Women from Fetters to Letters

Pip Smith

I had a lot of trouble writing this last blog post. It was meant to be an attempt at a review of Women of Letters, contextualised by the recent discussions of women in literature spurred by the Vida stats of 2010 and 2011 and the inauguration of the Stella Prize, but I can’t help feeling as though everything I have written over the past few weeks has sounded, as Cameron Woodhead might have put it, like “privileged whinging”. I feel trapped by that stance, but don’t know how to side-step it.

I keep thinking of the kind of large family gatherings I am familiar with, where otherwise kindly family patriarchs make “joking” comments like “who let the women out of the kitchen, ho ho,” just to get muted, middle-class thrills out of watching their female relatives get drunkenly vitriolic, before clearing away the plates. It is still too easy to nibble such tantalising bait. But after it has been ingested, there is the inevitable queasiness, and the feeling that the steam coming out your ears and the redness in your cheeks is part of a parlour game devised by bored men. Look how humourless they are when they’re angry! Hitchens might be guffawing to Naipaul from the grave.

But it was hard not to be angry when, in 2010, the American grass roots organisation, Vida, released a series of pie charts showing the disproportionate representation of women in UK and US literary journals. Suddenly women cried I told you so! as their hunches were confirmed. Vida found that in 2010, 79 women had written for the New York Review of Books, alongside a whopping 462 men. While across the Atlantic, books by 330 women had been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, alongside 1036 books by men.

Many editors released public vows to reform, and the aftershocks were also felt in Australia, particularly in Sophie Cunningham’s ball-tightening speech at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, in which she not only cited statistics revealing similar disparities in Australia’s own publishing industry, but also added her voice to those lamenting the ‘cock-forest’ that was last year’s Miles Franklin short-list.

But to be outraged is easy. Deciding what to do about it is another matter altogether.

Prone to basking in uncomfortable feelings, the action I took was to indulge in my outrage and partake in a misogyny binge. I read VS Naipaul’s comments on how women’s prose is inferior to men’s (or at least his), I read Christopher Hitchens’ sleazy 2007 attempt at wit: ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, I read editor of the Times Literary Supplement Peter Stothard’s own response to the Vida stats and I felt sad, angry, and quietly, masochistically, invigorated. Just as I was supposed to.

There are many favourite quotes I repeatedly chew over when I fancy a misogyny binge relapse, but here I’ll just draw your attention to one made by Peter Stothard:

At the TLS we take the most seriously the requirement that the TLS selects, without prejudice, fear or favour, the writers who have the best things to say about the books we think are important.

We use the word ‘best’ within a long and evolving tradition that defines what the TLS is.

To give any requirement a higher priority than excellence – or to commission reviews for any other reasons than that – would risk the intellectual reputation that is more vital to us than any other and alone makes our choice of books and reviewers worth discussion at all.

Thankfully Stothard recognises the need to qualify that infuriatingly subjective word ‘best’. But his qualification – that their version of ‘the best’ is one defined by the TLS’ ‘long and evolving tradition’ – is strangely twisted, leaving Stothard standing exactly where he was before the Vida count, though perhaps slightly more red-faced and huffy with stubborn propriety.

As the Vida count confidently spells out, part of what defines the TLS’s ‘tradition’ is a heavy bias towards male writers. But Stothard explains that the TLS is only interested in a concept of ‘best’ as defined by that very tradition. Ah! The myopia!

The sting, though, is in the last sentence of the quote. That Stothard believes commissioning more female reviewers is equivalent to adhering to a requirement ‘other than excellence’ is a thinly disguised way of saying there simply aren’t as many ‘excellent’ female reviewers as male. It couldn’t possibly be that Stothard hasn’t thought to look outside the contact list attached to his TLS email account. No, employing more female reviewers would be a tokenistic, conciliatory, anti-intellectual gesture. What’s next, universal suffrage? Affirmative action?

I have a feeling Stothard is missing the point. The point is not just about how many ‘girl’ names and ‘boy’ names make it on the TLS’ payroll – numbers are only useful as evidence of a wider, more systemic problem after all. The point is asking if Stothard’s definitions of ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ are really the best, or all that excellent. Stothard uses these words assuming we’re all leaning back in our chairs nodding sagely, knowing exactly what he means. For the editor of a literary magazine, I find it hard to believe he’s so quick to assume what this Trojan horse of a noun – ‘excellence’ – has packaged up inside it. Clearly, after looking at the Vida count, the word ‘excellence’ in this context does not include “a diverse range of perspectives”.

But I can’t help feeling as though ‘whinging’ about this kind of institutionalised misogyny, as an end in itself, simply re-enforces the problem by confirming ‘victim’ and ‘overlord’ roles we’re trying to resist. It’s also fairly boring. We’ve heard it all before. The most annoying thing is, of course, that we’ve heard it all before because it’s still a problem. We shouldn’t need to keep harping on about it. And so this problem spirals on.

