Women are better writers than men

This provocative headline comes from an article by Irish writer, John Boyne. It is, of course, absolute nonsense. Women are not better writers than men. I can only assume The Guardian published it to be provocative and get more hits on their page (they are rather desperate at the moment). I would, of course, point out that men writers are not better than women writers. Some men writers are better than some women writers and some women writers are better than some men writers but to categorically say that all of one sex is better than all of the other sex is rubbish or even that most of one sex is better than most of the other sex is wrong.

Of course, I am well aware that publishing (including publishers, agents, critics, bloggers and so forth is sexist (and racist). Sadly, as we have been reading in this Harvey Weinstein/Donald Trump era, so is the world. I have now touched on this issue on several occasions in this blog: here, here, here and here. Others worthier than me continue to rightly point this out. In my end of the year review (appearing, unlike many others, at the end of the year, i.e. 31 December) I will show that, despite a conscious effort, women writers still lag massively behind men on my site. Unlike Boyne, many of the writers I enjoy are male (though quite a few are female).

Amazon’s most-read book this year

If you look at Amazon charts and scroll down, you will see Top 10 Most Read Fiction Books in 2017. Half of them are by women. Admittedly most of that half is taken up by J K Rowling and the remaining one by a book that sold well because of the TV adaptation. The Most Listened to on Alexa book was also by a woman (yes, J K again). However, the top five a books were all by men. This is not, of course, what Boyne was discussing.

He starts off with the literary tea-towel, an ubiquitous tea-towel – Twelve writers, supposedly our greatest ever, and not a vagina between them. He then somewhat ruins his case by suggesting Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth (but not more worthy Irish women writers such as Lady Gregory or Elizabeth Bowen). You can find a much longer list of Irish women writers here. I am sticking to dead writers, though O’Brien is alive. We will come to living ones in a moment. Frankly, I do not think you can compare Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth to Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and Co. You can see the tea-towel here and, if you cannot read it, the writers are: J M Synge, Flann O’Brien, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Beckett, W B Yeats, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, Patrick Kavanagh, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. You could make a case against Kavanagh and maybe against Behan but the other ten are, in the opinion of most objective critics, superior to Molly Keane, Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth. This is not sexist, it is reality. It may well be that women did not get the opportunities back then but it is generally agreed there was an Irish Literary Renaissance earlier last century and with very few exceptions (such as the aforementioned Lady Gregory) it was mainly men.

Not so much sexist as plain wrong

Boyne goes on to justify his arguments by focussing on the likes of V S Naipaul, Time magazine’s espousal of Jonathan Franzen as the greatest living novelist and the macho pack of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. This is shooting fish in a barrel and the whole macho writing style was very wittily rebuked by Helena Fitzgerald here. We can all agree that Franzen, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are massively overrated (as are most of those in Fitzgerald’s list). And we can all agree that sexism is rampant in the literary world.

A better book by a woman

Again, Boyne goes on to spoil his case. He picks as the best women novelists he has read this year Min Jin Lee, Polly Clark, Elizabeth Day, Molly McCloskey, Gail Honeyman, Kamila Shamsie, Francesca Segal and Celeste Ng. These are all doubtless fine writers but any vaguely competent critic could trump him with male writers as good or better than these eight. Instead I will just trump him with women writers I have read this year that are better than his women writers: Naomi Alderman, Rosa Beltrán, Carmen Boullosa, Teolinda Gersão, Sarah Hall, Nicole Krauss, Maria Gabriela Llansol, Valeria Luiselli, Elena Poniatowska, Joanna Scott, Ece Temelkuran and a few others. But I could do exactly the same with male writers.

Not the greatest living novelist

Oh dear! It gets worse. The Greatest Living Novelist? Easy. It’s Anne Tyler. Or maybe Sarah Waters. Or Margaret Atwood. Or Rose Tremain.. Really? Has he read César Aira, J M Coetzee, Peter Handke, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ismail Kadare, Javier Marías, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Orhan Pamuk, Thomas Pynchon, Mario Vargas Llosa or Enrique Vila-Matas, not to mention Carmen Boullosa, Anne Enright (an Irish novelist mentioned in his article for her mathematical abilities rather than her literary ones), Minae Mizumura, Elena Poniatowska or Marilynne Robinson and many others? Rose Tremain as the greatest living novelist? There must be hundreds better.

