse to swear profusely at the very top of my voice; believe me, dear reader, when I tell you that I had to resist every impulse in my body to scream profanities out- loud and smash the chair in which I was sitting to smithereens.
Whether or not a woman wrote or didn’t write Twain’s masterpiece- for better or worse- seemed to me totally irrelevant to the novel and, in a broader sense, to literature. Twain’s novel was written by a man, which is a fact that cannot be changed by anyone- not even our learned tutor. Did it matter to me, personally, that a man wrote Huck Finn? No. Would it have changed my opinions or my perspective of Twain’s novel if I had found out that the novel had, in fact, been written by a woman? No. Why? For the simple reason that I do not believe gender to be an influencing or deciding factor in the quality of literature that can be written by any human being nor is it for me, personally, an influencing or deciding factor in the literature that I choose to read. Gender, quite simply, doesn’t figure for me in the books that I choose to read nor does race, creed or sexual orientation. There are great books written by men, there are great books written by women; there are woeful books written by men, there are woeful books written by women. We shouldn’t categorise literature by men and literature by women: we should treat a book based on the contents between the covers, irrespective of whether that book has been written by a man or by a woman.
Gender: why does it really matter to readers, writers and critics?
I have never once understood the obsession- and I mean obsession- that some readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature, specifically the gender of the author. Again, it does not matter to me in the slightest that ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ was written by a man nor would it matter to me if it was written by a woman: it is still a masterpiece that has not been equaled by its author. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to me that ‘The Fish’ was written by a woman nor would it matter to me if it was written by a man: it is still one of the most unique and remarkable poems written in the 20th century. I don’t read Derek Mahon’s work and think “I am reading a male poet” nor do I read Elizabeth Bishop’s work and think “I am reading a female poet”.
If anything, it is interesting that the same people who campaigned- and quite rightly so, in my view- for the gender specific and now- outmoded poetess to be discontinued in usage and, instead, substituted for the gender neutral poet, when referring to male and female poets, are now insisting on a distinction between male and female poets, specifically in their reading habits. In fact, I know an individual who will scan the contents of a poetry anthology and will count the ratio of male authors to female authors; if there is not a sufficiently equal ratio of female poets to male poets, the individual in question will not purchase / borrow the book.
This individual, let me suggest, is not remotely interested in literature; rather, this individual is interested in issues of sociological interest related to literature and publishing. If the individual in question was truly interested in literature, they would judge the contents of the book on its own merit, reading the work irrespective of whether it has been composed by a man or a woman; a heterosexual or a homosexual; a white person or a black person; a believer or a dissenter.
Whatever you say, say nothing
Several months ago, I posted a response on my Facebook account to Canadian writer and academic David Gilmour’s polarizing comments regarding the reading list for his university course, specifically his comments in a print interview that he wasn’t interested in teaching women writers on his course. To quote Gilmour, “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. What I teach is guys. Serious, heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real- guy guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”
I responded to Gilmour’s remarks by stating that while I didn’t agree in the slightest with the nature of his comments, Gilmour’s stance was, ethically, no different to the position that a magazine such as Mslexia has taken on gender in literature and in publishing.
For those who don’t know, Mslexia is a creative magazine “for women who write”; a magazine that only accepts submissions from women. If you are a male author and you submit a work of poetry or fiction to Mslexia, it will not be published by Mslexia. As Mslexia states on its submissions page, “Mslexia welcomes previously unpublished submissions from women for every part of the magazine.”
Now picture this: imagine that yours truly were to set up a creative writing magazine, though not just any creative writing magazine, mind…no, no: a creative writing magazine exclusively by men and exclusively for men; a magazine that only accepts submissions of poetry and fiction by men and does not publish any submissions by women. A magazine that, to paraphrase David Gilmour, doesn’t love women writers enough to publish them. A magazine that publishes guys.
If I were to have the audacity to set up such a magazine, I would be slammed by women, left, right and centre. In fact, I would probably be subjected to the same vitriol which David Gilmour found himself at the wrong end of, and rightly so. Perhaps more severely, I would be labelled a misogynist; a chauvinist; a sexist. If you cannot see the hypocrisy of Mslexia‘s position and those who support their position, then I suggest you make an appointment with your local optician.