Precisely because they’d rather not fill the assumed role of the ‘hysteric’, ‘angry humourless feminist’, or ‘privileged whinger’ in this boring, centuries-old game, many women choose not to open their mouths at all. Take PM Newton’s comment on a blogpost by Kirsten Tranter about the 2011 VIDA statistics:

As you say, the visual impacts of those charts was shocking. In part because, whilst I had a sneaking suspicion that men’s writing tended to be treated as somehow intrinsically more worthy, I (like maybe a lot of other women) scolded myself for having such unworthy, ungenerous, carping thoughts. I told myself I was just being over-sensitive, that quality work will always receive quality coverage.

There is a sense, also, that all this ‘whinging’ about gender is about as interesting as the ‘battle-of-the-sexes’ fare that fills breakfast radio and the sets of so many stand up comedians. There has to be another way to talk about these things without constantly invoking the same tired ‘endearingly idiotic’ male and ‘finger-wagging’ female stereotypes to the point where people switch off and look out the window because they’ve heard it all before. This isn’t the first time it’s been said, but perhaps what’s needed is a different approach to the conversation.

While Vida was busy boiling blood in editors’ offices across the UK and US, over in Australia two young women started a night called Women of Letters. The night began after co-curators Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy returned from the 2009 National Young Writers’ Festival held annually in Newcastle, thoroughly impressed with the quality of work of the women they met there. They wanted to create a night that would give these women a platform to share their work, and had also been looking at ways in which they could raise money for the animal shelter Edgar’s Mission on the outskirts of Melbourne. They shot a few emails back and forth, refining their concept, and finally settled on an evening celebrating the lost art of correspondence, with all proceeds going to the shelter.

Each month, for the past two years, five women have read out letters written to people, things or abstract ideas that have affected them. This idea may be simple, but it is also very clever – the form of a letter is clean and precise, but also loose enough for each writer to make their own. The letter form, unlike a piece of fan fiction, for instance, is not an ironic gimmick hilarious in and of itself. It’s also a form that demands you draw from your own personal experience, keeping it humble, tender, and plugged into the real world.

I finally attended my first Women of Letters on the last Sunday of April, preceded up the marble stairs of the Thornbury Theatre by a goat. Attending on my own, I made my way up to the balcony and looked down on a space filled with circular tables, each with collections of aerograms, pens and pencils in the centre, encouraging people to write their own letters – stamps and a postbag having been included in the cost of admission. The room had a relaxed, chilling-on-a-Sunday-afternoon feeling about it, and audiences were at their ease.

Comedian Kate McLennan, deputy editor of Meanjin Zora Sanders, freelance journalist Elmo Keep, singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, and actor and marriage celebrant Jane Clifton each wrote letters to their petty crimes. Kate wrote about stealing her rich pony-owning friend’s Derwent pencils, Zora focused on her theft of a roll of lifesavers from a gift store aged five, Elmo wrote about the music piracy ring she had established at school, Missy apologised to a cow for eating a steak from it’s rump, while Jane skipped the petty crimes and fast-tracked to a round up of her major sins. After a short break, in which people were encouraged to write letters, or questions for members of the panel, the speakers returned to the stage, to answer each others’ and the audience’s questions.

Over the course of the evening, at no time did I think, “where are the men?” and yet co-curator Michaela McGuire has been accused of sexism, both because of the event’s exclusion of men, and also because the night indirectly relates women to abandoned animals. The women who read are not quivering victims. The women who read are successful, entertaining, often very funny (Christopher Hitchens, I hope you’re listening, wherever you are), and – going off the attendance figures – very much the opposite of abandoned. Women of Letters has continued to roll along in Melbourne since 2010, accumulating audiences like a tsunami accumulates palm trees and seagulls. Originally starting at the Trades Hall in Melbourne, it soon outgrew the small bar, and now fills the luscious Thornbury Theatre with crowds of over 400 people each month.

What I love about Women of Letters is that it is inspired by how impressive female writers can be. Not in a pat-on-the-back ‘good work’ kind of way, not fuelled solely out of spite or anger, but just because there are a lot of us, and there are many who are good, and not that many who are heard out loud. To be cynical, you could say there was a gap in the market, and an audience ready and waiting. Outrage flares up and fizzles out, but being impressed can sustain and entertain, while still quietly, cheekily, giving the finger.

1 thought on “Women from Fetters to Letters

  1. I love reading and reviewing women’s poetry because it is poetry I both enjoy and respond to. I also love publishing it in my email poetry journal. While I am not alone out there, there’s room for more.

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