And what about Irish women writers? Of the writers he mentions in his list of women writers he has read, there are two Americans, one Korean-American, one Canadian one Englishwoman, one Pakistani and one Scot. He does mention three women writers who have broken through – Sara Baume, Belinda McKeon and Kit de Waal – two Irish and one born in Birmingham (England), albeit with one Irish parent. But where are the other living Irish women writers such as Niamh Boyce, Sarah Crossan, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Dunn, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Deirdre Madden, Audrey Magee, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Maggie O’Farrell, Sally Rooney and undoubtedly many others that I am not aware of/have forgotten?

If Boyne prefers reading women writers that it is entirely his prerogative and good luck to him. Just as women who only read women writers and men who only read men writers are missing out of a whole load of good novels, so Boyne is clearly denying himself some worthwhile reading but chacun à son goût. However, to claim that women are better writers than men is nonsense and I am sure that he knows it. Yes, we need to do much more to ensure that women writers are encouraged, published and read. Yes, men can be pompous asses but it’s not just writers. I have even heard that male politicians can be idiots as well. We need to encourage writers of both sexes and not subject them to double standards and we all need to read writers for the quality of their work and not for the nature of their chromosomes.

Maria Gabriela Llansol: Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy)

The latest addition to my website is Maria Gabriela Llansol‘s Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy). This is Llansol’s first work published in English. The first two books focus on Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa, a historical person and friend of St John of the Cross. Ana interacts with St John but also with other important characters, from European intellectual history, including, in particular, Thomas Müntzer. Her interaction is spiritual, not least as she was not a contemporary or many of these peoples. Through the use of imagery and the voices of the characters, she conveys the importance of these people in European intellectual life and history, while also conveying the role of community of women, the role of nature and a radical view of religion. It is a beautiful book, generally eschewing plot and other features of a conventional novel, which may make it challenging but very much worthwhile.

Ece Temelkuran: Düğümlere Üfleyen Kadınlar (Women Who Blow on Knots)

The latest addition to my website is Ece Temelkuran‘s Düğümlere Üfleyen Kadınlar (Women Who Blow on Knots). This is a superb feminist novel about four women – the unnamed Turkish narrator, a Tunisian dancer and hacker, an Egyptian academic and a somewhat mysterious older woman who is Amazigh – who start off in Tunisia in the Arab Spring and then set out on an overland journey to Syria, via Libya (with anti-Gaddafi guerrillas), Alexandria and Beirut. The older Amazigh woman wants to kill an ex-lover, the Egyptian and Tunisian women gradually reveal secrets of their past and all four show that a revolution is not a revolution unless women play a major role in it and women’s issues are to the fore. It is a brilliant adventure story but also a novel raising key topics of great importance to our current world.

Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator)

The latest addition to my website is Margarita Khemlin‘s Дознаватель (The Investigator). This is a complicated murder mystery, set in Chernihiv (Chernigov in this book), Khemlin’s home town, in the Ukraine in the early 1950s. The eponymous investigator, Police Captain Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, is not Jewish but the victim, Lilia Vorobeichik, stabbed, and most of the people he deals with during the case are Jewish, as was Khemlin. The murderer is soon found. Her boyfriend, an actor, confesses and soon after kills himself, without leaving a note. However, Mikhail is not convinced and continues the investigation, getting more and more embroiled in the case and in the various activities of the Jewish population. Indeed, his involvement has a serious effect on his marriage, his job and his mental stability. Khemlin tells an excellent and complicated story with something of an unexpected outcome but also shows us the treatment of the Jews in Ukraine and the Soviet Union

Liana Badr: رج عين المرآة (Eye of the Mirror)

The latest addition to my website is Liana Badr‘s رج عين المرآة (Eye of the Mirror). This novel is set in the Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp in the mid-1970s and recounts the events of Siege of Tel al-Zaatar, as seen through the eyes of one Palestinian family and, in particular, the eldest daughter, Aisha. Aisha had been working at a convent in return for an education but is pulled out following the Ain el-Rammaneh bus massacre. She lives with her hard-working mother, her abusive, alcoholic, lazy father and her two younger siblings. As the siege intensifies, life becomes harder. Aisha falls for a guerrilla but he is promised to someone else and she is forced into a marriage with one of his comrades. She resists but cannot prevent it. Medicine, food and drinking water become harder to obtain, most of the men are killed and Aisha, as a Palestinian and woman, knows her life will be one of suffering. There is nothing positive to take from this novel, not least as we know, twenty-six years after its publication, things have not improved and the prospects for an independent Palestinian state are as remote as ever.

