Friday, November 25, 2011

Artist-mothers, there's a new MAN in town...

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by two incredible women, dancer Jo Pollitt and artist Lilly Blue, to help them launch their online Mother Artist Network (MAN).

Jo and Lilly are the editors of BIG Kids Magazine, a gorgeous mag jam-packed with creative ways of inspiring kids to respond to the world around them though story, art and film. There are also interviews, photos and a free print contributed by a contemporary artist.

Their aim was to produce a magazine that encourages "bravery, imagination and generosity" (hence, B.I.G.) through collaborations between children, parents, artists and diverse communities.

Looking through this mag, I ended up spending a whole morning just doodling and making pictures with my kids -- something I haven't done for ages (usually too busy, too much work/housework to do, blah blah blah...). One activity in the book is to have a go at your own BIG logo, and this was mine:

Bit fiddly for a logo, I know, but I got a tad carried away...

The Mother Artist Network blog is an offshoot of the BIG creative project Jo and Lilly have embarked on, a place that invites an ongoing discussion about creative practice and motherhood.

As I've said in my little launch rave over at MAN HQ, if Lilly and Jo's glorious magazine project is anything to go by, MAN promises to be an extraordinary forum for artists to share their experiences of navigating mothering and the creative process -- a place to flee to when the littlies are finally asleep and you're in need of some solace and inspiration from kindred spirits!

If you want to contribute, email all artwork/stories/rants to with MAN in the subject line and they will post the material as part of the series. They are interested in "work/questions/artwork that invite response and talk to the 'divide' or otherwise of the ongoing mother dance".

Look forward to seeing you there...

Monday, November 14, 2011

An interview about The Divided Heart (three years on...)

It's funny how things come in waves. I haven't been approached for an interview about The Divided Heart for a while, and then I suddenly received three requests all in the one week.

All the requests were for great websites/blogs run by impressive creative types. I will link to the interviews as they are posted, but the first cab off the rank is a chat with bookseller Nina Mansfield over at typset, a blog offering "book dirt for book worms".

I am always surprised when women without children tell me they loved The Divided Heart. It's really heartening to know that it spoke to them anyway, whether they're wrestling with the question of whether or not to have children, or because they found it emblematic of broader questions about what it means to be an artist, or at least live a creative life.

Nina apologised for her "rambling" questions, but they weren't at all. They were very thoughtful -- and it was nice to have the chance to revisit some of the issues.

It's funny, too, that she used the pic above with the post. It wasn't until after I published my book that I realised "the divided heart" most often gets used in a religious context. Ah well, it's all about the internal conflicts that come with devotion, I guess!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Vale Sarah Watt

As most of you probably already know, artist and filmmaker Sarah Watt passed away on Friday. Readers of The Divided Heart often mention her chapter to me as one that especially spoke to them. The photo to the left is the one she sent me for possible use in the book -- Sarah with her kids, Clem and Stella.

Sarah was easily the most unassuming, down-to-earth artist I've ever met. She had the pure creative spirit of someone who makes art because she has to -- as a way of coming to terms with, but also celebrating, the world around her. And by that I mean the ordinary world. The mundane, the suburban, the everyday was her territory -- a reminder that there's beauty, solace and humour to be found everywhere.

The last time I saw her was when Sally Rippin and I attended the opening of her film My Year Without Sex at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville. I laughed so hard I was weeping through the whole thing. Afterwards I told her that it had been like watching my own family on screen -- but funnier. Later I tried to express in an email to her how much I admired her unique talent for describing what lurks just beneath the surface of daily life.

I'm so glad now that I sent those messages while she was here to receive them. Like many, I hadn't realised how sick she had become until very recently, hearing her husband William McIness speaking of it on the radio, and her death seemed very sudden.

As McInnes said, she was incredibly courageous. But so is he, I think. It is rare to hear someone talk so openly about their love for their partner and her bravery in facing her own death.

After seeing My Year Without Sex, I interviewed Sarah (over the phone) for a profile piece for The Big Issue. She told me that all of her work is about “the most basic stuff of life. How you get through your day; how you find meaning.” She was interested in the way we absorb the precariousness of existence — “the randomness of good fortune and catastrophe”.

Sarah had all the difficulties and distractions common to women artists, as well as profound struggles with grief and illness. But despite that she stayed very true to the art she wanted to make. Her art and films are bursting with heart, with her over-active imagination, her steely eye, her playfulness, great sense of the absurd and anxiety-fuelled whimsy.

Few artists have made work that has affected me like Sarah Watt's. I am already grieving the films she might have made next. It was just luck that allowed me to meet her in person.

After hearing that Sarah had died, I re-visited our conversation in The Divided Heart. For all who fear their domestic, suburban lives are not the stuff of art, let Sarah Watt be your inspiration.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The hows and whys of writing

The Guardian recently launched a 'How to write Fiction' series, with all sorts of famous writers giving us their tips. As always, the comments thread can offer as much as the actual articles.

But I found this piece from Meg Rossof on 'Finding Your Voice' really helpful, because the notion of "finding a voice" has plagued me ever since I started writing.

I have never really understand what it means to have a "writing voice" and so I feel very intimated every time I hear writers discuss the matter like it's a given -- as if a real writer will have developed a writing voice they know and can rely on.

So I found Rossof's demystification of the term very comforting -- especially her emphasis on the importance of living deeply in order to write deeply.

She says: Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well. It allows you to work through from a deep place – from the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind. This connection of subconscious to conscious mind is what gives a writer's voice resonance.

You can of course completely overdo the "how to" thing. As with parenting, I try to limit how many guide books I read and largely go with my instincts. (I'm also very selfish when it comes to my limited reading time and want to spend it indulging in novels, not slogging my way through detailed parenting guides, though I'm sure some of them have a lot to offer.)

My mum, who was a nurse and very much self-educated, told me from an early age that if I wanted to understand myself better, look to the philosophers. Pop psychology books will try to offer shortcuts, but unless you've arrived at those revelations yourself, it won't stick. Common knowledge to most of us grown-ups, I know, but an important message to me as an adolescent.

It helps to compare it with maths. At school, even if I was given a method and could use it to get the right answer, it just didn't stick until I did actually understood how the method worked. I was one of those kids who drove my teachers crazy by constantly asking "Why?".

I suppose it comes down to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. In other words, deepening the questions rather than looking for the answers, and being prepared to discover that you might become less rather than more certain of what you know. The ideal place for a fiction writer to be coming from!

In the same way, you're probably far better off reading other people's novels, and getting a sense of how other writers build characters and structure a story, than looking for answers in how-to books, which can just be another way of avoiding putting in the practice.

But I am a total sucker for hearing writers talk about the process of writing. I remember finding Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe's Making Stores a total revelation when I read it years ago.

And when I go to Varuna, the writers' retreat in the Blue Mountains, it takes all my will-power not to just curl up on the couch and work my way through its enormous collection of Paris Review interviews.

