Ian McGillis looks at the new edition of Granta, which includes Edwidge Danticat, among others for the Montreal Gazette.
It’s a shame the newest Granta, dedicated as it is to the theme of feminism, went to press a bit too late to incorporate a response to VS Naipaul’s recent pronouncements on the inferiority of women writers. In case you missed it, the Nobel laureate expressed the firm conviction that no woman writer—and he meant ever, including Jane Austen—is his equal. He went on to claim that he can tell “within a paragraph or two” whether a piece of writing is by a woman, and hit a peak of baffling contentiousness with the following general statement: “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing, too.”
While there was a predictably quick volley of righteous refutations (Francine Prose in Harper’s springs to mind) what was perhaps most surprising, all things considered, was how little fuss Naipaul’s comments caused. This could be partly down to the source: Naipaul* is an inveterate contrarian, and it could well be that the boy-who-cried-wolf principle has set in with him. But it could also be a generation thing. It struck me, reading Naipaul’s little rant, just what a throwback his views are, back to the days when a figure like Norman Mailer could claim to be able to “sniff out the ink of the women.” Does Naipaul not represent the last gasp of an old guard that would find it acceptable to say such things? Is there really any reputable male writer under the age of, say, sixty, who would seriously make such claims? It seems to me that we have now, blessedly, put such things behind us, and that men can read women—and indeed women read men—with an objectivity that is, if not gender blind, then at least not wholly defined by gender politics. Take last week’s Mordecai Richler tribute supplement in The Gazette, in which three young female writers expressed unreserved admiration for a writer who has been accused at various times—always unjustly, in my view–of being unsympathetic in his portrayal of women.
The Naipaul story coincided, for me, with hearing a BBC podcast interview with Margaret Drabble in which she was asked how much the world in which her early protagonists fought to be heard has changed. “It hasn’t changed as much as I thought it was going to,” she said. “I thought by now we’d all be liberated. These [old] stories are full of child care problems and people trying to juggle too many things in one life and I think women are still doing that, and in some ways are having a harder time now, when life is so much more expensive than it was. Life was much more easygoing in the sixties, you could have ad hoc [child care] arrangements at home and with friends. It’s now become so much more professionalized, and in some ways I think it’s more difficult.” A clearheaded, socially rooted comment on women’s practical ability to clear the space required to write, with echoes of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own—the contrast with Naipaul’s crabby superiority couldn’t be more stark, or more refreshing.
Drabble, sadly, isn’t included in Granta’s feminism issue, but her sister AS Byatt is, with a short piece recalling the gender discrimination she encountered as a student and young academic in England in the 1950s and 60s. Byatt, of course, is on record as calling the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction sexist, withholding her own books from submission for the award and saying that she finds its assumption of a feminine subject matter spurious. The gulf between her early experience and present-day stance would appear to indicate that for her and others of her generation the battle has in many ways been won, or that at the very least a common playing field has been attained.
Presumably Byatt’s Orange Prize policy doesn’t extend to inclusion in women-only literary anthologies, and the case of this Granta that’s a good thing, as her presence adds heft to an already rich and internationally diverse array of writers both new (current Orange Prize recipient Tea Obrecht), established (Francine Prose, Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat) and in the case of Eudora Welty, no longer with us. The editors have had the good sense not to impose any particular agenda regarding theme or subject matter, perhaps trusting that gathering a group of quality writers (and visual artists) between two covers is statement enough, and also, just possibly, acknowledging that feminism in 2011 is far too broad a church to be summarized neatly.
Two highlights for this reader are Helen Simpson, who as far as I can tell has been kept from recognition as one of the best living writers solely by the fact that she has exclusively written short stories (Alice Munro is the exception that proves the rule in that regard), and Rachel Cusk, whose “Aftermath,” a bottomlessly nuanced examination of one woman’s attempts at self-definition in the wake of a failed marriage, does the best thing a sampler magazine like Granta can do: it makes me want to run out and buy/borrow/beg all her books.
*Of whose work, if not his public persona, I have always been a fan; A House For Mr Biswas is one my all-time favourite novel.
For the original report go to http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/2011/07/09/103971/