Female book reviewers and so on

I’ve recently read a few interesting articles on the subject of female book reviewing. The first was on Suzi Feay’s blog: “Where are all the female reviewers?” which was a response to a Guardian article by Benedicte Page on the dominance of male writers in the books world. The second was by The Independent’s Literary Editor, Katy Guest, who repeated Feay’s question here, which led to Feay posting a useful guide to being a “Great Reviewer”. 
I do wonder if men have more confidence in putting their views forwards. At the risk of generalising I think most men I know wouldn’t see being called opinionated as insulting whereas perhaps some women would see that as a negative? Amongst people I know “in real life” there are several film bloggers and several music bloggers, only one of whom is female. Does that mean anything?
I feel a little hesitant when I review books. I feel unqualified to offer my opinion as anything other than an amateur and despite being paid to review it has genuinely never occurred to me to offer a review to anywhere that has not asked. I used to imagine that as I am rather opinionated I would be unafraid to write the truth. Turns out that I hate the thought of offending anyone. If I read a book I loathe I prefer to keep it to myself. Or rant to friends. It goes against the grain to be so coy, my *thing* is truth. If I think a book badly written, poorly plotted and so on I tend to think, oh, it’s utter shit but someone spent time writing that and I wouldn’t want to upset them. What’s up with that? The younger me would scoff at this soggy old me. I even went so far as to set up an anonymous blog so that I could be honest secretly, but couldn’t even commit to that.
I have written gently negative reviews. Once an editor asked me to change one saying that they preferred to show more support for new writers, and a couple of times a different editor asked me to make a review more positive. Yesterday I read a brilliant review by Steve Finbow at Bookmunch. What a terrible review, how refreshing to read. I could never. Is that a gender thing or an individual thing?
I did once write a review here on my blog in which I stated that a particular book was such dreary toss I couldn’t comprehend how it was published. The author turned out to be good friends with a group of my online writing pals. I felt embarrassed and a little silly. Why? 
I’m wary of gender based assumptions but I believe that more women read men than men read women. Certainly in the bookshop a female customer is often more receptive to being shown recommendations from either gender than some men are. Does that translate to men not taking female reviewers seriously? Then we’re back looking at the whole industry which does not revere its serious women writers in the same way it does its men. Those literary heavyweights are always blokes, aren’t they? McEwan, Amis, Rushdie, DeLillo, Roth et al. 
Leyla Sanai reviews for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday:
I do think some men are, perhaps subconsciously, more dismissive of female opinions and female novelists. There was an interesting thread in a book forum I used to belong to where people discussed the male: female ratio of the books they read. I was one of the few who had pretty much a 1: 1 ratio, I seem to recall, and I still do – not because I consciously strive to seek out books by women but because I can’t imagine not wanting to read books by women. It’s always myopic to generalise but I think some male readers – and reviewers – aren’t much attracted to books that aren’t dynamically plot-based, or don’t play with language or meta-fiction or explore ‘great’ philosophical themes in life – sex, death, and so on. This has always amazed me: while many female novelists may not ostensibly tackle these major themes, many of them are just as (if not more) insightful in their writing about everyday life: family dynamics, relationships, parenthood, ageing parents, love, hate, and so on. 

That sounds like a gross generalisation because of course many women don’t write about these themes, and many men do, but I suppose people tend to write more about what they have direct experience of, and like it or lump it, many women do experience more of the interior of family life than many men, who have traditionally worked away from home. I just don’t understand how any reader, male or female, could fail to be blown away by the writing of authors like Maggie O’Farrell, Tessa Hadley, Julie Orringer, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel. It’s funny how the latter two only seemed to gain major acclaim when they tackled more ‘male’ themes – yet their books have always had that richness and depth, the insights, the wit and fabulous prose.”

I suspect that a woman is expected by some to only be competent in reviewing women’s books. Dismissed. Like Leyla, I read a mix – it’s what appeals, what’s good, etc, not based on gender of author. My favourite writer is a woman. That does not mean I’m not blown away by wonderful male writing too. Everything Leyla says rings true except my choice of strong literary women would differ from hers, showing what wealth of talent and variety of styles are available because…guess what…each woman is an individual.

Leyla Sanai says “Some (but not by all means all) men tend to dismiss any novel based around family life as ‘women’s fiction’. Of course there are many women who don’t like ‘domestic’ fiction, and that’s absolutely fair enough too. Personally, I get uneasy about categories: I used the term ‘domestic’ fiction in a Hadley review recently but made sure to use inverted commas because I was being semi-ironic – although her plotlines have been criticised by some reviewers as being too small in scope, I think what’s important is the writing, and whether a writer can bring a subject to life and make reading a joy. I have read some very poor family/relationship orientated fiction as well as much great stuff, just as I have read many brilliant novels based around intricate plots/adventure/action. Categorising is the enemy; some men won’t read books by women because they think ‘mothersandbabies/singlegirllookingforlove’. And that’s just so myopic. Personally, I wouldn’t read half of the stuff on bestseller lists in Smiths, and they probably include as much lightweight chicklit/’domfic’ as they do inane action thrillers like Dan Brown. What I was trying to say is that I don’t judge books on the gender of their author, nor on subject matter, but on the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to be intelligent, insightful, perceptive, smart, funny and original, and to bring characters and situations to life so that I’m completely immersed.