On that front, I also love The Write Tools, a series on Damon Young's blog where authors and artists talk about the tools/visual aids/substances that help them get their words and pictures down on paper.

And while I'm spruiking, I found Jane Sullivan's interview with Ann Patchett at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival particularly interesting. Hearing about Patchett's approach, I suspect she'd be in total agreement with Meg Rossof about the most important things for a writer to do: "Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. Confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are."

Illustration (at top): Jirayu Koo

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life as art

I expect the blogosphere has already been going crazy with this one. But it does raise some interesting issues...

As you've probably heard, performance artist Marni Kotak is planning to give birth in front of a live audience at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, The Birth of Baby X has seen the artist accused of "narcissism", of “exploiting” her baby and even of child abuse.

Kotak says she sees the performance as an assertion of authentic personal experience in a world that has become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality. "As an artist, I am most concerned with the question of how one can have and convey a real experience. I believe that our most intriguing performances occur when we are not aware that we are performing."

More specifically, she says "The Birth of Baby X" is about "addressing the assumptions about the way birth in our culture is viewed".

"I hope that people will see that human life itself is the most profound work of art, and that therefore giving birth, the greatest expression of life, is the highest form of art,” she told the Village Voice.

She is also planning a post-birth conceptual art project, dubbed "Raising Baby X", which will "help us think about and develop a greater respect for the intricacies of child rearing".

Hmm. Well, I guess that's one way of keeping your creativity going: just turn everyday life into a performance.

But why does living need to be a public act? And is it really art?

I have to admit, I've never been entirely comfortable with the notion of giving birth as the ultimate creative act. Of course, it is the ultimate act of creation. Amazing, yes. And profound. But the incredible beauty and wonder and mystery of nature is something that exists in and of itself. Plants will still be sending out their seeds and animals will still be giving birth whether humans are there to witness it or not. Surely art is our response to this world we find ourselves in.

As for Marni Kotaks' performance: What does it say about our desire to always be on show in order to create meaning in our lives? Does this only take us further away from being present, in our own body and our own life, or do you dig her idea of letting it all hang out in public?

Certainly life doesn't get more real than when you're giving birth. And if there's ever a time when you're going to turn inwards and lose all self-consciousness, it's while birthing.

Though I wonder if that will be true of Marni Kotak...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cock-forests and sausage fests

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the launch of the Stella Prize — a new Australian prize for women's writing, modelled on UK's Orange Prize.

A group of women felt inspired to establish the prize earlier this year in response to the announcement of yet another all-male shortlist for our premier literary award, the Miles Franklin (aka the "sausage fest", as blogger Angela Meyer called it back in 2009, another all-male year).

An audible collective groan could be heard among women when the 2011 shortlist was released: since the Miles Franklin award began in 1957, it has only been won by a woman 13 times. Ironic for a prize established through the will of someone who, like so many female writers of her time, felt it wise to publish her books under a male name and is best known for her novel My Brilliant Career.

Stella Miles Franklin (hence the name of the new prize) knew first-hand the role major literary awards can play in enabling writers to continue their literary careers. She herself struggled to make a living as a writer and was the beneficiary of two literary prizes.

So what is going on here? In a country where some of our best-known and critically acclaimed authors are women — Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Joan London, Toni Jordan, just to name a few (all of whom published books in 2009) — why is their work so under-represented when it comes to Australia's literary prizes?

For more dismal statistics regarding the gender divide in lit award recipients, check out Sophie Cunningham's thoroughly researched essay, "A Prize of One's Own: Flares, Cock-forests, and Dreams of a Common Language" in Issue 6 of Kill Your Darlings journal. There she also discusses the shocking new stats on the disproportionately low number of books by women being reviewed in the world's leading literary publications (something I ranted about in an earlier post).

Thankfully the Stella Prize, which will be awarded to the best book (as deemed by the judges) written by a woman that year, will go some way in redressing this inequity. But the questions about its need to exist remain...

Critic and editor Morag Fraser, who sits on the Miles Franklin judging panel, has insisted the judges are not deliberately favouring books written by men. But then what explanation is there for this obviously skewed outcome?

Could it be possible that, even in the year 2011, an unconcious bias persists? At the very least, this is surely a question Australia's editors, judges and critics need to be asking themselves.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Most Mentally Sexy Dad comp finalists announced

I know -- this may be the most awkwardly named competition in history. And perhaps even one of the silliest. But I'll take the Most Mentally Sexy Dad competition over 'The Farmer Wants a Wife' any day.

Over at MMSD HQ, the five finalists have been announced. There were 73 entrants in this year's competition.

As organiser extraordinaire Clint Greagon says:
...Even though we've built this idea into a contest to help promote what we reckon is a very positive message, the bottom line is that every entry is a winner.

In the end we're simply celebrating great Dads who do what they think is best for their families and think that gender role stereotypes were only created to provide gags for 1950s sitcoms. They're also having a bit of fun and providing some great male role models.

Reading the entries for the MMSD comp turns me into a watery mess every time. Whether the winner is the man who "can leap tall piles of toys in a single bound (and pack them away afterwards)", the one who "likes to schedule - can you believe that?" or the one who allows his partner "to dream, without trying to rein me in", what these men clearly have in common is that they put their families first.

The entries describe men who are totally there, alongside their partners, in dealing with the full catastrophe: work, kids, housework, illness... whatever comes the family's way.

It's a celebration of what a modern family can look like when both parents are taking an equal share of the load -- and the results seem to be a lot of laughs. And a lot of good loving, if you know what I mean...

Image: Most Mentally Sexy Dad entrant Ian

Friday, September 2, 2011

What does a creative life look like?

It is apt that a brief quote from Virginia Woolf posted on Damon Young's blog, darkly wise, rudely great, would launch a discussion about the nature of a creative life.

In despair at not travelling more, Woolf laments: "Here we toil, reading & writing, year in year out. No adventure, no travel; darker grows the fog. Here, by some invisible rope, we are bound."

To which I responded that "toiling, reading and writing, year in, year out" sounds like my fantasy existence!

Of course Damon, being a philosopher driven by the spirit of inquiry and interrogation, doesn't let you make these statements without calling on you to confront their implications!

His response: "As for the freedom to write, it's easy: just sell the house, give up your job, and brace yourself for the creative joy of relative poverty!"

Much as I can crap on about the details of my own life, this is surely a common dilemma among creative types. Please help save the comments on Damon's post, 'A Weevil in a Biscuit', from being my own personal therapy session and have your say...

What is your ideal version of a creative life? Does it have to be all or nothing?

Image: Virginia Woolf, by Roger Fry, c.1917

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Just Kids: the book Patti Smith hoped people would read and say was good

I have long been an admirer, if not an actual fan, of Patti Smith. Musically, that brand of New York punk has always left me a bit cold, though I am in awe of its spunk and its energy, and also the poetry at its heart. In truth, I have always felt faintly overwhelmed by Smith, as one of its gutsiest performers.

