15 Dec

While I’ve been dutifully (and often exuberantly) working my way through a ‘teetering pile of Mantels and Atwoods and Cattons‘ this year as part of my year of reading women, I haven’t read any Joanne Harris before. But I really think I’ll have to, after this blistering commentary on sexism in the book industry.

Talking about her experiences being accused of ‘plagarising’ everything from Norse legends to Johnny Depp and Tom Hiddleston in her books, she really nails our assumptions about ‘women’s fiction’ to the wall. I really can’t add much to this so I’m just gonna leave it right here….

…It’s the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg we glimpse so often that we tend to forget it’s even there; a great big iceberg of sexism within the whole book industry, which stealthily perpetuates the belief that no woman writer can ever really be successful without having somehow copied from, used or otherwise capitalized upon the popularity of a man.

Don’t buy it? Try this:

Imagine someone accusing Salman Rushdie of “capitalizing” on the folk tales of the Middle East.

Imagine someone accusing Neil Gaiman of “capitalizing” on the popularity of: Norse myths; DR WHO; Claire Danes; milk.

Imagine someone accusing Lee Child of “capitalizing” on the popularity of Tom Cruise.

No? Didn’t think so.

As for myself, I can’t even remember all the crazy, sexist assumptions that have been made (and voiced) about me during my career as a writer. Here are just a few of them:

My husband supported me financially while I was starting out. (He didn’t. We both had jobs.)

My husband secretly writes my books. (Oh, for fuck’s sake.)

My media, university or Hollywood connections helped me start off. (They didn’t. I don’t have any.)

I’m sleeping with my agent/editor. (One is gay, the other female. And no, I’m really not.)

I’m desperate to make more movies, to boost my writing career. (Nope. Much as I like movies, I’ve never needed a leg-up from Hollywood. That’s why I keep turning down offers.)

I only write for women. Because, you know – vagina. (Nope. I write for anyone with a pulse.)

We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women. Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.

It doesn’t help when Peter Stothard, latterly a Booker judge and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, excuses the fact that books reviewed in the TLS are almost all by male writers by saying that women don’t read, (or, presumably write) the kind of books reviewed in the TLS.

It doesn’t help when Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul opines (as he does, with monotonous frequency) that women are simply not intellectually up to writing great literature (being way too full of feelings and general messy thinking).

It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)

It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population.

Recently, at a function at my local university, I was told – with some pride – by an academic that he never read books by women. It doesn’t help that morons like this are still in charge where it matters.

Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions.The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.

How can we stop it?

Don’t let it go. Don’t assume that your voice isn’t worth listening to. Call people out when they talk crap instead of slinking sadly away.

And please, everyone, say after me:

Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.

Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.

Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.

Women writers are capable of thinking, writing, and acting for themselves, without a man to motivate them, to give them ideas or to lend them an air of authority.

Women writers don’t need to take male pseudonyms in order to gain more readers.

Women writers don’t need to scorn and belittle other women writers in order to get the approval of men.

Women writers can stand alone. But it helps if we stand together.

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The year of reading women: Revisiting Austen

1 Aug

There aren’t many Austen novels, and each of them can only be read for the first time once. As such, they’re precious treats that I have tried to consume slowly, over several years, only occasionally allowing myself the delight of a new one. I have put off reading Persuasion for over a decade because I knew for many it is considered to be Austen’s finest and I wanted to save the best for last, but on a bus heading for the south coast of Turkey last week, I knew it was finally time.

I didn’t build it up too much: I wasn’t disappointed. The wait was worth it.

This is such a complete, whole and perfectly balanced novel that it reminds me of a small, round, white pebble (or the ‘little bit of ivory, two inches wide’ that she herself uses to describe the delicate miniature of her novels). The characters are so wonderfully observed and real – despite being rendered in Austen’s signature gentle irony – it’s a bit of a departure from the earlier novels, which draw the characters slightly larger than life. Here the internal world is so acutely rendered that you feel you know these people – both from the outside, as others see them, and with all the doubts and misgivings of an internal view of the self. The social situations are, of course, the most brilliant: the way she describes certain moments of tension between Anne and Captain Wentworth made me positively shiver with the intensity of emotion.

As always, though, there is more to chew on: the themes of self-reliance, the difference between confidence of mind and stubbornness… The integrity of growing older and learning to recognise and listen to good advice and reject that which is well-intentioned but misplaced.

