Monday, July 14, 2014

Jeyamohan and Women Writers - 1: Sexism in Western Literature

Jeyamohan, as only Jeyamohan does, stirred a hornets nest with his remarks on the literary merits, or lack thereof, of women writers in Tamil. What started as a legitimate debate soon degenerated into blatant sexism and personal innuendoes amply abetted by his fan club. Just as I was about to write a blog on western women writers and the sexism debate in western literature, setting the stage to rebut many of the clamnies that Jeyamohan and his fans trotted out, a reader wrote to Jeyamohan, based on just itinerant googling of a few authors, lamenting that women writers of the west, unlike Tamil women writers,  create lasting literature triumphing dire poverty and adverse circumstances. The reader's contention being that Tamil women writers offer lame excuses as impediments to writing a 'Harry Potter'. The poor reader is unaware of the long and continuing debate on sexism in western literature by even the likes of Margaret Atwood. 

The Paris Review magazine has been conducting highly acclaimed interviews of writers for several decades and publishes them as anthologies. In an anthology titled 'Women writers at work' Margaret Atwood addresses at length the issue of sexism in her introduction and many parts deserve to be quoted here.

Margaret Atwood
"There is, still, a sort of trained-dog fascination with the idea of women writers- not that the thing is done well, but that is done at all, by a creature that is not supposed to possess such capabilities. And so a biographer may well focus on the woman, on gossip and sexual detail and domestic arrangements and political involvement, to the exclusion of the artist".

Atwood adroitly contrasts how Joyce Carol Oates is asked "the 'woman' question, phrased in her case as 'what are the advantages of being a woman writer?'", with how the same question is posed to Joan Didion on the 'disadvantages' of being a woman writer. Oates answers, kind of acidly, "advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can't be taken seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1,2,3 in the public press, I am free I suppose, to do as I like". Oates probably had a premonition of Naipual, not Jeyamohan, who said no woman writer wrote like him, in mind. 

Joan Didion was gentler in enumerating the disadvantages of being a woman writer. Didion replied "women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids...Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive". Quite often interviewers would ask women writers 'what they felt' whereas they would ask male writers "what they thought". 

Katherine Anne Porter's interviewer asks her, nonchalantly, "what about the creation of masculine characters, then? Most women writers, even the best of them like George Eliot, have run aground there." Nobody asks a male writer how he imagines his female characters, at least not so brazenly. 

Rebecca West, replying to if she felt 'men did not want to help her as a writer?', said "Oh, yes! So many men hate you. When my husband was dying I had some very strange dialogues. People were very rude because they'd heard I was a woman writer". That was in 1981.

Asked about racism in publishing and literature Maya Angelou responded "in the shape of American society, the white male is on top, then the white female and then the black make, and at the bottom is the black woman". Angelou even recounts how she was prevented from directing a scene in Sweden, for which she had composed the score and wrote the screenplay, because she was a black woman. They brought, Angelou remembers, a Swedish director "who hadn't even shaken a black person's hands before".

In an age of political correctness and a new found realization of the value of diversity in every walk of life the western world has spawned appropriate discussions of gender and racial diversity in the arts. The VIDA count project analyses how women writers are  presented and reviewed by major magazines like New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, Granta, NYRB etc. For 2012 NYRB had reviewed 316 male authors and 89 female authors. 

Jodi Picoult asked pointedly, referring to Jonathan Franzen's much acclaimed book 'Freedom', "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feeling, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book-in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention". Jeyakanthan mostly wrote of interpersonal relationships and family squabbles. 

The New Republic magazine which wrote of the fracas between Picoult and Franzen noted that publishing giant Rand House's editor Chris Jackson innocently said 'that he could not remember the last time he had read a work of fiction by a woman'. Jackson, whose wife owns one of the best bookstores in Manhattan, backtracked later saying he liked Jennifer Egan and Chimananda Adichie. 

Amanda Filipacchi writing for New York Times exposed how wikipedia segregated American women novelists under a separate sub section while retaining male authors under 'American novelists'. In response Filipacchi's page, according to a follow up column by her, was savaged by wikipedia editors. 

This is a man's world. If so much shenanigans can happen in a society that is relatively far more liberal than India one can only imagine the extent of discrimination in a feudal and far more patriarchal society like India. In a society where male teachers taunt girl students for attempting to gain an engineering degree or girls studying one cannot fathom the insurmountable odds of a woman making forays into an area where even males are discouraged from venturing into by parents. 

Barbara Tuchman who redefined history writing with 'Guns of August' spoke of how as mother of three children she had to become a house wife and on account of which people found it easy to say "this is something that Barbara wanted to do. Its not professional'. Coming from a storied family of ambassadors to US Presidents Barbara Tuchman's ability to fend of sexism was far better than most could have done.

