Friday, February 18, 2011

Essential difference or different treatment?

Apropos my last post, here's a Guardian article by Gabriel Brownstein which considers the role of marketing in the 'genderization' of fiction.  The article also touches on whether men and women write differently, and there are some interesting comments - one or two of them unwittingly telling in the matter of unconscious bias.


Dan Holloway said...

I followed the piece and ensuing debate with interest - sadly I had a particularly nasty bout of something so was not up to wading in truculently.
There is a very interesting debate that has been waging on Authonomy for the past fortnight (now with over 1000 comments) about the differences between UK and US fiction.
The two debates overlap to a certain degree in terms of media perception of literary authors. There seems to be an expectation in the cultural media vis a vis the US literary scene that the Great American Novelist is a certain kind (has anyone mentioned Hemigway yet?) of muscular frontiersman - and writers who fit that bill are actively sought out and pushed (just think of the YouTube interviews you've seen with Foster Wallace, Franzen, Eggers - the flannel and denim, there's a stereotype going on there), whilst others are just not on that radar. As for the debate over whether muscular prose (as opposed to people) constitutes the great novel (not Hemingway here but Moby Dick setting the questing, hunting & shooting archetype?) and who writes muscular prose - I think that debate has yet to be properly disentangled from those about nationality and the cult of personality.
The problem of media genderisation is just as rife in the UK of course (see last year's Guardian debates). I'm not sure it works in the same way. Amis and Ishiguro are hardly frontiersmen (OK, A A Gill would like to be but he's hardly a Great Novelist), and I don't think we celebrate hunting, shooting, widescreen novels (much to do with postcolonial fragmentation I think) as being Great - I think we are much more appreciative of the microscope than the widescreen lens. I'm not sure whether the issue in the UK is to do with old school ties, with "how it's always been", or with maybe a different archetype of the writer - that of the tortured Byronic/Wildean antihero (Self, Amis). But not knowing what is the root cause doesn't mean it's not there. It clearly is.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Maybe, generalising of course, men and women write about different things because they are preoccupied with different things. Whether one is more literary than another is a matter of taste, perhaps, or what the subtext is - I dunno., Anyway, there is a very interesting post on Claire King's blog at Mazlow's hierarchy of needs and how that relates to what we write (and read - my addition).
Maybe blokes and birds are drawn to different stuff because of that.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, I think you're right that a lot of things are tangled in this debate - and need untangling.

eg: DO men and women and women in fact write about different things? Brownstein points out the strong similarity between the Goodman and the Franzen; is the different perception of their books to do with their different treatment of the same subject matter (he would seem to imply so) or the simple fact of the different sexes of the authors? Is it that knowledge of an author's sex alters a reader's perception of a book, male authorship giving the work more 'authority'? The fact that Bloomsbury persuaded Rowling to hide her sex implies that publishers think so. Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk is a book that deals with a subject usually thought of as typical of women's writing, and in a style I think most would associate with women's writing, but his book received none of the marginalisation/ghettoisation that women's writing on such subjects does.

Dan Holloway said...

I don't know whether men and women approcch the same subjects in different ways - I think any comment I could make would be a gross oversimplifcation (why ignore their race, age, class, assuming their irrelevance and assume the differences between texts are down to gender? It makes no sense unless one buys into the whole *trump difference* idea).

What does bother me greatly is that the new generation of much-vaunted literati that has grown out of the literary ezine growth of the early noughties is just as male-dominated as the Barnes/Amis/McEwan generation they have supplanted, and I can't think of an explanation for it other than some kind of media-driven mythmaking. It particularly bothers me because it's the scene I feel most affinity for, and there just isn't a difference in the terms of the writing being produced - at eight cuts our first six books are split three three on a gender basis, and can be split into three pairs each featuring one male and one female writer - two about suicide and aimlessness; two books about the dark side of the college campus; two experimental claustrophobic works about the unravelling of a mind - I don't think there's any difference on gender lines and the discussion is irrelevant. But clearly there IS some reason why male writers are coming to the fore now that the ezine pioneers are entering the mainstream. Melissa Mann, Jenni Fagan, and Adelle Stripe are the only female names I could put forward from that crowd, but compared to Ben Myers, Lee Rourke, Andrew Gallix who have seamlessly moved into the publishing mainstream via columns in the mainstream media, they seem to have hit a glass ceiling somewhere. And it leaves a bad taste - not because these are bad authors - they're all exceptional. But they're not more exceptional than the women writers who haven't broken through.