So when a friend convinced me to read Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her affair with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I wasn’t expecting it to really speak to me.

How wrong could I have been? This book moved me to tears. Buckets of them. And not just because of the tragedy of Mapplethorpe’s early death — though that made me terribly sad — but because it really shook me up. It was cathartic reading.

Some might enjoy her story for its picture of the New York art scene in the 1970s, which was pretty out there and full of amazing characters. But for me, what was really moving about this book was its story of profound connection between two people, both of whom epitomise artistic integrity.

Reading about the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that they were fated to meet. Their relationship was intrinsic to their development as artists — especially for Smith, I think, as the less overtly ambitious of the two. Though I suspect she would have found her way, her confidence as an artist was much more fragile than his, and he gave her huge amounts of encouragement and belief.

Whatever drew them to each other, their initial encounters were certainly uncanny. Mapplethorpe was really the first person Smith met when she moved to New York — albeit briefly, until by sheer coincidence he again turned up to save her from an awkward situation — and became arguably the most important.

What also strikes you about them is the egalitarian nature of the relationship. He was domestic and nurturing, and in a scene peppered with phonies, they had a true meeting of minds.

There is no doubt that Smith and Mapplethorpe were innately talented, but her story reminds you that creativity is largely about commitment and passion. Their devotion to their work — and to living creatively — is all the more inspiring because they are both so unpretentious about it.

Perhaps what surprised me most about this book was its lack of cool; as Smith says, they were “too busy trying to pull enough money together to buy lunch” to be conscious of making a grand political or cultural statement.

Though their sexual relationship couldn’t last — Mapplethorpe eventually settled on his homosexuality — their connection retained its purity. It was deeply romantic and it sustained them both.

As you may already know, Smith is pretty legendary among mothers for letting her career take a backseat for a time while raising her daughters. As her much-adored husband died not long after Mapplethorpe, she also spent those years dealing with enormous grief, something she says has "put her on another plane" far more than mysticism or even intelligence.

After her album Gone Again was launched, and before she had written Just Kids, a 50-year-old Smith said: I'm very proud of my new record, and I wouldn't put it out unless I was. The last thing I want to do is inflict a piece of mediocre art on the planet. But I've also, as a single mother of two children, got practical reasons I've never had to consider before. I still have a part to play in rock 'n' roll, and I'll do that, but I'd love to write a book that people would read and say was good.

I read that book. And, yes, it was 'good'. But it was also so much more than that.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Peggy Frew on writing and motherhood

A member of my writing group, Peggy Frew, is about to publish her first novel, House of Sticks (Scribe), which won the 2010 Premier's Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. I have known for years that Peggy is a writer to watch, and so it's very exciting to see her getting the attention she deserves -- and this is just the beginning...

If you read this blog because you are interested in mothering and art, then you have to read House of Sticks, a novel that wades into this territory with great insight and honesty. And if you want to know more about Peggy and her work, look out for my profile piece in an upcoming edition of The Big Issue (September).

For a taste of just what a brilliant writer Peggy is, you can read one of her short stories in the current fiction edition of The Big Issue magazine. I got hold of a copy yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and (from what I've read so far) it's packed with great stories.

Without wanting to steal the article's thunder, there were some chunks of the interview I did with Peggy that didn't make the final cut. Inevitably we spoke about writing and motherhood in detail that might leave the average reader cold, so much of that got left out of the article. Instead, you can read those bits here:

What Peggy Frew said:
Somebody who read the book, a published author themselves, wrote me this email saying writing any novel takes such determination and dogged hard work but, in the case of House of Sticks, it also takes courage.

It's not like it's a memoir where it's all about the bravado of exposing your own dark life or something. I think people think it's brave because ... it's taking a subject that a lot of people wouldn't think is worth writing about. It was what I was compelled to write about; I didn’t think strategically at all. You do connect with what's going on at your life at the time. I didn't set out to be brave or controversial; I just wrote it because the characters and the scenario came to me.

Almost everybody lives in a home, a lot of people have children, so how can it not be a valid subject to write about? Family is a key matter for a lot of writers. But it's the mother and baby thing that mean people put it in that pigeonhole. Now I'm a bit worried it's not going to be taken seriously because it's "only" about motherhood. Fortunately, my next book is far removed from that.

The initial urge [to write] is really unfocused usually. It's almost like a bodily urge, really, like a need to eat or something. But with working on a novel then it very quickly moves beyond that and it actually becomes a slog; I have to shape that initial outpouring into something. And then you have to commit to it and it becomes a task that you don't necessarily feel compelled to do at all. It's like that Dorothy Parker quote: "I hate writing, but I love having written."

If the book's there and you want to write it, you have to. There is definitely room to be a mother and make art. The main reason for me to keep writing is that I’d be a less happy person if I wasn't and therefore a worse mother.

Once you've had a child, you have to live with a sense of responsibility and therefore hope. You can’t just be selfish and you can't just give up on the world. It hasn't stopped me from confronting horrors, but my children are still really young. I haven’t had to justify anything about what I’m doing yet.

I recently read The Slap, and there’s this really great bit in that where a character talks about a friend who has this theory that there are three genders: men, women who have had children, and women without children. So men stay the same, while women are almost two different species. I thought that was really interesting. Though I think having children does change men as well.

I heard an American author on [Radio National's] The Book Show and he was a doctor who had become a writer of fiction and he talked a lot about working in hospitals. In the middle of this interview that was quite kind of high-brow, he said, "I feel like there's one thing that changes your life and that's having children. I feel like that's changed me profoundly and I'll never see the world the same way again." It was almost jarring when he said it. I totally didn't expect him to say something like that because men so rarely mention those things.

I’ve never had anything but support from my family. I think the fact that Mick [Turner, Peggy's partner] is a painter and musician himself means that he has respect for art and he understands that what you produce -- of course it's tied to you and who you are. And there are elements to that book that are based on real experiences and real feelings. But I think probably because he's done it himself, Mick understands that when you take real experience and make it into art, you do fictionalise it. You take a moment in which you felt a particular way, and you inflate it and heighten the drama, and explode it out into a huge story. There's a kernel of truth that relates to your real life, but it doesn't mean that the big story is real life. I think he just gets that. Well, fingers crossed he does, because we could be in big trouble otherwise.

We're both really productive. I imagine it would be really rough if one of you was going great guns and the other was dealing with writer's block or whatever. But we haven't had to deal with that yet.

In the book, [main character] Bonnie idealises Mickey [a musician and free spirit]. She is Bonnie's opposite. She's the living myth. It doesn't matter who you are, everyone has someone like that in their life, the people you idealise. I know I do with other mothers. In the school playground you see those other mothers who look really relaxed and calm and their like life is together and they're really well dressed and their kids seem really well behaved. You feel like they're somehow living this other life.