In America Eve Ensler could read from a stage her poetry collection titled 'Vagina monologues' and retain an aura of a writer instead of a wanton woman. In the west Simone de Beauvoir could carve out a niche for her as a writer despite being widely known as Sartre's mistress and even his procurer. 

From Anais Nin's 'Delta of Venus' to Erica Jong's 'Fear of flying' to blatantly prurient Catherine Millet's 'Sexual life of Catherine M' erotica by women authors has garnered attention, lots of derision and a hard earned place alongside 'Lady Chatterley's lover'. 

Writers write mostly out of experience and it is almost impossible to separate the creator from the creation. As such it will remain a debate whether a woman writer can portray male characters as much as a male writer will encounter limits in portraying a women. There will be exceptions. This transcendence of the writer from his/her being and life is all the more contentious when they seek to transcend class or race barriers. Portrayal of black characters by white authors, male and female, remains a minefield that has tripped up William Styron and Nadine Gordimer alike. 

Judging women writers will remain an area fraught with sensibilities as much as it is to judge black writers or any writer belonging to a minority. Accusations, of unfair harshness and stale benchmarks that don't take into account different experiences, will be flung by those at the receiving end of criticisms. Likewise critics would cry "thats a cheap shot". Of course there are times when both are true.

In a strange coincidence Jonathan Franzen, like Jeyamohan writing of the unappealing looks of Kamala Das, wrote that Edith Warton was ugly. I'll not rush to label such Freudian criticism as sexist. However, to make such a criticism the critique needs to have built a reservoir of trust and that is where Jeyamohan and Franzen fail miserably.  

Even the reading habits vary on account gender, race and class and so would the judgment as reader. To a white reader 'Gone with the wind' is a classic but to a black reader it may appear as thinly disguised yearning for the era of slavery as a gallant era 'gone with the wind'. Erica Jong felt compelled to write of the 'zipless fuck' while Tolstoy sought to punish Anna.

Women authors are often accused of being starved of imagination beyond feminine themes. Nobody accused Philip Roth of paucity of imagination for his misogyny and for peopling his books with Jewish characters. Eudora Welty is asked if she is irked by being called a 'regional writer' for writing books based on one region. Yet, many male authors have written most of their novels revolving around familiar geography or ethnic backgrounds that they hail from. V.S. Naipual is known for his books on Trinidad and Indian descent characters. 

There are stories that are better told by a woman. Only a Ralph Ellison could write 'Invisible man' and only Margaret Atwood could write the fiercely feminist 'Penelopiad'. The same is true of 'Second sex'. However, being a woman does not mean that they can understand women naturally. Ayn Rand was a failure in portraying women characters. 

When women were integrated into combat divisions in US army there was lot of discussion over whether standards would be diluted to accommodate women, especially physical requirements. Studies established that the physical requirements about ability to do strenuous exercises were designed with men in mind and in reality had no relation to what was needed in battlefield. Women brought their own advantages too to the army. Women are considered better snipers than men. More often than not what many take for granted as standards have been created by men for men. 

Atwood in her introduction recounts an incident when a panel happened to comprise entirely of women writers and they were asked how they felt about being in one such. The authors prevaricated in their answers. Regretting that prevarication Atwood wonders they should have answered "why not". Yes, "why not". No male author has been asked how he felt sitting in an all-male panel.

The Paris Interviews anthology 'Women writers at work' is a veritable treasure. Each interview is preceded by a succinct biography, a short backdrop on the interview, an excerpt from each author's working copy (usually handwritten). The questions range from their work habits to inspirations to how they tolerate their editors. I've given below in the references a few interviews. 

Jeyamohan's reader seeks to ask Tamil women writers whether there is a Katherine Anne Porter amongst them. He wonders who would be Tamil's J.K. Rowling. This is patently unfair because none amongst the men is a Rowling either. I'd ask who amongst the men is Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood? If its unfair to place all of Western literature on one scale and Tamil male authors on another then so is it to do so with female writers.

Jeyamohan and his readers have gleefully flung many charges against Tamil women writers beyond just a question of literary merit. For instance they claim that women writers promote their works, unqualified works, insidiously. Yet, it is the male writers who bring Tamil cinema actresses, directors and musicians to their book releases. More of their slander and scurrilous claims will be held to the test of truth in my subsequent blogs.


1. Paris Review Interviews:

2. Frank Bruni's column in New York Times about sexism in literature

3. Jonathan Franzen's rebuttal to Bruni in his letter to NYT editor

5. VIDA web count of literary magazine's coverage of women writers

7. Amanda Filipacchi's column in New York Times about Wikipedia's sexism

8. Jonathan Franzen on Edith Wharton in New Yorker

11. Erica Jong's 'Fear of flying' ('zipless fuck')

12. Barbara Tuchman on motherhood and being writer

13. பெண்ணெழுத்து -நவீன்

1 comment:

VarahaMihira Gopu said...

Jeyamohan asks where is VaiMu Kothainayagi of the last 2 generations? The US or Europe as a reference is irrelevant.