I devoured this book and no doubt it will be one I return to again for comfort and escapism – but also reassurance and dignity.

ps. I wrote this post at the end of my trip, after 6 hours’ sleep in 3 days. Forgive me if the above is incoherent or worse.

Censorship just got a lot more personal

29 Jun

If the internet is our source of information, what happens when the information is tailored just for us?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing worldview – evidence that we are right. It makes us comfortable and happy and, in turn, reinforces the desire to search for more similar information.

A couple of days ago the news broke that Facebook has been manipulating our emotions in an enormous randomised controlled trial, showing that they can indeed deliberately make us more positive (or negative), based on the items they choose to include in our newsfeed. Aside from some very creepy implications about what we do and do not consent to when we make our data available on the internet, this has some interesting (read: terrifying) implications for social engineering.

I don’t know about you but a huge amount of the information I access is through links suggested by friends and like-minded netizens that post on social media sites. Much of the rest is sourced through google searches. It made me realise that if these service providers are keeping my information and recording my preferences, likes and dislikes, and the kind of information that improves or depressed my mood, they are capable of censoring the information I access to keep me happy.

I get the heeby-jeebies thinking about this.

Imagine a world where we never see anything that perturbs us, that makes us uncomfortable. Where news items we don’t want to know about are simply invisible to us. Where organisations get to decide what you know based on whether it will upset you or not. Where the status quo is easy to maintain on behalf of the mega-corporations that are profiting from it, because no one knows any better.

That is some Orwellian shit. (Ok, maybe more Huxley than Orwell.)

Why Thomas Cromwell tastes like dhal (or, literary associations I shouldn’t have but do)

22 Jun

I remember the first time I understood the intense emotional associations that smells can have with life events. I was about 19 and I was throwing out some old cosmetics and came across a tub of moisturizer. I opened the lid to see if there was any left and a wave of nostalgia passed over me, so powerful I was almost moved to tears. I’d used the stuff as barrier cream during a high school musical that, up until that point, had been one of the happiest times of my life. The smell of that Dove body cream was like pure, bottled emotion, and the connection to that experience was stronger than any memory.

Sometimes it’s the same with books. Like a lot of avid readers, I usually have a paperback somewhere about my person, and it gets pulled out while walking, eating, waiting for buses, on buses – whenever there’s a moment to spare and people aren’t forcing me to be sociable. The result is that my life often becomes entwined in the plots and characters, with people and places illustrated and coloured by temperatures, smells, food, seasons, trees and – of course – bus stops.

I realized this when this morning as I ate my paratha and dhal, I was instantly reminded of Thomas Cromwell. Where was he? What was he doing? After three months in Bangladesh, much of which I was actually immersed in Wolf Hall, Tudor England has taken on the aroma, taste and messy fingers of Bengali breakfasts, and the food itself has become entwined with black velvet caps, political machinations and cardinals.

Dhal

spicy lentils.

My mind wandered to other books that have imprinted themselves on – and been imprinted by – other aspects of my life. We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like cold Autumn mornings in Canberra, and looks like the top of my old street. Shantaram smells mouldy (I read it while a stone-cold broke student, and living in a particularly plague-ridden flat in Kingsford). Pride and Prejudice is the warmth and crinkle of a duck-down doona, thanks to reading it for the first time during a highschool winter holiday. Ants’ nests will forever remind me of Anna Karenina, as I dodged a huge one every morning leaving my house when I was working my way through the tome. Coogee beach is The Slap, and The Slap is Coogee beach.

Books become the wallpaper, the soundtracks and the footpaths of our lives. I’d love to know what unlikely pairings have defined other people’s reading lives. What are your unlikely literary associations?

Why so quiet, Anna?

2 Jun

rickshaw

Noticed I’ve been a bit quiet lately? Friends, I have a confession to make. I’ve been cheating on you with another blog.

If you’re wondering what’s become of me, or are interested in a travel blog about living in Bangladesh, please head over to being bideshi and check it out.

If books and ‘leftist’ Aussie politics are more your thing, please don’t give up on me. You’re where my true heart lies.

