Saturday, 12 December 2009

What should women write about?

Here's an interesting discussion about women writers by Rachel Cusk in today's Guardian.  It is eighty years apparently since Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own" and fifty since Simone de Beauvoir wrote "The Second Sex." Cusk takes the time to consider whether anything has changed since these two greats wrote their seminal works. She concludes, rather sadly, that no it hasn't. Women still have to write about war rather than domesticity to be taken seriously.

I can see where Rachel Cusk is coming from. Male writers still do seem to get lauded in a way women don't, and domestic novels are sometimes given less credibility than they should - but I'm not sure I entirely agree. Domestic novels are challenging in that the repetitive nature of housework itself doesn't make for interesting reading(it's bad enough having to do it). But, a really good writer, of any sex, can make us interested in a person living an apparently quiet life, by the way they make us engage with their situation. Look at what Marilynne Robinson does in Housekeeping, Gilead and Home, and you'll see what I mean. Because she makes the characters so believable and their ordinary lives  absorbing, and she writes so well, she is quite rightly lauded. The Best 100 books of all time; the Pullitzer Prize; and the Orange Prize aren't bad for "domestic novels". And it's not only women who write well about domesticity. Raymond Carver's wonderful short stories collection, "Elephant" is full of careful crafted tiny snippets of ordinary lives, which make sense to us because of their very ordinariness.

As a writer, who happens to be a woman, I'd be the first to acknowledge my gratitude to Woolf and de Beauvoir for challenging the status quo of their time and clearing the way for us to follow. I was lucky enough to go to the kind of girl's school that built on their formative work, and to grow up in a household where it was a given that women were as good as men. It's never been my gender that's stopped me writing - but my busy life. In recent years that's included family, but before that it was the demands of my job. Needing to pay the bills rather than being female has been the major disincentive to my writing (something that Woolf never had to worry about!) In fact, it was only when I stopped paid work for a while to look after the children that I cleared the head-space to allow myself the thinking time I need to write.

As for subject matter, I believe I should write about things that matter to me. Sometimes this will touch on domestic, sometimes on politics or philosophy. Often it's a combination of both. If people don't like it or choose to label my writing in a particular way - that's their problem not mine.

Besides, isn't it time we learnt to transcend gender altogether? After all, isn't that what Woolf was saying in "A Room of One's Own"? When a female writer becomes as great as Shakespeare, we won't care that she's a woman, all we'll care about is what she has to say.

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