Some writers can make ironing hilarious, others render murder tedious.”

True, yes?

I suppose what is important is that opinions are expressed with spark and integrity. We need to be honest in reviews to inspire trust. I do think we need a variety of voices, male and female, so that we have a choice of reviews. It’s good to hear dissenting voices if there is a reason for that dissent but if it’s just ego wank it’s pointless. 

Edit: Thanks to Jane Bradley for this pertinent link to an article she wrote at For Books Sake.

A really long blog post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like

I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)
I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.
I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.
My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.
I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.
I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.
It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.
The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”
And I think, she has a point, no?
I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.
So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.
Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:
“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations – be they cities, countries or other planets – Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”
I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.
There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
“No, it didn’t straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it’s not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn’t mean it’s straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It’s not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”
Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.
Anyway, like I say, I’m still mulling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me. 

Itching and winning!

Waterstone’s ran a writing competition for a Bookseller’s Bursary with a cash prize, a place on an Arvon course, paid leave to attend the course and a trophy . I was shortlisted and invited to a “do” for the announcement of the two winners. Sadly I developed Urticaria and had to spend the morning in A&E instead of going to London as planned. Apparently I have had a massive allergic reaction to something and am now on steroids and antihistamine tablets. I feel very sorry for myself, and am ITCHY beyond belief. I am literally smothered by these gruesome lumps.

I came home from hospital feeling very glum, and then received the news that I had won!

I think it’s fantastic that Waterstone’s is supporting the many budding writers that are drawn to working in its stores. This is a superb prize, and I am chuffed to bits. It’s going to be a real pleasure choosing a course to attend and I’m hoping it’ll help me get my novel whipped into shape.

So, boo to rashes and illness, but a massive yay to Waterstone’s and Arvon.

I want to write this post without appearing to be vain in drawing your attention to a nice thing said about me, but the nice thing is relevant!

Jenn Ashworth
was interviewed at Dogmatika
part of the interview is reproduced below:

AK: There are some fantastic female writers of the Offbeat Generation, Emily McPhillips, Sally Cook… Do you feel female writers are overlooked in the underground writing scene or on an equal footing with the lads?

JA: Sally Cook and Emily McPhillips and Sara Crowley and Emma Lannie are doing sparkling, vivid, original work and although they are hardly overlooked, I do think there should be more of a fuss made over them. I can’t speak for them, but I wonder if this lack of online attention is about gender, or if it’s about our unwillingness to get into that kind of ’scene’, a scene that is very incestuous and doesn’t quite represent what we do.

The definition of ‘offbeat’ is becoming narrower and I wonder if as readers and writers we are growing up and if it might be time for something else now. I don’t know what that something else is going to be, but I think the women we’ve mentioned are among the writers who are going to be doing it.

Now obviously I am enormously chuffed that she has said such kind things about my writing, but also I am fascinated by her response in general. I wonder what you think? Is there a boys club? I have been musing about this since I first read the interview, a week ago I think. The problem is that the whole world I live in is a bit of a boys club. When younger I thought all was equal and would remain so. I am entirely comfortable calling myself a feminist, despite the negative connotations some people add to that label. I have always had many male friends, they would not feel that I am inferior, or I that they are superior. The world that surrounds me though, that is different in many ways. It can be subtle, it can be blazingly obvious, but especially since becoming a mother it has been ever more clear to me.

Last Saturday I went for a drink after work with a female friend. We sat in a pub in Brighton, and at a nearby table three men yelled and swore and pushed and rowed with each other. A couple of tables away three men I work with were sitting drinking beers. Their presence comforted me, I wasn’t worried by the rowdy guys, if they had bothered me I knew my work mates would have helped me. I was with neither group of men, but still, them being there meant something to me, one a threat, one a protection. I left earlyish as I don’t like to brave a late train back from Brighton, so at nine thirty I got on a train. Two drunk guys sat in front of me, one wanted to be sick and I was concerned he was going to puke on me. Across from them sat a muttering older guy. A young bloke got on and stood despite there being plenty of available seats, and he stared at me, making me feel nervous. There was no direct threat, but I felt uneasy all the way to my station. When I got off the train I went to the cab office. Five guys sat inside the small cabin and made jokes about who the lucky one to take me home would be. I smiled, uncomfortably. The man whose car I got in started revving his engine and told me he was going to give me a smooth, fast ride. He then started ranting about the police and told me how his friend had punched one. I got home and felt utter relief at closing the door.

Sometimes when I go for drinks with male friends I become suddenly aware that I am the audience, they like me when I appreciate how clever they are, how funny. Sometimes I am “one of the lads”, and that is meant as a compliment. I don’t want to be one of the lads though, I want to be me, I want to be one of the humans. It’s not all men, it’s not all the time, but it is what surrounds.

What this has to do with writing is debatable, but I think that online can be a bit like being in the pub, sometimes women are included and at other times shown off to, flirted with, sometimes women are protected, and sometimes, sadly, bullied. Women only things like The Orange Prize and Mslexia magazine are derided, the assumption being that females need a separate competition or whatever because they are not good enough to compete with men. Many women agree with that too. I have no conclusion, this is more a wondering, meandering thought that could change at any moment! I’d love to hear yours.

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