One rainy afternoon in Bangsar some years go, I was browsing in the shelves of my favourite second-hand bookshop when an elderly, dhoti-clad gentleman burst in from the street, brandishing a copy of Middlemarch at Skoob’s proprietor, Thor Kah Hong. Thor had apparently recommended the novel as the kind of improving read this gentleman said he was after. But now his customer was absolutely irate and demanding the book be changed.
“Why does she call herself George? I don’t read books by women writers.” He spat out the last two words as if they left a rancid taste in the mouth.
The answer is quite simple, of course. Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot to protect herself from prejudice in a predominantly patriarchal society, just as many other women authors have changed their names over the years to make sure that their work was judged solely on its merit.
The most famous woman writer in 19th century France, Aurore Dupin, published under the pseudonym George Sand. The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily published under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Karen Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) chose to write under the male name Isak Dinesen. Lula Mae Smith wrote as Carson McCullers, and Janet Taylor Caldwell dropped her first name so as to be taken more seriously, writing also as Max Reiner.
Even in recent times, women writers have chosen to reduce their given names to initials so as to become sexually ambiguous; Booker winner A. S. Byatt and Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy among them. J.K. Rowling says she decided to write under her initials rather than her full name because she didn’t want the fact that she was a female to deter boys from reading her books.
But in these more enlightened times surely our Middlemarch wielding gentleman is an anachronistic exception, and writers like Rowling overly cautious? Sadly, it seems not.
Earlier this year, academics Annie Watkins and Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary College, London, carried out a piece of research to mark the tenth anniversary of the Orange Prize for fiction. They surveyed 100 academics, critics and writers – the people they felt were most likely to be well-read and have the most influential opinions about literature to find out their attitudes to the gender of authors.
They found that while women read writers of both sexes quite happily, most men did not. Four out of five men had most recently finished a book by a male, and most had trouble remembering the last novel by a female writer they had read.
Wanting to see if this held true in the Malaysian context, I carried out a small scale survey on my blog and found much the same results. Asked to say what they were currently reading, over 80% of the men said that they were engrossed in a book by a male author. However, unlike the sample interviewed in Britain, most said that they did read women writers and were able to recall the last book they’d read by one.
For most men, Watkins and Jardine concluded, great writing is male writing and they find it more difficult to like or admire a novel authored by a woman. This held true for one or two of my blog readers. “I don’t think women can write like Marquez, Nabokov or Gunther Grass,” wrote one blogger known as Greenbottle, “to me these guys write as though with penis instead of pen, full of masculine animal energy.” He felt that many women writers, on the other hand, tended to produce “saccharine, wimpy or effeminate writing”. Another blogger, Amir, felt that “prose written by a lot of female authors tends to be, how do you say it? Delicate? Detailed? Ditzy?”.
More worrying is that these prejudices also appear to extend to those who make recommendations about the best books to read and influence buying habits. Of 56 books suggested by male celebrities in the Observer’s summer reading list in 2003, only 6 were by women. A tally of Time magazine’s 100 All-time Novels chosen by critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo and published earlier this year listed only 10 novels by women writers. (Closer to home, see how many articles about women writers you can find in the archives of the Silverfish litmag!) You can’t help but wonder whether women writers are playing on an even playing field.
Now, I’m certainly not one to press for political correctness at the expense of literary merit, and I fully recognise that male readers of fiction are in any case an endangered species (author Ian McEwan went as far as to say that when women stop reading, the novel will be dead).
But if your reading diet has hitherto consisted almost entirely of male writers, perhaps it’s time, at last, to give women a chance?
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Books for the Boys
Since Glenda seemed quite intrigued by the comment I made yesterday about male readers choosing not to read female authors I thought I'd post up the article I wrote on the subject. This piece appeared in (the now sadly defunct) men's magazine Chrome in January 2006. Don't know how many of you read it at the time. Greenbottle and Amir Hafizi will find their own words still reverberating!