While you’re waiting for me to resurface, you could always check out this post about book shopping in Dhaka

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Stella Prize 2014

13 Feb

Stella Prize 2014

Hooray hoorah! The Stella Prize longlist has been announced, and with it come some great additions to my 2014 reading list. Super excited to see the excellently talented Anna Krien on this list, as well as the ass-kicking Anne Summers. Lots more reading to do. More on the longlisted titles here.

The Year of Reading Women #1: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

31 Jan

I was given The Signature of All Things (the second novel from Eater, Prayer and Lover Elizabeth Gilbert), as a Christmas present and summer beach read by my lovely mother-out-of-law. She was aiming for something smart and fun enough to be worth reading, yet dumb enough to slow my brain down to a sluggishly relaxed holiday pace and large enough to provide a small patch of shade over my face while sunbaking. She hit the nail on the head.

The Signature of all Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of all Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Aside from a few slow patches where I almost gave up (but was too comfortable on the sand to move), this book doesn’t tax your efforts as a reader. Following the life of Alma Whittaker, botanist and taxonomist (read: hearty, hale and slightly OCD) from birth to death in colonial Philadelphia, we’re introduced to her lifelong passion for science and discovery, and to the forces of the spiritual and the human worlds that baffle her.

Set against the period of vast and spectacular global change that was the 19th century, there’re plenty of opportunities for cameos by major historical events, characters and ideas – colonialism, abolition, missionaries, the discovery of natural selection, life on the high seas of the Dutch trading fleets.

The book also pays homage to the intellectual women who achieved so much during this period and have been overlooked by history. It’s an interesting premise, and the fact that it offers a female protagonist who interacts with and thinks about things other than men felt like a promising start to my female-authors-only reading adventure.

But Gilbert’s not a great author. Maybe she’ll hone her skills and mature as a writer over the decades, as she’s supported by her six-figure publisher advances, but in the meantime the word ‘amateur’ kept cropping up in my mind. The structure of the book reminded me of the stories I wrote in primary school – ‘and then this happened, and then this happened…’: it’s all chronology and no storycraft. Just like in real life, the emotionally charged events come and go, leaving you bobbing up and down on the surface of the plot, never being fully pulled out by the tide of a structured climax.

Gilbert also has a problem with language. She unforgivably shocks you out of your reading reverie: she breaks the fourth wall. There were times when I found myself immersed in Alma’s life, particularly towards the end of the book, when I felt she was really fleshed out as a character and had more complexity – more inner life. But just as I found myself forgetting my surroundings and living inside that world, language that was inappropriate (either to the period or to Alma’s voice) or that was simply redundant and clumsy, would sharply jolt me out of it.

The modern, colloquial clichés were by far the worst -‘to be fair’, ‘to be honest’ – and made me squirm even more when they were awkwardly crammed in with period-appropriate adjectives. Who the hell is telling me the story here? Is it Alma? Is it a sympathetic, omniscient C19th biographer? Is it a middle-class, C21st self-help book author with an unrealistic opinion of her literary skill?

Sadly it’s d) all of the above.  And in that awkward mix, something leaps out at you: we’re not hearing Gilbert’s authentic voice here – it’s all affectation. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that she has watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps read a Dickens novel or two, and decided that was enough for a complete and comfortable grasp of educated Victorian conversational style. Top tip: it’s not. You sound weird.

But when it comes down to it, I feel uncomfortable about gleefully slamming this book, because the truth is that I quite liked it. While my reading habits are usually a combination of hyper-critical and lazy – and as a result I have a healthy and growing ‘life’s too short pile’ of abandoned books, somehow The Signature of All Things didn’t suffer that fate. I read it all, and I actually enjoyed it.

Alma is a complex, troubled, flawed character. But you don’t have to like her, because she’s interesting, and that’s more important. She falls in love, but not in her youth – and her love story is both heartbreakingly unrequited and somehow emotionally satisfying. She lives a full life, full of the meaning that comes from learning: learning about relationships, yes, but also about herself, and about the world, full of natural, ethical and political wonders.

It’s also an adventure story, of a kind. The second half of the book is undoubtedly better than the first, because it unleashes the potential of the period (seafaring curs, industrial revolutionaries, renaissance men and women of science – swash, swash, buckle buckle) to lift you up and carry you away. C19th intercontinental travel is something every reader should try, and Alma’s journey doesn’t disappoint.

All in all, three stars. Despite its lofty philosophical ambitions, it didn’t rock my universe, or even my world. But it did gently rock my boat.