Saturday, March 09, 2013

`The List Is Overwhelmingly Female'

Nige observes something I’ve noted with puzzlement in myself: “When I look back at my own reading -- specifically at the English novelists I've discovered/rediscovered in recent years -- I find the list is overwhelmingly female…” To the names of Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald (has it been thirteen years since she died?) drawn up by Nige, I would add Elizabeth Bowen (Anglo-Irish), Rose Macaulay, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and Stevie Smith. And I endorse his implicit nomination of Ivy Compton-Burnett. While I admire much of Rebecca West’s nonfiction, the novels leave me cold. Definitions, too, are becoming bothersome. Is Shirley Hazzard, born in Australia, a citizen of Great Britain and the U.S., and a longtime resident of Capri, an “English novelist?” Who cares? Literature is not affirmative action. One judges the book, not the writer’s passport or chromosomes. 

In the U.S., the female presence among novelists worthy of reading and rereading is less vigorous. We have Cynthia Ozick and Marilynne Robinson, and ranging backwards in time we can claim Eudora Welty, Janet Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, who are outnumbered by the eminently rereadable female American poets in the same cattle call. Nige poses an interesting question: 

“I've been trying to make a list of 20th-century male English novelists whom I'd regard as underrated, neglected or worthy of rediscovery, and frankly I'm not getting very far... Has anyone got any suggestions?” 

I assume we’re not judging Wodehouse, Waugh and Powell as “underrated, neglected or worthy of rediscovery.” Without having to think about it I would nominate Henry Green, whose novels and autobiography I’m reading yet again. And Ford Madox Ford, beyond The Good Soldier. What about the pre-Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess? Or G.K. Chesterton for The Man Who Was Thursday? Kipling barely squeaks into the last century with Kim, not to mention his stories. And V.S. Pritchett for Mr. Beluncle, not to mention his stories. Early and mid-career Naipaul? What a motley collection, and how incomplete it looks when we leave out the Irish. And what a ridiculous way to think of literature. Read the books, not the writers.


Bill Peschel said...

I wish it were possible to read and debate books that are good rather than the gender of the writer. But it's easier to count than to read.

zmkc said...

Re Shirley Hazzard and her status, I think it was the novelist and poet David Malouf who, when asked who he thought was the best writer in all Australian literature, said, 'Shakespeare'.

(Although, on going to search that reference out, I find instead this interesting interview - -with Malouf, in which he seems to be more inclined to define literature by origin - or at least to acknowledge that audiences are not always uninfluenced by a writer's origin. This comment is getting absurdly lengthy and appears to be contradicting itself, but never mind.)

Ian Wolcott said...

I enjoyed West's The Fountain Overflows but couldn't get more than a few pages into any of her other fiction.

"Read the books, not the writers" is good advice.

StuckInABook said...

I've just bought Mr Beluncle, and I'm very encouraged to see a fan of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green also praising Pritchett!

To the list of underrated 20th century male authors, I would add Patrick Hamilton - but I also find there are far more in the female camp.

StuckInABook said...

Haha! I've just been to the original post, and see that Patrick Hamilton is not a welcome suggestion! How funny...