Parenting's like anything else — some people are just really good at it. My biggest issue as parent is containing my own frustration.

I've got one day a week [to write]. Otherwise, I write in small spurts — evenings, maybe twenty minutes in an afternoon if [third child] Fraser goes to sleep. And on the weekend I might lock myself in a room for an hour.

When I went on that writers' retreat I had six whole days and I wrote about 7000 words. That's comparable to what I’d write at home if I was really in to something and writing every night. It was just that [at the retreat] I had lots of time to go on walks in between and I felt really refreshed and relaxed, but the actual output that wasn't that different.

I’ve been so much more productive since I had children than I was before, but that could just be a maturity thing. ... I was really lost in my twenties. It [having a family] has worked really well for me. I wouldn't change anything at the moment about my writing practice. Actually, I would change something: I would love to have, say, two hours every mid-morning when I just went in to my study alone. But I wouldn't want to go into an office every day and write all day.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life and reading, reading and life

I was honoured to be among those approached by author/publisher/blogger Karen Andrews, aka Miscellaneous Mum, to contribute a spiel about the most life-changing book I’ve read in the past ten years.

If I'd know the company would be so illustrious I might have tried a bit harder! The result is a wonderfully varied list of books that is about to become the pile on the desert island that is my bedside table.

I have always been a big fiction reader. Apart from books read for study or research, I can probably count the number of non-fiction books I've read "for pleasure" on one hand. (OK, maybe one hand plus a foot or two.)

Most of what I know about art, politics, religion, human nature -- if not learnt through living -- I've learnt from novels. What I love about fiction is the depth of insight you can gain about what it was like to be a human being alive in a certain place, at a certain point in time. And I suppose being partial to a domestic drama, no-one can plumb the nature of relationships and family life like fiction.

As I mentioned to Karen, I have been forced to recognise that the books which really resonate with me tend to reflect or deepen my understanding of my own experience, as opposed to taking me into totally other worlds. Even as a child, I recall being slightly suspect of books in which animals talked!

I have often worried that this is a limitation of mine. But lately I've decided to just sit with the fact that there is something in these stories that I still need: that is feeding me. And I expect that one day this need will be expelled and I will feel ready to open myself to less familiar territory. A kind of graduation from the internal to the external perhaps.

My theory is that all writers exist on a spectrum that runs between pure observation and pure imagination. When author/artist Antoni Jach recently put this idea to a masterclass I'm involved with, I was surprised that most put themselves at the imagination end. Me: I confessed to being about 80% observation and 20% exaggeration (by which I really mean embellishment).

Interestingly, the list of books on Karen's blog is about half-half, when it comes to fiction versus non-fiction (not that it's a competition -- especially nowadays). But either way, all evidence that books really do change lives is fascinating, and heartening, stuff.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A few absurd things that happened to me last week…

Monday: Very, very nearly got hit by one of those 300-tonne skateboarding rhinos while riding to work. Who could have known that there would be a second tram directly behind the one that had just passed me?!

Tuesday: Had 10 minutes to woof down my lunch and (ideally) read my book while sitting in the car. Spent entire 10 minutes trying to find the page I was up to.

Wednesday: Had a very efficient 15 minutes with my accountant doing my tax return. Just long enough for some fucker in a truck to back into my car in the laneway outside. And drive off!

Wednesday (2): Got the times of my children’s parent-teacher interviews mixed around — hence, managed to miss both of them.

Thursday: Took four little girls to the first ballet class of the semester… (each week I pick up said four girls from school at 3.30pm, change said four little girls into complicated ballet outfits, shove said four girls into ballet studio by 4pm, spend next half an hour trying to sort out whose school uniform was whose)… only to realise that I had forgotten to enrol my own child. She and I went and had a hot chocolate.

Friday: Literally wasted half an hour ransacking the house searching for my favourite coat, only to realise my partner had put it away in the cupboard. Of all places! Sheesh…

Hmm, think riding a bike might require clarity and focus. Hell, think life might require clarity and focus.

Sorry for the silly post... Will try for something more profound next time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On synchronicity and my man turning 40...

When I was 22, my friend Katie and I saw a terrace house to rent in North Fitzroy, across the road from Edinburgh Gardens. It was the stuff of our dreams.

We were determined and strategic -- rather than wait for the inspection date, we decided to knock on the door and attempt to ingratiate ourselves with whoever was inside.

As we approached the front door, dressed to impress in our cobbled-together faux office-worker outfits (I seem to recall that I was wearing a white suit of all things!), we caught sight of someone familiar sitting on the internal stairs of the adjoining terrace. He was leaning against the wall, talking on the phone with his feet up on the banister.

I had met him once before, a few years earlier, at the Uni Bar in Canberra, where we had both grown up. At the time I had decided he was an arrogant prick and had been harbouring a rather too intent dislike for him ever since. Funny how strong feelings sometimes have to go one or the other.

The tenant set to move out of the house Katie and I wanted to rent happened to be playwright Hannie Rayson. As a VCA graduate, she took pity on two entirely transparent young art students searching for a house to rent and recommended us to the landlord.

The rest, shall we say, is history...

(Left: The kids I ended up having with that not so arrogant after all and in fact rather delicious man living next door.)

Yesterday that man on the staircase turned 40, and I was privileged to wake up next to him for the I-don't-know-how-many-hundreth time.

Not a bad way to spend a life.

(And many years later, just to come full circle, the darling Hannie Rayson launched The Divided Heart. If only I had a recording of her incredible speech! Does anyone remember it? I was too nervous to really take it in but I do remember that she was brilliant and hilarious.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ellis unleashes his "wowser-feminism" conspiracy theory

This ludicrous article from Bob Ellis is barely worthy of comment, really. Except I, along with hundred of others, can’t help myself.

Clearly The Drum saw it as an easy means of courting controversy and therefore traffic to its site. And on that front it worked, inspiring a huge reaction.

Ellis has created his own unique conspiracy theory that “sexual complaint” is “being used to bring down left-leaning and Liberal-reformist artists and politicians”.

According to Ellis, so-called “wowser-feminism” has gone too far in its agenda to kill off the Left — the “Strauss-Kahn Moment” being the final straw.

Note: “left-leaning” is a very broad category in Ellis's book. It seems all artists and politicians cut down by scheming women conveniently morph in to "left-leaning" types once aligned against a common enemy: the wowser-feminist.

I mean, what has the world come to? When did it become legit for women to ruin the blokey fun of Ellis and his mates?

After all, it wasn't that long ago that you were allowed to come on to your secretary at the office Christmas party and it was all a bit of a lark. Hell, in some countries it’s still the done thing to “deflower” the 12-year-olds in your village.

And paedophilia is only a bit worse than schoolyard bullying, isn't it? Playwrights and filmmakers have raped the youngsters in their acting troupe for centuries. It was all in the name of Art, for god’s sake.

