This piece was first broadcast on Arena (RTÉ Radio One) on 27th October 2015
Recently I asked a friend what she thinks about anthologies of writing by women. Wouldn’t they be worth less than other anthologies? was her – very interesting – response.
There’s a lot of chat at the minute about women’s writing and whether it tends to get overlooked. In a recent experiment, Catherine Nichols sent a book proposal to several literary agents under two different names, half as herself and half as a man called George. George got 8 times more expressions of interest than Catherine did. In one spectacular case an agent who ignored Catherine was excited by George’s – identical – idea.
If you look at what’s happening in Irish writing today there’s little evidence of this. A healthy proportion of our dynamic young and emerging writers are women. Our first Laureate for Fiction is a woman. But the tireless Sarah Davis-Goff, one half of the publishing partnership that is Tramp Press, says that writers can be slow to acknowledge female influences, not because the influence isn’t there but because they’re not seen as authoritative.
Key male writers get name-checked automatically, almost out of habit, the way we tend to wear the socks we keep at the front of the drawer, the ones we washed and put back yesterday, instead of rummaging for a better pair down the back.
Champions of women-only anthologies, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize and the Read Women hashtag say we need affirmative action, to overcome the unconscious bias that undermines the reception of women’s writing. We all agree that the bias is unconscious, don’t we?
So where does it come from?
In her book Man Made Language first published 35 years ago but still depressingly relevant, Australian theorist Dale Spender suggests that words are devalued as they move across the gender divide from a masculine to a feminine context.
One example is what happens when a boy’s name becomes popular for girls. As names like Leslie, Hilary, Evelyn are adopted for girls, they’re not given to boys any more. The reverse is far from true: Girls’ names that abbreviate to a masculine form – Sam, Alex – are still in use.
Gender-specific words with the same meaning have positive or negative value depending on whether they refer to men or to women. Look at ‘spinster’ or ‘bachelor’, for example. Both refer to unmarried adults, but one is seen as positive and attracts approval while the other implies failure.
Or: look at the difference in status between a governor and a governess.
There’s being dogged in pursuit of a goal and there’s the pointlessness of being bitchy.
Then there’s the infantilising effect. A hen is a hen and a cock is a cock, but a chick is always female.
Spender says the devaluation often has sexual connotations. Don’t laugh.
Take ‘master’, for example. Then: ‘mistress’. An Old Master is one thing, but an old mistress is something else entirely (note those capitals).
I’m only saying. Think about it. And while you’re thinking, watch your language.
You can listen to the podcast here
I’ll be talking to Sinéad Gleeson and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne about the recent anthology of short stories by Irish women The Long Gaze Back (New Island) at the DLR Readers’ Day on 7th November. More information here and here; booking here