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).
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.
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.
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.
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.