Somewhat predictably, after posting the above point on Facebook, I was set upon by what can only be described as a mob, who rather than seeing my side of the argument and arguing their case persuasively against mine, decided to clan together and shout me down in an attempt to close down the discussion. In fact, I had to temporarily deactivate my Facebook account as I had received abusive private messages- the content of which is unrepeatable- and, later, I received death threats through the letterbox of my home and on the windshield of my car, none of which were left by those people who contributed to the initial discussion, but were left by someone I didn’t know who got wind of my comments through a mutual contact on Facebook.
All of which brings me neatly to #ReadWomen2014. The campaign is, apparently, aimed at encouraging readers to discover women writers who may have been forgotten or overlooked.
While it is undoubtedly true that there are female authors who have been forgotten about and who remain unread, it is also true that there are male authors who have also been forgotten and unread.
The campaign, ultimately, begs the following questions: why does the campaign assume that it is only female authors who have been neglected; that there are no male authors, dead or alive, who have been unjustly overlooked or forgotten by readers, writers and critics? Can the campaign be described as gender neutral and gender balanced?
Now, before you argue that the campaign is aimed at correcting a perceived gender imbalance in literature and in publishing, ask yourself the following: why is such a campaign being driven at a time when
a), women are, undoubtedly, reading more books, more magazines and more newspapers than men;
b), more books are being written and published by women, which is confirmed by even a cursory glance at the most recent bestsellers list;
c), in 2013, three appointments were made for much- sought after positions in Irish poetry: Sinead Morrissey was made Belfast’s first- ever poet laureate; Maureen Kennelly was appointed Director of Poetry Ireland; Dublin poet Paula Meehan was named Ireland Professor of Poetry: all women;
d), the single most powerful books critic in the English speaking world within the last 20 years; the media figure who has influenced sales of fiction more than any other personality who features books as part of their broadcasts has been Oprah Winfrey: a woman;
e), the world’s top- earning author of 2013 was E.L. James, author of the 100million+ copies- selling Fifty Shades of Grey, who earned $95million in 2013 alone: a woman;
f), the most recent winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the most prestigious poetry prize in Ireland and Britain, was awarded to Sinead Morrissey (for her astonishing collection of poems, Parallax) : a woman;
g), the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature was Alice Munro: a woman;
h), the two most recent winners of The Booker Prize for Fiction- the most prestigious prize for works of fiction on this side of the Atlantic- were Hilary Mantel (2012) and Eleanor Catton (2013): both women.
I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with any of the above facts: if anything, I think that all of the above facts constitute tremendous progress given that there was a shameful time in our history when women were forbidden from being educated, let alone being given the opportunity to write and publish books.
The point that I am making is this: if you are a female reader, writer or critic, how could you possibly feel slighted or feel as if you are a victim of bias when you consider any and all of the above facts?
Don’t shoot the editor
Writing in last weekend’s Irish Times, Sinead Gleeson made the point that “One of the most problematic offenders for gender balance was the London Review of Books“, making the point that according to the Vida Count, 82% of the LRB‘s articles were authored by men.
One can assume, then, that Mary- Kay Wilmers- the LRB‘s long- time editor and, yes, a woman- judges the work that she publishes in the LRB by the quality of the work that is submitted to the LRB and the quality of the pitches that she receives from freelance contributors and not by the gender of the authors.
Similarly, I remember a story told to me by Joseph Woods, the former director of Poetry Ireland; a story which illustrated the integrity of one of Poetry Ireland Review‘s rotating editors. The story related to noted poet, editor and academic Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who edited issues 92 – 95 of PIR, some years ago. According to Woods, Professor Ní Chuilleanáin, early in her run as editor of PIR, began to receive letters by, presumably, female readers of Poetry Ireland Review, questioning why Ní Chuilleanáin was not publishing more women poets under her editorship.
Allegedly, Ní Chuilleanáin is said to have responded to each letter by stating that it was an editor’s job to pick the best possible work submitted to the editor and the work that best hangs together in the magazine for that particular issue; it was not the job of an editor to choose work based on the gender of the author.
Both of these stories, if true, reveal the following, undeniable truths: the only responsibility that any editor of a literary magazine or journal has- be they male or female- is to select the highest quality work for the benefit of readers of and subscribers to the magazine or journal in question, irrespective of whether that work is written by a man or a woman: judging the work irrespective of the author’s gender- or any other part of the author’s identity that they cannot change- amounts to balance, equality and fairness, which is something that we could all learn as readers.