Ellis seems to be suggesting that sexually predatory behaviour is just a by-product of creative genius or political brilliance. That we should ignore the crimes of important figures if outweighed by their cultural contribution.

This article is absurd on so many levels. It's all very well to say that some matters are private issues that should not bring into question someone’s ability to do their job; another thing altogether to say we should avoid making people accountable for their blatant abuse of power, breach of responsibilities or, indeed, criminal acts because it may put at risk their future masterpieces or capacity to solve Greece's economic woes.

Yes, there are times when the public, or media, reaction outweighs the misdemeanour in question (the downfall of Labor minister David Campbell after his car was spotted outside a gay resort being a case in point). But, sorry, when did feminists have anything to do with that?! What of the genuinely scary problem of governments increasingly under pressure from the Christian right?

To chuck a series of complex and sometimes severe events in to one bag for the sake of a "neat" argument is not only stupid and offensive, but also undermines any serious (and more interesting) conversation we could have on the subject of private morality versus public good, or on the legislation of behaviour.

No, sorry, my heart does not bleed for an extremely powerful politician who tries to force himself on a woman (and friend of his daughter no less) during an official press interview.

Why, yet again, are women being made responsible for mens' bad behaviour? Are we really meant to believe that for hundreds of years countless famous but hapless blokes have been at the mercy of feminists with an agenda to orchestrate their downfall, especially if they're of the liberal variety?

As for Polanski, surely his story better illustrates the way rich and powerful men manage to avoid paying for their crimes, rather than the opposite — “35 years of harassment”, “despite his evident genius” — as Ellis sees it.

I don't use the word misonyny often, but this crazy little article smacks of it.

Surely great men of genius can find a way to change the world without sniffing their female colleagues' chairs or raping their underage muses.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking the Naipaul test

I'm playing catch-up again, so apologies if it's all ho-hum, yeah yeah, she's banging on with yesterday's news again...

But for those who haven't already heard, there was a bit of a scandal in Britain recently when writer VS Naipaul asserted that there is no woman writer he considers his equal – even, or perhaps especially, Jane Austen. Just all too much sentimental "feminine tosh", apparently.

His reasoning: that not being the "complete master of a house" translates to a woman's writing too. Hmm... naturally.

Suddenly Damon's study showing that, when it comes to good writing, it's them beards that make all the difference isn't looking so mad after all, is it?

As part of Naipaul's wild (or should that be pompous) claim, he added: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

He's not meaning to be unkind, though, he says. There there, dears, don't go weeping about it or anything, will you? It's not your fault that a gal's world view is, by nature, so "narrow"...

As a response, the Guardian has created the The Naipaul test: Can you tell an author's sex? -- so while you can't hope to match Naipaul's penetrating insight, you might come to a better understanding of why men do it better...

For those who feel inspired to comment below, only rational responses please, and perhaps share with us which VS Naipaul book has affected you most profoundly. (You can jog your memories here).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why does mother still equal full-time housekeeper?

Ha ha, not surprising there's 190 online comments (and counting) in response to Kasey Edwards' article in the Age today: Is sharing the chores such a daft idea?

As she says: Motherhood is what I signed up for. What I — and many mothers I know — didn't sign up for was the job of full-time housekeeper and cook as well.

Another recent article on the front page of the Sunday Age said that at the birth of the first child, a woman's housework lifts from about six hours a week to about 15 hours — while a man's does not change at all.

Worse, you know these roles have really solidified when that division of labour doesn't shift even after she has returned to work.

As that story goes on to say: Research shows the norm in two-parent Australian families is that women do 70 per cent of the housework. Even as women's workforce participation has steadily increased since the 1970s, and the average Australian family features a full-time working father and a part-time working mother, women carry about three quarters of the domestic burden.

In her article, Edwards cites Susan Maushart's revelation in The Mask of Motherhood that after the birth of her first child, a woman's entire domestic workload (including childcare) increases by 91 per cent to an average of 55 hours and 48 minutes per week.

By contrast, her partner's workload increases, on average, zero per cent.

Extraordinary, isn't it?

According to stats, the only time the average Australian father actually lifts his housework rate is when his relationship ends! How tragic is that?!

Quite rightly, this issue just ain't going away.

If your man defies this picture of the 'average dad', consider entering him into the Most Mentally Sexy Dad competition, and we can celebrate those men who are showing the way forward! Seems they're still in the minority, sadly.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Porn and feminism continued...

I have been meaning to get back to the porn issue ever since my previous post sparked so many thought-provoking comments (and great links - see here for those interested).

And today being a day that I've only had to reheat my cup of tea once (so far), I am finally getting on to it. That said, I started this post at 10am this morning and now it's almost 7pm, but we get there in the end, don't we?...

Some of you may have since watched this fairly heated discussion on SlowTV between Gail Dines, Kate Holden, Catharine Lumby and Leslie Cannold. It's worth reading the comments as much as watch the debate.

Among the responses to my post, were these questions from Damon Young: Can women dress in lingerie and not be objects of a 'male gaze'? And when they dress in slacks, blouse and jacket, and grow their pubic hair, do they necessarily avoid this 'gaze'?

I think what he's asking is: Can anything or anyone avoid some objectification? And can banning porn fix this inevitability? (Am I right?!)

Not being an academic, I come at these issues from more of an intuitive/experiential position, and so perhaps using Mulvey's term was a bit throwaway and lazy of me, though the idea of girls being raised to be conscious of the 'male gaze' (and even exploiting the supposed power that this gives them) has always made sense to me...

Is there anything wrong with a woman wearing lingerie with her partner because it's fun to play a role, to play with the 'objectification' or 'distancing' this creates? No. That's not what I'm saying.

But surely there is a big difference between that and an anonymous woman in lingerie being spread across a billboard to sell soft drink...

And another big step away again to a porn video in which a woman is exploited and abused for the sake of turning people on.

And I don't think the issue is whether the actors involved feel empowered or not; perhaps the porn model is happy in her work and perhaps she's getting paid squillions for it, who knows. The point is - if there is a narrative of vistimisation and degradation, do we want this to go unquestioned?

More to the point here, shouldn't parents be aware of the increasing need to help contextualise the sexual content our children might be coming across on the internet?

I don't agree with all Gail Dines says, I sometimes feel repelled by the way she says it, and I'm not sure that all of her proposed solutions are workable. But I respect her concerns that young people might be coming across complex sexual material before they have the maturity or experience to process it or put it in perspective regarding what's 'normal', or real.

I'm not anti-porn as a whole, but I do sympathise with Dines' broader concerns about the 'pornification' of mainstream culture - that is, the way the pornography industry has influenced pop culture and risks distorting our concepts of sex and sexuality.

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the normalisation of hardcore sex acts, and the promotion of unrealistic expectations about how we (especially women) should look, is a growing problem. This, to me, is a matter worthy of our concern and people shouldn't be dismissed as prudes or wowsers for raising the matter.

