Botch-A-Me (Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina)

On the launch of Granta‘s ‘F-Word’ feminism issue, the Independent asks: ‘Is feminism relevant to 21st-century fiction?’ In her piece Arifa Akbar omits a crucial fact: the majority of book reviewing is of male authors, by male critics. This is based on research of UK and US literary publications and book pages by the American feminist research unit VIDA. The numbers are here. It seems to be common knowledge in the industry that women read more fiction than men – that’s why chick lit took off and lad lit failed. Yet there’s still this big gender imbalance in what gets reviewed, written about and talked about.

There’s an overused Nabakov quote in which the author of Lolita said that he was ‘frankly homosexual in his literary tastes.’ I used to be like that, but in the last few years I have got more into fiction and poetry by women writers – Jenn Ashworth, Anne Sexton, Lionel Shriver, Dorothy Parker, M J Hyland – and now I consider myself at least bi curious in my literary tastes. The writers Akbar interviews complain that women’s writing is not taken seriously because it is seen as too domestic and family-orientated. Kate Mosse identifies ‘a sense of the domestic becoming an area of literary concern. Yet when men write about domesticity, it’s seen as great literature. When women do it, it’s seen as women’s issues.’ Literary academic Toril Moi echoes this: ‘Roth writes as a male Jew from New Jersey, but no one calls his work domestic. It’s the great American novel. The same for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Men’s experiences are seen as universal.’

Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, a lot of British women’s fiction is too domestic and family orientated. Too many novelists – I’m thinking of Anne Enright as the big example – seem to think people will be fascinated with the minutiae of autobiographical families and mother surrogates. This is not a gender problem, but the Roth and Franzen comparisons are misleading; Roth at least weaves his individual narratives into wider stories of American history. The subtext coming from Akbar’s piece is that the battles have been won and that women are free to relax in houseproud splendour. I think also the kitchen sink emphasis comes from what Irvine Welsh calls ‘the get-a-man, get-a-bairn, get-a-house shite that lassies get drummed into them’ and also from the cult of childbirth, that lowers women’s expectations, kills their aspirations, and keeps them in their place.

I remember a discussion with a Manchester writer, a talented one, in which she defended domestic writing from a feminist stance. Her arguments were convincing but what she didn’t answer – what I should have asked – was this: is anyone going to want to read this stuff? Contra Tolstoy, all families are pretty much the same. People read fiction to explore other worlds. They don’t want someone else’s Facebook toddler photographs. I got into writing because I wanted to write about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I know that the pram in the hall need not be an enemy of promise – there are great writers who married young and changed sets of nappies in between bursts at ‘Salem’s Lot or The World According to Garp – but instinctively I feel the writer should be a wandering man, in heart and mind if not in physical reality.

Jenn Ashworth recently did an interview with 3:AM, and I found her conclusions depressing:

I love domestic settings, writing about families and what happens inside our houses because I do think it is within our own little castles we are at our most real and we feel we can let the bad sides of ourselves out.

Still, Jenn wrote A Kind of Intimacy. So perhaps she knows something the rest of us don’t.

Mental health update: On Friday I went to Jenn’s book launch in the Northern Quarter. This involved getting on a train to Piccadilly for the first time since the agoraphobia hit in 2008. It shocked me how easy it was, and it was great to walk around in the city centre and feel like something more than a recovering agoraphobic. Hopefully, there will be some intercity trips this summer.

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2 Responses to “Botch-A-Me (Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina)”

  1. paul murdoch Says:

    “…but instinctively I feel the writer should be a wandering man, in heart and mind if not in physical reality.”

    Indeed…I think you’ve just got to accept that people like different things and see significance, draw inferences and can generalise from markedly different events or situations. I’m always fascinated by certain -mostly female- writers who seem able to touch on the infinite from a reflection on quotidian trivialities…or those who can do that kind of “keyhole surgery” routine, mapping vast swathes of characterisation from the stubbing out of a cigarette or the state of a shirt-cuff. I’ve been meaning to re-read “Dance to the Music of Time” again for years…don’t know why I keep forgetting to start. I know he’s not exactly fashionable these days but Anthony Powell is someone everyone should read for my money.

    On the subject of “wandering man” I encountered a weird little vignette of social-situationism on a random mooch the other day. My neighbour’s just had her hip replaced and told me she’s worried about her new terrier who’s apparently going a bit stir-crazy. Reluctantly, I agree to take him for a walk; reluctantly because I’m not exactly the dog-walking, or dog-anything type. That said, I have to grudgingly concede that his lust for life (if half choking himself in his insane desire to bolt towards whatever catches his eye can be described that way) and his insatiable curiosity for literally anything that moves or doesn’t move eventually wore me down; as dogs go, he was OK.

    There’s a Masonic hall about a mile from my house and a bench across the road where two young lads were eating some chips and amusing themselves by shouting “briefcase wanker” at the arriving masons who all seem to have these dinky little cases, presumably to hold their sock-suspenders, trowels and copies of Mein Kampf. (“briefcase wanker” is a motif from the dynamic yoof sit-com The Inbetweeners). Overall the effect was highly satisfying. Masons, it seems are denied the contingency of responding “Fuck off you little toe-rag” by the dignity of their calling and have instead to rely on a scowl or look of po-faced outrage.

    I walked over, urged on by the mut who clearly fancied a few chips which they willingly handed over; this , recall ,is an unnaturally winsome dog. While he was stuffing his face, they were telling me what they had against masons. They seemed fairly well informed on the matter. I ‘joked’ that they should watch themselves; that there was probably a police van on its way as we spoke. I strolled off and…fuck me…before I reached the end of the street…guess what? Not only did it turn up but 5!! of them, even the two fat bastards, actually jumped out and sprinted (sic) after the two boys who thankfully got away and escaped detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or whatever.

    Now to set this in context, you have to appreciate that if Al-Qaeda had teamed up with the Continuity IRA and the Paedophile Information Exchange for a karaoke night in my kitchen and I 999’d, I might be lucky if one of those Community dickheads turned up three days later…unless Greggs was open of course…and the law around here never been known to actually run anywhere.

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