To celebrate International Women’s Day, Mountains to Sea curator Bert Wright organized a panel discussion between Joanna Walsh, who started the readwomen hashtag, Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press and Anne Enright, Ireland’s first Laureate for fiction. Sinéad Gleeson was in the Chair. She started by reminding the overwhelmingly female audience that the event was about celebration, not exclusion.
#readwomen came about when Joanna Walsh made a set of bookmarks celebrating women writers she admired and began to ask her friends which women writers they enjoyed and which they’d recommend to others. The conversation took off on Twitter. She acknowledged that you can’t say much in 140 characters but the real value is in links that people share and the many spinoff conversations and events that have happened as a result – not to mention the many women writers who’ve found new readers through her initiative.
Anne Enright thinks that the internet has brought about a democratisation that is beneficial to women writers, who are not always interested in ‘Authority’. She talked about the Vida figures (an annual set of statistics documenting how many books by women are reviewed in key publications, how many women write the reviews and so on: http://www.vidaweb.org/) She likes the Vida count because it’s blame-free: There it is: this is the situation, these are the numbers, fix it. Some publications are genuinely trying, but nowhere has achieved 50% (yet).
The problem could be one of perceived importance Vs. sales. Sarah Davis-Goff says the onus is on publishers not to produce horrible pink covers (horrible pink covers came and went throughout the discussion and the questions that followed). At Tramp Press they don’t look for fiction by men or by women, they just want brilliant fiction – but, interestingly, they get more submissions from women. She thinks questions about who-writes-what are slightly moot. There is a new modernism emerging, where writers like Eimear McBride and Claire-Louise Bennett produce highly intellectual work that doesn’t have to try to be interesting. Joanna Walsh agreed and said it’s more about the how of writing, rather than the what. Where is your narrative space and how in charge of that space are you? Women’s writing is often accused of narcissism, a charge rarely brought against a man.
Anne Enright talked about Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s idea that writing is shame management; this is magnified for women, she said, because we are the shame. Sarah Davis-Goff said the subject matter is irrelevant, what matters is how you think about it and write about it.
On the subject of covers, Anne Enright applies the nephew test: one of her nephews picked up an early cover for The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and said ‘no bloke would be seen dead reading that on the DART.’ This brought on a discussion of masculine anxiety about buying books with silly covers. I wish I could remember which of the speakers said that book covers should make readers feel interesting rather than feminized. It might have been Sarah Davis-Goff. She was definitely the one who told a story about meeting a man who said he’d never read a book by a woman because a woman couldn’t possibly have anything to say that’s relevant to his life.
Here’s a scary statistic, something like 75% of contemporary fiction translated into English is by men, according to Joanna Walsh. Sarah Davis-Goff says the best way to make a difference is to have more women in positions of power (hence she and her business partner started Tramp Press).
Sinéad Gleeson said that with the forthcoming publication of her new novel The Green Road Anne Enright is likely to be asked all sorts of questions that male writers are never asked. Enright said that she doesn’t mind those questions, but she is interested in the animus of the interviewer. Sometimes they really want to know but sometimes they can be hostile. Being important, she says – in other words, feeling too important to have to talk about some issues – is bad for the work and doesn’t help her when she’s at her desk.
There were plenty of questions. My favourite was from the woman who pointed out that men have no problem reading Hilary Mantel; she wanted to know did the panel think that’s because Hilary Mantel’s books are about power? There was no real answer to this because time was running out. Points that had been made before resurfaced (horrible pink jackets are noticeably absent from Hilary Mantel’s books) but it’s the question I took away with me when the session was over.