Sunday, October 07, 2007

Whose Territory?

Interesting. Jonathan Coe tells in the Guardian Saturday Review of the 'love affair' with Virago Modern Classics which he began as a student when his peers were immersing themselves in the male 'Granta generation' of Swift, Amis, Barnes and McEwan.

He writes of the revelation to him of Dorothy Richardson's subversive rhythmic prose which undercut the male narrative procedures of 'conflicts and linear progressions and sudden climaxes', and of May Sinclair's very different but equally singular novelistic power to select, pare down and omit. He tells us how they influenced him as a writer:
Before long, the Virago novels would unseat some of my deepest assumptions as a reader, and also alter my course as a writer.
He pays tribute (as I did recently) to those wonderful Virago covers. The sequence of Gwen John paintings of women reading on the Virago editions of Richardson's novels 'reflects', he says, 'upon the acts of reading and writing as essential ways for women to memorialise their experience, and insists, moreover, that a woman's experience has as much value as a man's'. Coe suggests that it is the Virago Modern Classics which have been largely instrumental in seeing off the kind of chauvinistic critical reception which women authors like Rosamond Lehmann once suffered.

Interestingly, however, he wonders if the gender bias which Virago challenged really has disappeared altogether. It might seem to have: male writers like Ian McEwan are no longer 'afraid to voyage in an "exclusively emotional and sexual sea" ', and 'Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women ... and these are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels.

Yet Coe is not convinced: I can't help thinking that some of that bias, subtle and unspoken, remains, he says, and points to the still male-dominated Booker shortlist as indication that the literary establishment has yet to learn to value women's writing.

I think Coe's instinct is right, love him, but he's not looking in quite the right place to prove it. He shouldn't just be looking at the literary establishment but at women writers themselves who have internalized the prejudices. While men like McEwan have taken up the challenge the women's presses offered, many young women writers have shied away from the territory that would brand them 'merely' women writers. I don't suppose I'm the only ex-women's press writer who read the disparaging and self-distancing reference to 'dusty Women's Press novels' in Zadie Smith's White Teeth and thought 'Ouch!'

Me, it warms the cockles of my heart that a man should be championing Virago and their writers in this way, but, like those contemporary women writers, I can't help wondering if this article, even now, would be seen as quite so authoritative had it been written by a woman.
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