Sunday, October 14, 2007

To Speak or Not of Gender Bias

While the dominant literary stags have been busy clashing antlers, female writers have been re-emerging from the shadowy trees. Apart from the the long-overdue recognition of Doris Lessing, and in the wake of Jonathan Coe's tribute to the reclaimed Virago novelists, Joyce Johnson, fifties girlfriend of the more famous Jack (Kerouac), looks about to be recognized at last as a literary figure in her own right.

Doris Lessing is famously annoyed by any discussion of writers in terms of their gender, and on the highest literary level she is of course right to be. Trouble is, though, if we don't point out gender biases in our perception of fiction, we risk perpetuating them. As the Guardian's Laura Barton points out: Johnson's work, 'like that of many female artists, has been ushered to the sidelines of the beat movement.'

She goes on:
...unlike On the Road and the rest of Kerouac's canon, unlike the work of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Gary Snyder, Johnson's novels are now out of print - a situation that seems strangely to echo a passage from Minor Characters in which she recalls herself at 22, sitting black-clad in a beatnik bar in Greenwich Village: "The table in the exact centre of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that's alive ... As a female, she's not quite a part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall."

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