Thursday, 20 June 2013

Women on Lists

I've recently been asked to come up with a couple of lists, first a list of recommended German books available in translation in the UK for Litro magazine, and then a list of "five books that mean so much to me I wouldn't part with them" for It's not all that easy coming up with these things, because in a way the categories are fairly random. Especially isolating five books I wouldn't part with, if you've ever been round my flat. I mean, like someone's going to come along and say, It's the end of the world as we know it, quick, choose five books to rescue! But OK, they're calling attention to reading and donating money to some good cause or other.

And then I got in an argument with a complete stranger on Facebook, as you do. I can't remember her name, but it was a woman. A friend flagged up Deborah Kogan's piece in The Nation about the humiliations women writers still suffer, which was recently translated in Die Welt. And the friend pointed out the usual statistical imbalances, making a particular example of fuenfbuecher. The people they ask for lists, she said, often name five men and not a single woman writer. In fact they have a list of frequently named writers, twenty of them, including only four women. But you can hardly blame the website people - they do ask plenty of women for their lists, and the choice is up to the individual. It was at this point that a couple of people said, What, we're supposed to introduce quotas in our own taste? And I said, essentially, yes.

Which is of course overly simplified. So I'd like to elaborate my thoughts here. I shall attempt not to generalise.

When people I draw up these lists, we are I am never entirely honest. There are a number of things at the back of my mind: what's the purpose of the list, who is the audience, what am I trying to achieve? And, always: how will it make me look? I would assert that most people asked to list five books that are important to them will choose books that make them look good, as they understand it. So the list of frequently named books includes Ulysses, the Bible, Wuthering Heights, that type of thing, interspersed with a number of children's books and "difficult" works of foreign literature (mostly American). I can imagine a person might want to create a rounded picture of herself by not actually listing what's on her bedside table right this minute.

And that's what I do too: I want any list I make to include women as well as men. Because women are at a disadvantage in the literary world, despite making up the bulk of the readership. It doesn't have to be absolute parity, partly because there are limits to what's available to choose from in some cases (I wrote about women in translation some time ago here). I would like professional critics to do the same - to have an eye, at least, on making sure books pages aren't entirely dominated by reviews of books by men, with the odd photo of a young woman writer. My blog is a kind of list, in a sense, and I try, but don't always manage, to write about books by women as much as about books by men. I don't think that's too much to ask. Do you?

The fuenfbuecher phenomenon is interesting. The only theory I can come up with is that the choices reflect the higher prestige that male writers still have, in the canon and in literary fiction. I think that explanation applies to the gender disparity in translation, too; at least into English.


Susanne Becker said...

This is such an interesting post, Katy. Since I LOVE to make lists just for myself, about whatever but often books on my bedside table or books I want to read next, I checked my latest list and was relieved to find: 5 out of 10 books were by female writers. But i agree totally with you about that people wanna look good and choose names on the list for rather that reason than the fact that they would never want to part from a certain book.
Here is my latest list:
I really enjoy your blog!!

kjd said...

Excellent list, Susanne! I have two of them on my own shelves, and I keep meaning to read AL Kennedy. I know her translator and he's a really funny guy.

Anonymous said...

Hey, no worries - of course lists are personal, or guided by who or whatever. But they can be monumental. Take the 10 commandments, or the Top 40(in the eighties). They are always a finger point to where we're at or what we need:
Unloading the dishwasher - 3 mins
Hanging up the washing - 10 mins
Reading a book - preferably 3 days
The school run - too long
Favourite female writers:
my secret....

Anonymous said...

I'm against quotas when it comes to taste. They would introduce a criterion which has nothing to do with art. Observing that many men suffer from kinda male reading guilt because they do not read "enough" literature by women, I keep myself completely free of it. Reading whatever turns me on, I cannot think of a better poet than Emily Dickinson. And Ingeborg Bachmann and Elke Lasker-Schüler are brilliant poets,too.

Ines bookshelf said...

hey there,

I disovered your blog last week and like it very much ...

I like what you wrote about what you have in mind when you write a list which is published somewhere. It is so true and (and so honest). After reading it I thought, yeah, its the same for me (but I didnt realise).
Dont yet know any of your 5 books, but will read at least one of them!

Peter said...

Great post. I think you're even a bit too hard on yourself when you say you're "never entirely honest" in drawing up those lists. What would it even mean to be entirely honest? For that matter, what does it even mean for a book to "mean so much to you that you wouldn't part with it"?

Lists like these are interesting because they're a performative exercise, not because they offer a window onto some objective truth about a person's "taste," which would be a hard thing to define anyway.

Sometimes when moving and getting rid of books I've stood in front of a shelf and asked myself "which of these am I keeping for myself and which ones do I just want others to see?" For some books it's easy but for others I find it impossible to say, even for myself.

kjd said...

Thanks, Ines and Peter. Anonymous II - to clarify, the simplified version is "quotas in personal taste". The unpacked version is more like "what is personal taste anyway?" so why not gender one's choices, if they're going to affect how we're viewed in public.

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