Thursday, 28 November 2013

Thoughts on "A room of one's own", women, and fiction

This guy Angry Harry, to put it simply, thinks men are more talented and successful than women in most (if not all) fields and gender equality will never be achieved.
I'm aware that he's extreme, biased and sexist, perhaps even misogynist, and I'm not saying that I agree with him and his arguments, but please click the link above, read it and tell me your thoughts.

2/ This is an email I sent to my professor about a month ago:
I'm a student in NORAM1506, but now I'd like to ask you a question and hope you answer personally, not as a professor/ teacher.
I do not have the exact statistics, but it seems that there are much, much more successful and acclaimed and influential men than women in most fields, not only in the 'men' fields (medicine, sciences, engineering...) but also in the 'women' fields (fashion, makeup, cooking...) and the 'neutral' fields (literature, arts...)
In literature and the arts, I can understand there are much more male film directors and cinematographers, but to be writers, photographers, poets, painters... one doesn't require much but a creative mind. People in such fields work independently and belong to no company/ organisation and don't necessarily need a high education (many writers, for example, didn't have much of a formal education). There should be, of course, some certain privacy and independence (like Virginia Woolf said, "a room of one's own"), but one doesn't require much but a creative mind. And yet among those who are highly acclaimed and influential, men still outnumber women.
In addition, when we look at writers, it's rather common that men often tackle 'big' topics, grand themes, complex social issues and may write very thick, epic books with complex structures and women tend to write about 'smaller' issues such as relationships, emotions, families, women's rights... I do not mean these things are not important, but when reading men's novels, sometimes I feel awe and great admiration because they show remarkable amount of research and knowledge and understanding, whereas it seems that women usually write about things they know well in life, you know.
(There are exceptions, obviously).
This has always bothered me. It should be noted that I have always believed, and insisted, that men and women should be equal. Different, but equal. And in some aspects I believe women are better than men (eg, in my opinion women are physically weaker but mentally stronger). But this has always bothered me. Why do you think this is the case? Social factors? Or is it possible that men may be intellectually superior to women? Or perhaps certain traits of women are obstacles so that they aren't as successful (eg, men are better at concentrating and more daring and more willing to go to the extremes, stereotypically speaking)?"

She replied:
"This is a very important and complicated question, which I will have to spend some time answering. You ask me to answer personally and not as a teacher. I am not sure it's possible for me to separate personal-ida and academic-ida anymore, but i'll try.
You ask why men seem to be writing the most interesting books and making the most successful films etc. There are several factors at work here, and it's important to sort them out. (see? Failing already) First of all, you mention yourself that better access to the industry (of film making f. inst) could be a factor, and I think this is very true. This will change, but slowly, since we all have a tendency to want to work with people that are similar to ourselves.
Secondly, there is the traditional separation of public and domestic spheres. When it has been possible for women to work in or near the house, this has been beneficial to the family as a whole, since it also makes it easier to give birth, breastfeed and do these physical things that men cannot do. This does not mean that women (of the working classes for instance) have not worked outside the house - they have always. But the writing classes have usually also been the ones where this separation between the spheres has been the strongest.
But even more that this, it is a question of perspective and of definition of what is important and interesting. Our tastes, what we find important and interesting, have not been shaped in a vacuum. In a world where it has been seen as civic duty to be active in society (democracy), what is often considered women's issues are also portrayed as less interesting and important. And that influences us all. Therefore men's work has been more acclaimed. And it also influences you and me and what we personally find important. We, too, are living in a world where what has traditionally been seen as men's purview - politics, environmental issues, the big complex issues - are seen as more and more important, because the world is becoming more and more entangled. And because we, as private citizens, are expected to contribute to the political sphere to a much larger degree than what has previously been the case (before democracy, for example).
The issue of biology is a very large one, which it is difficult for me to sort out here and now. Our bodies _are_ different, there is no doubt, but I think that the many women who have been successful in so-called men's fields show that it is not a question of physical differences in the brain.  But often the female writers who wrote in genres not considered female (the novel, for instance, was very much a female genre in the 19th century, and therefore seen as worth less and literature as such was not studied at university - only the epic poems were worthy of that kind of scrutiny) such as theatre, have been forgotten afterwards because they did not fit into the narratives that create out of history.
That is as far as I think I'm gonna get today. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to think through this in writing. I hope that my attempts were understandable. Women's history and gender research are not my fields of expertise, but I know there are many people out there who have written much better on this than I ever could. I am happy to try to think of good articles and books if you are interested, and let's continue the conversation anyway!"