But mostly, I see it as part of a general drift away, culturally, from what's real; from the joy of blindly feeling our way into things, no matter how clumsily, from a place of curiosity and self-discovery.

The ready availability of extreme porn, and the impact that seems to be having on some people, I see as part of the general problem of internet-induced distraction and dissatisfaction (as you, Damon, discuss so well in your book) - a lack of genuine connectedness and integrity about the way we live.

I don't know the answers, or where this leaves us. Except perhaps with the question: How are we, as individuals and as a society, going to learn discipline and self-restraint in an era of all-too-instant gratification? And I'm not talking about real-life sex here!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Birth art... but not as we know it

When Jasmine Proust and Tilly Morris asked if I would launch their exhibition, Birth.Art (as featured in The Age on Saturday), I trusted them enough to say yes. But a terrifying vision of purple pastel mandalas and pregnant goddesses did flash through my mind...

Thankfully, my worst fears haven't been realised (not that there isn't a place for a bit of pastel power on occasion...). In contrast, I'm loving just how edgy and witty the Birth.Art works have turned out to be.

As Tilly says:
This show has it all; from rude plants to fluorescent private parts, from inter-species breastfeeding to the theatricalities of the most common birthing arena in the Western world – the hospital.

Come and celebrate birth in all its glory. Argue with theologians and atheists, adopt a possum baby, drink some wine...


ACU Gallery, 52 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Launching Tuesday June 14 (6-8pm), runs until June 30 (Wednesdays-Sundays 12-5pm)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

No prizes this year, ladies? Blame natural causes…

Hey, you know that serious debate we’ve been having about why so few women win literary prizes?

Apparently geneticists at the highly respected H.G. Wells Institute for Sex and Gender have finally worked out why.

But don’t take my word for it. For the full story, visit philosopher Damon Young’s trailblazing blog (and possible front for the illustrious above-mentioned institute)…

Monday, June 6, 2011

Genius or ironing? The female dilemma...

The trouble is that most women are much more interested in getting the darn ironing under control, or shopping for something cute to slip into when hubby gets home from the office. Guys are just a whole lot more likely to be geniuses.


Who noticed this comment from Joanna Murray-Smith in the weekend paper's M Magazine in response to the question of why there are not more Australian female playwrights working for major companies?

Joanna is probably the most prolific and courageous writer I know. One minute she'll casually mention that some subject or dilemma has peaked her curiosity and the next... wham bam how the f**k does she do it? -- there'll be a new Joanna Murray-Smith production on that very theme opening at the West End or some such place ...

We all know she's one of Australia's chief theatrical exports, and that the reliability of her output means among her brilliant successes are some brilliant failures (or at least lesser successes) -- just as it should be.

In fact, she is a bit of a genius... though I know she wouldn't really give herself that tag.

I can't help feeling, though, that she very consciously threw this one out there. It's quite a statement, and Joanna certainly doesn't seem to mind stirring the pot occasionally.

Who is it directed at? Whether it was partially tongue-in-cheek (or entirely sarcastic, as Simmone suggests), I certainly still felt the bomb exploding under me!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Is porn a feminist issue?

I save my online TV-viewing for when I have a big pile of washing to fold. Which is great for killing two birds with one stone -- but not so great for being up to date with what's going on in screen-land (although monster piles of washing do seem to form with ridiculous frequency!).

So I'm always making comments on things when the debate's all a bit last week (this one included) -- apologies for that. But I'm curious to know who among you watched the Sydney Writers' Festival panel on ABC's Q&A a couple of weeks ago? And, if you saw it, what did you think of the porn debate?!

I have always had a lot of time for Leslie Cannold and her writings, but I found her attack on fellow feminist Gail Dines a bit confounding.

From all I've heard from Dines, a professor of sociology touring Australia to promote her book Pornland, she is basing her views on extensive research. Whatever you think about porn, she is presenting valid evidence that it is distorting some people's expectations of sex.

Her particular concern is the availability of porn to young people, who may not have the maturity to discrimate between the kinds of sites and images they come across.

Certainly I know that I have already been shocked by some of the sexualised and sexist advertising that has popped up alongside otherwise very innocent kids' games on the web.

To align Dines with wowsers and Christians seemed particularly unfair.

I agree with Cannold that the issues of women's exploitation and inequality are bigger than "Brazilian waxes" and there are more obvious issues to campaign over. But to me this ignores the fact that the pervasiveness of porn (and Brazilian waxes) are symptomatic of the broader issues for young women -- all part of the way the porn and beauty industries exploit women's sense of physical inadequacy, and warp some men's perception of what's normal.

I'm not sure the impact of porn is such a "fringe" thing, as Cannold suggests -- separate to the more concrete aspects of women's lives. Are they not all part of a general problem for women of having to constantly battle unrealistic expectations of themselves and their bodies?

Cannold says she's worried about activists getting caught up in protesting against Brazilian waxes over more important issues. Personally, I'd be more concerned about young women not becoming self-empowered activists in the first place because they're too busy having Brazilian waxes (much less campaigning against them)!

Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, the beauty industry exerts a very real control over women. How much of women's time and money gets invested into fashion and beauty that might otherwise be invested into self-education and personal development? Let alone feminist action.

Anyway, as Dines says, she is one person focusing on a single issue. That doesn't mean she holds it up as the only or even the most important issue for feminism. But there does seem to be a very fine and confused line between women's sexual empowerment and exploitation, and I think it's not a trivial matter for debate.

Apparently, after her appearance on the show, Dines said, "I felt like I had walked into an adolescent boys' club with everyone sniggering about pornography."

(There was also a very interesting debate about the reponsibility of art and artists... Though I think Michael Cunningham got a tad over-excited about being allowed to use the word "fuck" on Australian television.)

Love to hear your thoughts!

And while you're at it, check this out!?! Something for my next post...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oranges are not the only fruit...

I should just get a t-shirt printed with the words, "Hey, I heard this great thing on Radio National yesterday..." on it, so when people see me coming, we can skip the preliminaries...

In fact it should be the name of my blog, really. (Hear that, Radio National, if you're looking for an official blogger, I'm your gal...)

Anyway, to cut to the chase, yesterday's Book Show offered up yet another round of particularly enlightening conversations.

The first about the latest push for Australia to have a literary prize for women, partly inspired by the fact that not a single female author has made the shortlist for the Miles Franklin for the second time in three years. It has been won by a woman just 13 out of 50 times since the prize began in 1957.

A passionate bunch of Australian women writers and publishers have started a campaign to establish The Stella Prize (represented by the mango, just to explain the pic above), an equivalent to Britain's Orange Prize.

Following that was this (not unrelated) discussion about a new study exposing a huge gender imbalance in 20th century children's literature. Apparently, on average, boys are almost twice as likely as girls to be the main character in kids' books!

