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.

Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]

The latest addition to my website is Clemens J. Setz‘s Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]. This is a monumental novel – 1021 pages – so unlikely to appear in English, though it has been translated into French. It is set in a care home and involves a young care assistant, Natalie Reinegger, who has to look after a man in wheel chair, Alexander Dorm, who had been a stalker and had driven a woman he stalked to commit suicide. To Natalie’s surprise, his only visitor is Christopher Hollberg, the widower of the woman who committed suicide. On the surface, the two men seem to get on well but gradually Natalie is dragged into their relationship which is not as straightforward as it seems. At the same time we are following Natalie’s own life – her casual affairs, her friends, her IPhone, her imaginary mouse and her real cat as well as the stories of the other care assistants and other patients. The book is way too long but Setz keeps on going and keeps the reader’s attention, despite no major plot revelations.

Kamel Daoud: Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms]

The latest addition to my website is Kamel Daoud‘s Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms]. This novel, by the author of Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation), is a superb novel, better, in my view, than Meursault, about an Algerian man who lives alone with his aunt, only comes out at night and writes the stories of the dying, so that they will be remembered in a remote Algerian town, where illiteracy is high. He has had a troubled relationship with his father who abandoned his mother early on (she died not long afterwards) and now has a large family with Zabor’s step-mother. He does not get on with his step-mother or step-brothers. However, his father is now dying and he is summoned to write his story. Nothing good can come out of this. Zabor is a contrarian, a lover of reading and writing and, apart from sex (he is a virgin), not much else but he is a wonderful, colourful creation. Other Press plan to publish it in English in 2019.

César Aira: El tilo (The Lime Tree; The Linden Tree)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El tilo (The Lime Tree; The Linden Tree). This is somewhat different from the normal Aira in that there is no strange or fanciful story but rather the story of a boy growing up in the town of Coronel Pringles did, as did Aira himself. We learn about his father’s abrupt renunciation of Catholicism in favour of Peronism, his father’s job in charge of all the public lighting in the town, of the changes when Perón was overthrown, of the large house where the three of them lived in only one room, with the other rooms all empty and of how the unnamed narrator came to love stories and story-telling. And, of course, we learn of the huge lime tree, its use by the narrator’s father and its ultimate destruction. This is certainly not Aira’s best work but worth reading nonetheless.

Jean Giono: Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel)

The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel), published in French in 1941 but only published this year in English. It was intended, initially, as an introduction to Giono’s translation of Moby Dick into French but was expanded into a short novel, with Giono inventing a fanciful story about Melville. The story, essentially, concerns Melville’s visit to London to get his novel White Jacket published. Once he has handed over the manuscript, he has two weeks to kill, so decides to set off for the (fictitious) Woodcut, near Bristol as a young man said that is what he would do do, if he had the time and money, as his girlfriend lived there. Melville decided to go there himself but, en route, he meets an Irish nationalist woman, helping the Irish during the Great Famine and the two become, briefly, quite close. It is combination of this woman and his guardian angel (yes, really) that inspires him to write Moby Dick. He returns to the the United States but never forgets her. The story is quite untrue but certainly an interesting fantasy.

Boualem Sansal: 2084 la fin du monde (2084: The End Of The World)

The latest addition to my website is Boualem Sansal‘s 2084 la fin du monde (2084: The End Of The World). This is Sansal’s updated, Algerianised 1984. Though he refers to 1984, it is a very different book. It is essentially a satire on religious control and orthodoxy in Algeria and Saudi Arabia and similar states. The book is set at some future time (not necessarily 2084) in Abistan which, as far as most of the inhabitants know, covers the entire world. Our hero is Ati and he is trying to discover whether if what the religious authorities have led the people to believe is true. He has to undertake two long and difficult journeys to do so and we follow his adventures. Sansal is very damning of Islamic fundamentalism as found in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, etc. and tells a very good story of how Ati learns what he is not meant to learn.

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.

Chico Buarque: Estorvo (Turbulence)

The latest addition to my website is Chico Buarque‘s Estorvo (Turbulence). Buarque is best-known as a singer and composer but he has written novels, poetry and drama. This is quite a strange one. Our unnamed narrator, originally from a rich family in Rio de Janeiro, seems to have dropped out. Awoken by a man in suit knocking at his door, he manages to escape the man and wanders around the city, visiting his rich sister (to sponge off her and to steal her jewellery), his ex-wife, also to sponge off her, and the farm where he grew up, which seems to have been partially taken over by drug-dealing squatters. He lives his life in a dream, disconnected from the real world but, despite being beaten up and trying to dispose of a case full of marijuana, seems to just about to get by.

Joyce Cary: Not Honour More

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s Not Honour More. This is the third in Carey’s second trilogy and definitely the weakest. It follows on from the first – Prisoner of Grace – and is narrated by Jim Latter, former soldier and colonial officer, married to Nina, née Woodville, who had been married to the Liberal politician, Chester Nimmo, for a long time. Chester now Lord Nimmo is still living with Latters and Latter suspects him of having an affair with Nina. Meanwhile the 1926 General Strike is starting and Latter is called on to organise the Specials (auxiliary police force) while Nimmo sees it as a way back into politics. Of course, it all goes badly wrong for all of them. With Latter being a most unsympathetic character, volatile, jealous and full of his own self-importance, his narration does not endear him to us nor does it make for as an enjoyable book as its predecessors.

Geoff Nicholson: The Miranda

The latest addition to my website is Geoff Nicholson‘s The Miranda. I have read all of Nicholson’s novels but this one is somewhat different from the others, less quirky, less funny, less English and much darker. Joe Johnson, our narrator, is a retired torturer. He is engaged by a shadowy, presumably US government organisation (the novel is set entirely in the US) to torture those people that are going to serve abroad and risk being captured and tortured, in order to desensitise them. He has now retired, his marriage ended, and moves to a rural area where he plans to walk 25,000 miles around his garden, the equivalent of walking the circumference of the Earth. However, one of his torture victims has gone rogue, he has nasty and violent neighbours behind him and a woman artist wants to make him an art work. However, he also has Miranda, a woman who does his shopping for him and uses him as a guinea pig to create the next great cocktail, to be called The Miranda. All of this and more comes together in a quasi-apocalyptic, Nicholsonian finale. It is a clever story with several twists but very dark, with too much torture and brutality for my taste.