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Who do you think you are

Will the Nobel to Munro put an end to the patronising of women writers?

Written by Amrita Dutta |
October 26, 2013 1:14:55 am

Will the Nobel to Munro put an end to the patronising of women writers?

In an interview to The Guardian after she won the Booker for The Luminaries,Eleanor Catton spoke about “the bullying” her work had faced from male reviewers,who seemed to consider her an interloper in the club of “big book” writers. “[They felt that I have been so audacious to have taken up people’s time by writing a long book. There’s a sense in there of,‘Who do you think you are?’… There’s a feeling of: ‘All right,we can tolerate [this from a man over 50,but we are not going to be spoken to like that by you’”she said.

Who do you think you are is the kind of silent remonstrance that hovers in the lives of Alice Munro’s fictional characters,many of them women,a few of them women writers,as they attempt to stamp their will,desires and words on the randomness of life. It’s the incredulous scorn she herself met as a young woman in the 1960s for her ambition to be a writer — as if writing,and the claim to “author”-ity were forms of female impertinence.

One is not sure if the Nobel for Munro and the Booker for Catton can stanch an enduring prejudice. It surfaces ever so often,and not just in the idle chatter of a V.S. Naipaul (“Jane Austen,feminine tosh”) or,more recently,Bret Easton Ellis (“Munro is overrated. The Nobel is a joke.”) or a David Gilmour (“I do not teach female or Chinese authors… only serious heterosexual guys”). The last from a Canadian author who teaches modern short fiction but has not found any women authors from his country to admire,neither Munro,nor Carol Shields. Who do you think you are,indeed.

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If a woman writes about the lives of ordinary people,the belittling adjective “domestic” latches on to her works,evoking visions of placid,well-scrubbed kitchens. If she produces a grand narrative,the literary establishment seems astonished at that feat. An institutional prejudice shows up in the skewed ratio of male to female authors reviewed,and male-to-female reviewers,in respected US publications like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s. In April this year,Wikipedia editors began removing American women writers from the entry of “American writers”,ghettoising them in a separate entry. A Wiki search would have led you to a list of American writers that did not include Harper Lee,Donna Tartt and Toni Morrison,among others. What does one do in the face of such shutting out,of being politely showed the ladies’ room? Reta Winters,the novelist in Carol Shields’s last work,Unless,writes angry letters to male critics and reviewers who edit women out of the canon and literary history. (She never mails them.)

Munro seemed to risk being doubly excluded,for the material of her fiction and for its form,the short story. But writers like Eudora Welty,Flannery O’Connor,Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers opened a door for her. It showed her that women could write about “the freakish and the marginal”. “That was our territory,whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory,” she once said in an interview to Paris Review. But it was also,she suggests,her choice to occupy the margin,as “there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from…”,their views of female sexuality,which made her wonder: “how I can be a writer when I’m the object of other writers?”

The seed of literature lies in the human need for stories,for the messiness of life and its eventual waste to be explained and contained by words. Its promise is that the life of every individual matters,that each little room,and every obscure village,can be an everywhere when held in the light of the writer’s vision. In Munro’s fiction that promise is always realised truthfully. She,who for the large part of her life was tied to housework and well-scrubbed kitchens,says of her character’s lives that they “… were dull,simple,amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”. The sharp bends in a Munro story lead us to the answer to the question: who do we think we are? It tells us of our deceits and illusions,the epiphanies that elude us and how we make and unmake ourselves in memory.

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First published on: 26-10-2013 at 01:14:55 am
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