Divided Hearter Sally Rippin was among the commentators on this matter.

Also, all the way back in the first week of May, Ms Danni "finger-on-the-pulse" Landa tipped me off to what is now of course the word on the street ('scuse the pun).

Yes -- Slutwalking. At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about, let alone what was to unfold...

There have been so many meaty articles, debates, conversations on this issue since that I couldn't list them here (though you could do worse than start with Clem Bastow's explanation here). But how great it is to hear them!

Whatever the complexities that exist around the use of the word "slut", around raunch culture, about porn and cosmetic surgery and the hero worship that goes down around sports stars... all of which are vital debates we need to keep having...

The fact remains: rape is a hideous crime, which no woman deserves or "asks for". One which forces so many women around the world to live in fear.

I'm not sure of the official site, but you can find the details for Slutwalk Melbourne here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An exchange of thoughts on Emma Donoghue's Room...

Long time no see! Sorry about that... Thank you to anyone who is still checking in with me or contacting me about The Divided Heart. So much to talk about...

But first, I was recently approached by Harry Bingham, writer and founder of UK-based The Writers' Workshop and The Word Cloud, an online writers' network (which looks like an amazing resource) about doing a blog exchange.

He had come across my initial response to Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, which I'll re-publish below.

Room is one of those books that inspires fierce debate, and how cool is it that we can now have these debates across oceans and time zones and with people we would otherwise have never met. So thanks to Harry for getting in touch. And to my mate Sally Rippin, who always knows which books to lend me just at the right time!

Here's the exchange... as Harry says, "Get stuck in yourself. Tell us why we're wrong. or right. Or anything." On his blog or mine or, even better, both... (Although, I think it's worth saying -- while there isn't any great detail about the plot here, unless you've read the book or at least lots about it, there should be a general *spoiler alert*.)

My initial post:
Have any of you read Emma Donoghue's Room?

The difficulty with talking about this book is that there’s almost no way of doing so without giving away key plot points.

Nevertheless, I can say that I can't remember the last time I read a book that had me so gripped, and affected me so physically! At one stage I was reading in the bath and was so utterly compelled to keep reading, the water went completely cold around me and I didn't even notice.

I had some small misgivings — perhaps only to be discussed with those who have also read the book, in the comments, with a 'spoiler alert' — but they didn't take away from its overall impact.

The main reason I am mentioning the book here, though, is because I think it’s a great example of a novel written by someone who has used their access to a child's way of talking and seeing the world as material for writing.

Some of us have more access to our 'child selves' than others — or at least memory of what it was like to be young — and I'm not trying to suggest that you cannot understand or write from a child’s perspective unless you have kids… but it sure does help.

The authenticity of this book's five-year-old narrator's voice — with it's cute grammatical errors and limited perspective — suggests close observation of her children.

I also felt great admiration for the 'Ma' character, who shows such remarkable creativity and discipline in raising and educating her child, under the most horrific and potentially damaging circumstances. And at the same time, this focus and need for routine that he requires has been her saviour.

Admittedly there were moments when I felt frustrated by the five-year-old narrative — not the character himself, who remains loveable throughout (quite a feat in itself), but the way his viewpoint kept you at a distance from the central horrors of the story.

But then I realised that this avoids the sensationalism that its theme could easily have exploited, and that this book is much more about the force of the parent–child bond. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of freedom and about a child's needs. Also their capacity for fierce love and courage.

Harry's comment:
Well, what a book! More than that, what an audacious concept. To take the true-life Joseph Fritzl story and fictionalise it – what a tasteless, ill-judged act that could have been.

And Donoghue’s Room is not seedy, not exploitative. What's more, Rachel, I think you’re right about the voice. This for example: 'I choose Meltedy Spoon with the white all blobby on his handle when he leaned on the pan of boiling pasta by accident. Ma doesn’t like Meltedy Spoon but he’s my favourite because he’s not the same.'

No question, that’s beautifully done. 'Meltedy', not Melty, or Melted, or even meltedy. And the imprecision of 'the white all blobby' (Jack’s phrase) but the precision of Ma's 'pan of boiling pasta'. The personification of the spoon. But above all that achingly touching phrase, 'because he's not the same'.

And yet, I ended up not liking the book, and here's why. If you take a subject of such darkness to write about it is your responsibility as an author – as a human – to honour the darkness. To follow the logic of your own storyline unflinchingly to where it leads.

But it seems to me (and I want to avoid spoilers) that Room evades every hard question. At the end of the book, everyone's fine. It was a bit weird adjusting, but only a bit. Jack and Ma had some difficult moments, but give them a few weeks and it's all over.

The book seemed like a Disney version of the truth, like wishful thinking. Do we honestly think that a pair who had undergone what Ma and Jack had undergone would not be severely scarred by their ordeal? Of course not. We know that people who suffer much less trauma are permanently injured. Donoghue's faultlessly appealing telling lifts her over and away from the painful question of what is actually being told. I think if you write about Fritzl, you need to deal with Fritzl. Donoghue writes beautifully – and I don’t for a second begrudge her success – but it’s not a book I’d recommend myself.

And finally, my comment on Harry's comment (since he kindly gave me right of reply):
I agree that if Donoghue had been writing a non-fiction book about Fritzl, then she would have had certain clear responsibilities. But surely as a fiction writer, as long as she is not directly harming or exploiting anyone, her main responsibility is to her story; and to fulfilling her own intentions as best she can.

I suspect what compelled Donoghue to write Room was curiosity about how a mother might manage in such extreme circumstances. After all, alongside the more horrific and traumatic elements of these stories is the question of how a person might cope with the boredom and banality of long days in captivity without going mad. For a mother, this would mean the trials of dealing with the day-to-day needs of your children in the most deficient of circumstances.

Like you, Harry, I initially had similar misgivings about Jack's innocent viewpoint keeping us at arm’s length from the true awfulness of his and Ma's circumstances. But I concluded that this was one of the book's main themes: a mother’s instinct to protect, and the limits of her power to do so. For Jack, their world, though at times confusing, was also comforting in its confines; it was all Jack knew. And therein lies the kind of questions I think Donoghue was seeking to explore.

Besides, on the matter of darkness, I don't know if you can get much grimmer than the image of a naive boy hiding in a cupboard and counting the number of times the bed squeaks as his captor–father rapes his young mother.

I agree the book hits some false notes in its second half, particularly the response of Ma's family, which at times seems too casual and careless. And it's true that we don't get a full sense of Ma's suffering, but again I think Donoghue is more interested in looking at the impact of the inevitable disruption to the intensity of the mother–child bond.

There are plenty of other, often much more sensationalist, sources out there if you're looking to rub your nose in the sickening reality of these real-life cases. But Donoghue was perhaps trying for something more poignant with her novel.

