Posts Tagged ‘women writers’

The Virago Book of Women and the Great War

October 31, 2020

     This anthology was compiled and published over twenty years ago, and it is a worthy but flawed collection, I feel; worth having, but the curating and editing could have been better done. I wasn’t impressed reading in the introduction that the bulk of the literature of the Great War was written by British writers – a sweeping statement which is easy to challenge. And decimal currency was introduced in 1971, not 1972…

Having griped a little, I will admit that this is a pretty catholic selection, from some French and German sources but largely from British women writers. The main interest lies in the individual pictures of life and work in those times, and the way that many excerpts counter the general, broad sweep of ‘official’ history: not everyone partied and rejoiced at the outbreak of war, not everyone was eager to volunteer and join up. We also see British women involved, mainly in medical and caring roles, in all sorts of places I hadn’t expected: Serbia, Russia, Austria and other countries.

The editor ranges very widely in her choice of sources, but even to this experienced and hardened student and reader of Great War literature, there’s rather too much information, as the current saying puts it. And yet, I can accept that such an anthology needed compiling before all sorts of material disappeared. There is a clear focus on women’s very real role and contribution to the war effort, men’s reluctant realisation and acceptance that this was both the case and very necessary to the achievement of Britain’s war aims. Women established themselves widely in the workforce and strove for equal pay and conditions with men; clearly the desire for suffrage and other rights was also in the forefront of the efforts of many, and this is evidenced in great detail from contemporary accounts and material.

And yet, there’s a bit too much here; the best is the personal accounts of front-line experiences.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

Men and Women as readers and writers…

August 19, 2014

Not an elegant title for a post, but it sums up what I’m currently thinking about…

A friend prompted me to read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s feminist lecture from 1929, in which she reflects on why there are so few women writers and poets; it’s basically because they lack the mental, physical and financial freedom or space. It’s impossible to disagree with her analysis, and it’s also one which can be equally well applied to all sorts of other groups which are un(der)-represented in the world of literature. It’s a lively, and at times humorous piece which is at once of its time and still totally relevant.

So Woolf got me thinking again about an issue that I have often considered: the differences between men and women as writers and as readers. And, obviously, these thoughts are from a man. Woolf says that male and female minds are different, their perceptions differ, the ways they frame sentences and structure a flow of ideas in a text or a story are not the same. At one level, obvious, at another, worthy of much thought. If I were forced (totally artificial example, I know) to choose between the novels of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad (both of which I really like), why, exactly, would I opt for Austen?

I’ve spent some time looking at my bookshelves as I’ve been thinking: in novels, men outnumber women writers, but not massively; in books on history, culture, religion, politics, males completely dominate. That’s not from my conscious choice, but perhaps reflects the continuing power relationship between men and women in the world: men dominate the public sphere, still. Is it accurate to say (or is it sexist) that women are more tuned to the internal world of the feelings and emotions, men to the external? Even in fiction, do men wield or exert power in ways that women do not, or are not interested in? I’m taken back to some of the texts I studied as I worked on my MPhil thesis more than thirty years ago…

Choices in reading provide more food for thought. I have known women who made a deliberate choice not to read books written by men. This has always seemed to me to be rather limiting, but then you might say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ I have also known women who just seemed never or very rarely to choose to read books by men, and wondered why, since I have always felt there are lots of really good books by men that it was a shame they didn’t read… and yet had little success in persuading them.

Equally, I’ve often got to the end of a book which I’ve really enjoyed, and felt ‘that’s a boy’s book’, realising that I probably wouldn’t persuade a female friend to read it, or, if I did, her response would probably be very different from mine. And no, I’m not talking about obvious examples such as hard SF with cardboard characterisation or books with a certain sexual content; I have subtler women friends who can make rather subtler distinctions…

I don’t think I’ve got anywhere clear yet, other than being reminded of some very real differences that do exist, that x years of feminism haven’t ironed out even if they could be ironed out, or it were desirable; I would be very interested in others’ thoughts on this issue.

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