Then I replied:
Thanks for your email.
About literature, I did write that "I do not mean these things are not important". And explained "when reading men's novels, sometimes I feel awe and great admiration because they show remarkable amount of research and knowledge and understanding, whereas it seems that women usually write about things they know well in life". Of course, to write well and convincingly about emotions, relationships, families... one must observe and have sensitivity and acute awareness of things around oneself, but it's more difficult to write about political or social topics. Not necessarily more interesting and important, but more difficult, especially dystopian fiction, war novels... (knowledge, facts, ability to handle a great scope...). No, especially when the books have complex structures with lots of characters (I think "War and peace" has 150 characters), many different narrators ("As I lay dying" has 15 different narrators with different voices), multiple layers...
It may not make very much sense, but I'm trying my best to clarify what I meant in the last email.
About films, by saying I understand that there are more male film directors, I actually had something else in mind. Making a film is complex. A film crew has hundreds or even 1000 people. A film director, while not doing everything themselves, has to handle, or look at, everything- finding a producer, getting the money, casting, choosing scenes, directing, controlling cameras and camera angles, choosing music, controlling postproduction, etc. Among these 2 aspects are very important that may act as obstacles, the 1st is convincing a producer to finance the film and the 2nd is fighting for artistic control. So if the film industry right from the beginning is already dominated by males (which seems to be the case, at least in Hollywood), women may put the blame on that as to why there are more successful male directors.
To be a writer, on the other hand, is different. A writer needs a pen and a notebook and thus works alone, depending on no one else (except the publisher, of course, but the publisher is not involved from the start). So a creative mind is all one needs. Writing classes aren't necessary. Even a formal education may not be a big must.
One may say, women have more distractions, like taking care of the family, doing chores, raising children, etc. But I'm not sure if that's the reason, or merely an excuse, placing blame, or some sort of self-consolation.
I'm just babbling, aren't I?
But I can't stop thinking about this."

The discussion didn't continue because around that time my professor was sick, for about 2 weeks, and now exams are around the corner I cannot ask her to continue because this topic isn't that important and gender studies isn't her area.

3/ "A room of one's own" shows that I was a bit simplistic to think that all a writer needs is talent, with some privacy. 
a) Educational opportunities and social expectations matter a great deal. 

b) "[O]ne would say that women's books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be." 
Also, according to Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen had to hide her manuscript when working on a novel. 
This answers a question I had before. Women couldn't write those thick books like the works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sholokov, Victor Hugo, etc. 

c) "One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.  Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Brontë had possessed say three hundred a year--but the foolish woman sold the copyright of her novels outright for fifteen hundred pounds; had somehow possessed more knowledge of the busy world, and towns and regions full of life; more practical experience, and intercourse with her kind and acquaintance with a variety of character. In those words she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects as a novelist but upon those of her sex at that time. She knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited if it had not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted; they were withheld; and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, VILLETTE, EMMA, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, MIDDLEMARCH, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write WUTHERING HEIGHTS or JANE EYRE. One of them, it is true, George Eliot, escaped after much tribulation, but only to a secluded villa in St John's Wood. And there she settled down in the shadow of the world's disapproval. 'I wish it to be understood', she wrote, 'that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation'; for was she not living in sin with a married man and might not the sight of her damage the chastity of Mrs Smith or whoever it might be that chanced to call? One must submit to the social convention, and be 'cut off from what is called the world'. At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gypsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoy lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady 'cut off from what is called the world', however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written WAR AND PEACE."

Repeat: "experience and intercourse and travel"
I know, experience for the sake of experience means nothing, like Toni Morrison has said, but a total recluse like Emily Dickinson can be a great poet, never a great novelist and if a great novelist, is likely to be good at anything but at creating, describing and dealing with characters. There will always be some fault in the characters, or their voices, or their conversations. Proof: Charlotte Bronte, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Murakami...(If one places Dostoyevsky next to Tolstoy, one may prefer 1 writer to another but it's clear that Dostoyevsky was particularly clumsy when writing about characters speaking. So was Kafka. And that can be explained by their lives). 
So the fact that women did not have as much freedom as men, nor experience, social intercourse and travel, may have acted as a hindrance.

4/ This part from "A room of one's own" is similar to a point in my professor's email: 

"And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial'. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was 'only a woman', or protesting that she was 'as good as a man'. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself.
Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women's novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the centre that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others." 

And this is an important point: 
"What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write." 

5/ I misunderstood Virginia Woolf, when reading her criticism of "Jane Eyre". Now it turns out that she, in fact, thought Charlotte had more genius in her than Jane Austen. She's right in calling "Jane Eyre" a flawed novel, it is flawed and in some places the writing's a bit awkward.
"The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: 'The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.' That is a man's sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman's use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said." 
Yet anyhow I agree with Virginia Woolf that Emily Bronte's greater than her sister Charlotte. 

6/ Virginia Woolf on Jane Austen: 

"Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare."

7/ There was a time when I thought I preferred male writers to female ones.
But can I claim that, considering that most of the books I've read were written by men? Obviously not.

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