I think the fact that we're debating these questions is enough of a reason to recommend Room as a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Giving yourself permission to write

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Sullivan about her new novel Little People (published by Scribe, out in April) for a feature that should be in the next Big Issue mag.

As well as a novelist, Jane is a prominent literary critic and Age columnist.

Little People is a rollicking, theatrical feat of imagination. One highly original Australian novel!

But you can read more about her book in the Big Issue story...

Both being working/writing mothers, Jane and I inevitably fell into talking about the struggle for finding time to write, but only a brief mention of this issue made it into the final cut of the article. So I thought I'd share Jane's words in full here...

The shift between journalism and literature is like a little switch that goes on and off in my head. I love writing about books and writing, which is my specialist field. They work in tandem quite well but I must say there are days when I wish I had more time.

It’s often a relief to get to the fiction because it’s fun to make things up and indulge yourself. But at the same time, it’s very, very hard. With fiction, I’m never sure what I’m doing. It’s much scarier than non-fiction.

Sometimes it’s good to have that discipline of the journalism. You have weeks when the fiction’s not going that well, you feel a bit lost, and you feel at least you feel you know what I’m doing here — I can write these words, I can get this money and I can see my byline in the paper, and I think well that’s done. And I get an immediate response from readers, which is nice, and you don’t get from fiction, which talks so many years.

Unfortunately the thing that always gets shelved if you’ve got a lot on is the fiction. It’s not like you’ve got a deadline next week, which is a shame.

Now I have a studio at Glenfern. Just having a little space where you can go and no interruptions — no one asking if you can give them lifts or give them money, and you don’t have to jump up and put the washing on or do a meal and the phone isn’t ringing or every five minutes you check your email — you don’t do any of that, you just sit there and write.

Everybody should have somewhere like Glenfern to go. The trouble with a room of one’s own for a woman is it’s usually in the house where everyone can bust in and interrupt you, and if a mother you can’t very well say ‘No, go away.’

So it’s very hard to get a room of one’s own which isn’t a room where everyone else comes. I don’t know the answer for that really.

I’ve talked to young men who are working, supporting their family, and so have similar pressures that women have. But women internalise that [mothering] role so much that it’s very hard to say to ourselves, ‘I am a writer and I am entitled to some space to work on my work and put that first for a while.’

It’s very hard to do that when everything else in your life is saying ‘I am a wife and mother and I need to earn money and all that’s so important, and writing is something I do when I’ve finished doing all those other things.’

Perhaps that’s where the difference lies in that men, on the whole, are better at giving themselves that permission.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Literature still a male domain, it seems

Another article circulating among us thinking women (and men) lately is the Guardian report on a shocking new study showing that leading literary magazines favour reviews written by men about books by men.

Fellow reader/writer Danni -- who calls herself my "newspaper article stalker", which is a very self-deprecating way of saying "one seriously on-the-ball woman feeding me great material" -- sent me this article for blog comment.

It's taken me so long to get round to writing anything that I suggested to Danni that I may as well just post the emails she and I sent back and forth on the issue... So, here we go...

DANNI: I'm sure it comes as no surprise to female writers that males dominate the literary world. This research has given the issue some coverage. All the major outlets in the study say they will make changes but it will be interesting to see who actually does.

Some of the comments are ... I can't even begin to think of a way of describing them without expletives. From the TLS: 'Not too appalled ... authorship is not 50/50...' and this piece of patronising gold: 'And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.' Utter bullshit!

The idiot continues with this lovely morsel: 'The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.' The not so hidden meaning there that women not only don't write important books but are actually incapable of doing so (and reading them too so it seems!)

The whole tone of the article reeks of a thinly disguised antipathy ... or perhaps I am over-reacting because I am tired, because my son is sick and I was awake all night ... oh no, it wouldn't be that, it must be 'cause I'm on the rag!

RACHEL: I promise I will write something about this ASAP. I am still shell-shocked by juggling my new 4-day working week (UGH! Creative life? What creative life?!) and my youngest's first week at school, so know exactly how you feel.

But the article definitely deserves a response. Apart from the bullshit quotes you mentioned, what I thought was most telling was the last quote, about women perhaps not having the confidence. That, to me, is getting at a real hidden problem.

DANNI: It's the confidence thing and its also a time thing. How much of a lack of confidence can be attributed to lack of time to spend on work? The majority of women just don't have the time, even those without kids seem to be constantly obligated to others (not allowed to be the brooding artist). I think generally there is the confidence in ability but because there is just not concentrated time available so many women think that their work will be inferior ... but I am not sure that that is the case as your book pointed out on so many occasions. Having copious amounts of time does not necessarily equate to quality work (although it would make life a lot easier!).

And beyond all those things, is the pure and simple fact of ingrained institutional discrimination ... not the old-fashioned kind: it's not malicious; it's unconscious. These publications don't have women writers because they don't ask for them. There are plenty of women artists available for consideration, who would be honoured to contribute to these magazines, but no one thinks to commission them.

Anyway enough of this! Got to go do the bloody shopping!

RACHEL: Yes, I completely agree! When I read the mention of confidence, that's exactly where that took me, too: why does no-one ever mention the fact that women have so much less TIME for such things; that they are so obligated elsewhere... which affects everything women are in a position to do? I might just post our convo on my blog. But first, I'll finish emptying the dishwasher...

As you can see, Danni pretty much said it all. But to go on (as I do)... there are all sorts of invisible issues here. Certainly I know for myself that I would love to be reviewing more books, but barely get time to read the things, let alone write about them.

It's entirely plausible that fewer women are putting their hand up for these (let's admit it, usually badly paid) tasks because non-work time is spent doing housework, buying school uniforms, driving little people between football clinics and swimming lessons... Down time, if any, is ideally spent asleep (or, preferably in a bath, if not feeling too guilty about the water-use).

I, sadly, find it almost impossible to justify time spent on activities that are about more elusive, long-term goals, like establishing a name as a writer.

As one insightful commentator put it: "Novels, poems, plays-----labours of love extracted in the hours between near nonstop other jobs."

That said, I was still gobsmacked by the the stats showing that, among authors reviewed by the New York Review of Books in 2010, 83% were men. As for the London Review of Books, 74% of books reviewed by in 2010 were by men, and their reviewers: 78% male.

Perhaps publishers should start sending their books out wrapped in brown paper!

Interestingly, Granta claims it commissions equally between men and women, but still ends up with a bias (featuring 65% male writers).

We know women read and write quality literature. So is it that women writers are still dismissed more readily; or is it that less women are submitting their work to journals because of these other, less tangible barriers, i.e. lack of confidence, lack of time?

Statistics start the conversation, which is good, but the causes can be harder to get at...

And then you get comments like the one we've mentioned above, from the ed of the Times Literary Supplement -- "And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS" -- and you realise that sometimes it's just a plain old case of overt sexism, alive and well.

You can check out the full study, conducted by Vida, US organisation for women in the literary arts, here.