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Joanna Walsh on Gender Inequality

28 September 14 words: James Walker
"The feeling of 'difference' that faces women writers is pretty similar to that facing women working in any area"
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No prizes for guessing who's blue

Where did the idea for the Year of Reading Women originate?
I'd been looking at the projects of Matt Jakubowski, a US reviewer who's reading only women this year, and Jonathan Gibbs, a reviewer in the UK, who read only women for a period last year. The project was also prompted by the VIDA count, which logs the gender balance of reviewers and reviewed, in UK and US literary journals. Coverage varies widely according to publication.
 
But, more simply, it started as a celebration of the names I'd written on the back of some new year's cards I'd drawn. I posted them on Twitter and invited people to tweet more. I thought it might last for a few days, a week but the response was incredible.
 
Why do you think this gender bias exists?
We're still - as always - recovering from history. The college where I studied English Literature has only accepted women since 1984, and attitudes can take longer to change than legislation. However, they can change.
 
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How's the campaign gone so far?
I don't have statistics - we'll have to wait for next year's VIDA count, but the willingness of bookshops, libraries, and journals to participate in this focus on women's writing is heartening.
 
Do you think there should be some form of positive discrimination to improve the representation of women writers?
Let's reverse the question. Unless you believe men actually 'are' better at writing, or reviewing, or whatever, you have to accept that some form of positive discrimination exists already, and it's not currently operating in women's favour. But to answer the question as you put it to me, I think initiatives to deliberately include more women can change things. I heard writer Kate Mosse speak earlier this year about The (Bailey's) Women's Prize for Fiction. She said that she helped found the award in 1996 with the intent of directing more attention to women's writing, after noticing that, though 60% of the novels published that year had been written by women, prize shortlists were routinely 90% male. Things look very different now.
 
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Bookshops do their bit by raising awareness of the campaign

In Nottingham the editor of LeftLion magazine, the editor of our local student magazine Platform, and the Development Director of the Nottingham Writers' Studio are all female. How important is to have women in 'high' positions of authority within cultural organisations? 
If culture is to reflect society - though that prompts some big questions: after all, culture has got on just fine on its own terms for centuries, often without being widely inclusive - then it seems to make sense that the people who run cultural organisations should be drawn from diverse backgrounds. 
 
Do you think there is a difference between how male and female authors approach writing in narrative, plot or anything else? I guess it's hard to generalise but...
"One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me," Sheila Heti says, rather tongue-in-cheek, in her excellent How Should A Person Be? It would be restricting for writers of either sex to feel as if they are writing purely 'as' their gender, just as they might not want to feel that their writing is purely representational of its genre, or of their nationality. I think that the feeling of 'difference' that faces women writers is pretty similar to that facing women working in any area in which gender can be an issue, that has been previously dominated by men, and this is the feeling that they have to find a place somewhere along the line between entire comfort with forms historically developed largely by men, and an attempt to create something in reaction to it. Some women writers claim to be able to ignore this feeling of difference, though, personally, I think this might be difficult. Like Heti, a woman writer could take this feeling of 'difference' as a challenge.
 
 
Recommend five female authors to our readers...
I'm assuming everyone's at least tried Austen, Eliot, the Brontes... so I'd like to recommend five authors who are, perhaps, less well-known. I love Elfriede Jelinek's stark, brutal work. The Austrian writer won the Nobel in 2004. Though her novels were published in English I think she could be better known in the Anglophone world. I'd recommend Women As Lovers (trans: Martin Chalmers). If you like tricksy, witty, eloquent, postmodern writing, try Christine Brooke-Rose. I like Between, and Amalgamemnon. On 16th September I'm helping Europa Editions launch the UK edition of Italian writer Elena Ferrante's latest novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (trans: Ann Goldstein). This is the third instalment of her Neapolitan series, which can be read as anything from a turbulent saga, to a manual for radical politics. You've probably already heard of Deborah Levy, whose Swimming Home was nominated for the Booker, but I'd like to recommend Hamish Hamilton's recent reissues of her earlier work, particularly the breathtaking, lyrical Swallowing Geography. The most exciting new writing I've read recently is by Nell Zink, who has forthcoming books with The Dorothy Project, and 4th Estate.
 
Outside of this campaign, what else are you up to?
At the moment I'm working on a book called Hotel for Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. Hotel reviewing was something I did when I began to write.
 
What advice would you give to female writers hoping to get published?
As Deborah Levy wrote in Things I Don't Want to Know, her response to Orwell's Why I Write, "Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December." Not many of us are arrogant, so forcing yourself to be assertive is a must - I definitely have to. Enter that competition, submit that article! You may think you have no chance but, do it anyway. You never know...
 
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Joanna Walsh

Are there any particular prizes, website or magazines you would recommend for female writers?
All the ones I'd recommend to men. Off the top of my head - I'm bound to have missed so many - some good websites to find out about prizes and reviews oriented toward women's writing include: 
Twitter: @jennymcphee, @KatyaTaylor, @Frizbot, @Belindamfarrell
 
You can invite any four female writers (living or dead) or female fictional characters over for dinner. Who would you invite and why?
Well, like Claire Messud, I don't see why female characters or authors should be particularly likeable. What makes a good story wouldn't necessarily make a good, or interesting, guest, and the characters from some of my favourite books might be appalling, or downright boring. If I'm limiting myself to female characters created by women, I'd quite like to party with either, or both, of Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies. Leonora Carrington's Virginia Fur might be exciting, though there's a good chance she'd eat the other guests. Also present would be The Hen from Clarice Lispector's short story: she would be eaten.
 
If you want to read female authors from Nottingham then we recommend checking out The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan, Alison Moore's latest novel He Wants and Paula Rawsthorne's debut The Truth About Celia Frost.
 

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