Dana Todorović: Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth)

The latest addition to my website is Dana Todorović:‘s Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth). This is a clever tale of an unemployed punk rocker, the eponymous Moritz Toth, who finds salvation as the prompter for the lead tenor in Turandot. However, he also finds that at first one and then two mysterious characters seem to be stalking him. Who are they? Why are they stalking him and are they going to murder him? Meanwhile, we are also following the story of Tobias Keller, Advisor for Moral Issues with the Office of the Great Overseer, who has broken the rules in his role as guide to Moritz Toth by putting pebble in front of his bicycle in breach of Article 98a of the Causal Authority Regulations. Who is Tobias? Who is the Great Overseer? And what have they got to do with Moritz? Todorović tells a fine tale with philosophical conundrums, the problems of determinism and how opera and a loving prostitute can save a worried man.

Kate Roberts: Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening)

The latest addition to my website is Kate RobertsY Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening). This is a feminist novel, telling the story of Lora Ffennig, who learns one day that her husband has left her, stolen her nest egg and stolen from his employer, and run off with a another woman, abandoning Lora and their two children, a boy and a girl. The story is about the fall-out for Lora from this. While the community is initially sympathetic, they condemn her when Aleth Meurig, the local solicitor and former employee of both Lora’s husband and his lady friend, starts calling frequently, even though he only does so when she is not alone. Lora struggles with her own concerns, the reactions of others, the view of the community, her sister, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, her children and simply trying to get her life back on track. It is a fine novel, well known in Wales but which should better known outside Wales.

Lize Spit: Het smelt [The Melting]

The latest addition to my website is Lize Spit‘s Het smelt [The Melting]. This is a début novel by a young Belgian writer and a superb novel it is. Surprisingly for a début novel, it has already been published in three other languages, with two more early next year and rights sold in several other languages, including English. It tells the story of Eva who lives in a Belgian farming village We learn a lot about her, her family and friends but follow, in alternating chapters, her story in the summer of 2002, when her two close male friends, Pim and Laurens, started behaving very badly and dragged her along with their behaviour, culminating in a traumatic event for all three, and also the present day when she is invited to an event where, it seems she will try to get her revenge for what happened in 2002. Spit gradually reveals bits of the puzzle – what happened that day, what is Eva planning, what happened to Eva’s sister, why did Pim’s brother really die – and shows a conventional Belgian village which hides many grim secrets.

Kate Roberts: Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains)

The latest addition to my website is Kate RobertsTraed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains). Kate Roberts was one of the foremost Welsh-language novelists and this is her first full-length novel. Like Roberts’ father, Ifan Gruffydd works in a slate quarry. At the beginning of the novel, in 1880, he has just married Jane. They will go on to have six children, three of each, but they will struggle. The slate quarries are in difficulty and the owners are eager to exploit the workers to the maximum, so that Ifan’s wages go down during the course of the book. Jane has to work hard, with no mod cons, struggles with her mother-in-law, has to help her two sons who go to college, deal with a difficult daughter and, eventually, see her children move away. The book ends in the middle of World War I, with one son already having joined up. During the thirty-five years of the book, Jane has few happy moments. Roberts shows us the grim life and struggles of the slate quarry workers of North Wales of the time, something she presumably had to put up with some degree herself.

Magda Szabó: Katalin utca (Katalin Street)

The latest addition to my website is Magda Szabó‘s Katalin utca (Katalin Street). This is a new translation (September 2017) replacing the one from 2005. It tells the story of three families who had lived in nice houses on Katalin Street, before World War II but, at the start of the book, are living in one flat, the Katalin Street houses having been replaced with social housing. The post-war residents, with one family having been killed (parents sent to a camp, as they were Jewish, daughter killed tragically), one other having been killed in the war and one having defected to Greece, are all miserable with their lot. Bálint, the oldest of the younger generation, who was loved by the three daughters of the other families, has not lived up to expectations (his or anyone else’s) and the others struggle to cope, all the while dreaming of the good times in Katalin Street.