Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today – or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

Read Full Post »

A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

Read Full Post »

It seems like a positively antediluvian method of keeping in touch with people these days, but when I was 10 or 11, pen pals were all the rage. Of course they were the rage for a long, long time before that, too – but it saddens me that the old-fashioned pen-pal, where you actually wrote and received letters on ink and paper, is a dying art.

I’ve always loved receiving letters. There’s a magic about receiving your very own letters in the post as a kid – a magic that vaporises as an adult, when you begin avoiding the letterbox for fear of another dread-inducing bill. I suppose in a way, it’s one of the first times you can assert a sort of grown-up privacy as a child, although I’m sure that my nosey siblings rooted out my ‘private’ correspondence, as I did theirs. (For the same reason, I avoided keeping a diary of any sort!).

I was your typical bookworm nerd as a kid – the sort of child who’d ask for extra homework when she was off sick from school and who raced ahead in workbooks at home on the weekends. That behaviour was shaken out of me by my second year of secondary school (‘rough’ is understating it), but a love of writing and especially receiving personal letters is something that has never left me. Acquiring a pen-pal was the logical step, so I swiped my Dad’s copy of Buy & Sell and got applying to the least strange-sounding people in the dedicated ‘Pen-Pals’ section.

I exchanged many letters with random people from the UK, New Zealand and America, but only three managed to stick. The first was a girl of my age from Kent; England seemed so ridiculously far away at the time that I didn’t even bother looking it up. The other two were from even further afield in Canada; one from rural Alberta, one from Ontario. We exchanged letters, inane facts about our families and very different lives and cultures, and tat and fancy papers bought from the pound shop and the dollar store for a couple of years, until school, and life, and the important business of being teenagers took over. Our letters grew further and further apart, until finally, they stopped.

There is a happy ending, though. The other week, though, I got an email from someone with the same first name as one of my Canadian pen-pals, wondering if I was the same person she’d exchanged letters dotted with glitter and stickers over fifteen years ago. She’d found some of those letters recently, googled my name, found my blog and recalled that I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist “when I grew up” (it must have been after my dreams of being a vet were dashed, after someone pointed out that vets occasionally have to put their hands up animals’ bums). Our lives are still as different as they were back then – she’s now married, with two gorgeous young kids and a photography business in the same town that she grew up in – but it’s strange and wonderful to be back in touch with someone who knew you, back when you barely knew yourself. And sure, email doesn’t quite have the same effect as the drop of a letter onto the doormat, but, well, it’s still better than nothing.

Read Full Post »

My desk last summer, it has gotten so much worse!

I was fascinated by this collection of photos. Writers at their work stations; creating, pondering, posing and working.

The creative process in others has always held my interest, no matter the art. I am a terrible cook, but love to sit, glass of wine in hand, and watch my husband create magic in the kitchen from raw materials. I am in awe of people who can knit and/or design clothing. I can carry a tune but would flounder immediately if you asked me to create music. I cannot paint, but love to look at art.

But write? Write I can do, and have long loved this personal slice of creation pie. I am happiest at my desk, coffee to my right, a cat sprawled to my left. I realised recently that I spend more time here per day than I do sleeping.

Looking over the photos in the collection above the image that connected fully with me was that of Tennessee Williams. His scattergun desk closely resembles mine; cluttered, covered in books, a mess of creation. How on earth everyone else works from serene tidiness is beyond my ken. Where is their…stuff?

Let me give you a run down of my desk right this second.

Aside from my computer there are many books, some open, some stacked precariously, there’s the wine glass from last night as I worked over edits and beside that a cup stuffed with pens and pencils; most of the pens don’t work (why the heck don’t I throw them out?), a pack of tissues, junk jewelry, a paperweight, a tin of paint ( cookie dough) a manuscript belonging to Declan Burke (new book, dark and entertaining), a silver carriage clock, a lamp festooned with earrings, notebooks – most open onto pages covered in my indecipherable scrawling handwriting, dog nail clippers, two speakers, a cardboard tube containing the blown up cover of Missing Presumed Dead, a small feather duster I use to play chase with Bill the Cat, a stack of plastic files, a kit-kat wrapper, a page of reader’s notes, sunglasses and finally, a letter my daughter wrote to ‘sunta’ aged six where she asks for ‘a rising track and woky tacky’ and informs him she had been ‘very good’ as she ‘fond 20 pond’s’ and gave it ‘to the man in the shop.’

So what about it? Are you a Williams or a Christie? Neat or threatened by teetering piles? Can you work from your lap like one person I know (impossible, I don’t know how he does it!)? Or do you need space and order to write and think?

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers