From today’s Observer: Meet the Author. Joseph Connolly is definitely one of the most bearded people I have ever interviewed. He’s also amongst the most charming (and that is a serious accolade as I have encountered Dame Judi Dench and Alastair Campbell who are charm personified). He’s an interesting character: a prolific novelist and non-fiction writer whose books sell as well as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes in France. He has expressed disappointment in the past that his work is not quite so appreciated at home.
He was talking about his new novel Boys and Girls, which is about a woman who decides that one husband is not enough for her — she wants an extra one too. And the two of them had jolly well better get along.
On the subject of his lavish facial hair, Connolly says: “The amazing question is not ‘Why do you have a beard?’ but ‘Why do 99.9% of the male population shave every day.’ It is quite unnatural.”
I love by the way that his Guardian url is “joseph-connolly-each-gender-requires-exclusive-company-own-sex-food-critic-beard”
Thrilled to interview Siri Hustvedt (over the phone from New York) about her new novel The Blazing World. It tells the extraordinary story of a woman artist who achieves acclaim by posing behind the personae of three male artists. As a woman she is ignored. Once people think she’s a man, she’s the toast of the Manhattan art world.
This is a brilliant companion piece to one of my favourite novels of all time, What I Loved. Hustvedt: “Harry – the artist Harriet Burden – is right that there is a “masculine enhancement effect”. The arts are often thought of as “sort of feminine” and science as masculine. These divisions are underlying our perceptions. There are a number of other positions and perspectives that are meant to complicate the reader’s understanding of this story. There is no message. There is nothing simple about this.”
This week there was an explosive discussion on BBC Radio 4 about women and book reviews — about how there are fewer female reviewers and fewer books by female authors. Thanks to @LisaAllardice for flagging up the Guardian’s graphic of the figures.
The discussion featured an extraordinary statement from the London Review of Books (who declined to appear on air), which I have reproduced below because a lot of people on Twitter were asking what all the fuss was about.
I have transcribed it myself. As I am, unfortunately, a woman no doubt there are many errors. Because really I should have been doing the washing up instead of producing a transcript. In actual fact I was also looking after 3 sick children, doing a supermarket-and-McDonalds run (quality parenting), filing 2500 words of copy (probably illiterate — see previous statement re gender) and I still took the time to do this. Because I do think both on Twitter and in real life – “to hell with it.”
I wanted to reproduce the statement in full because I think it’s important that it is known that there are people out there who still think this way. Whilst I’m loosely on board with the basic “Lean In” sentiment implied here (you can never “Lean In” far enough if you’re a committed, passionate person, whether male or female), I could throw a lot of dirty washing up water in the face of anyone who uses these “women are too busy cooking dinner and looking after children to do any proper work” arguments as part of a supposedly serious discussion.
But there I go producing just the sort of rubbish sentence that would not be the best version of itself and therefore not be fit for publication in the London Review of Books.
Here comes the transcript:
Mariella Frostrup [presenting discussion about women and book reviews with Rachel Cooke and Jonathan Gibbs]: “We asked for one of the executive team from London Review of Books to come on the programme, as they were one of the publications cited as having more male books and reviewers than women. But they were unable to join us and instead sent us this rather lengthy statement.”
[statement read as voiceover by female announcer -- interesting editorial decision]
“Counting is a feminist weapon. “How many women are on the board?” “How many women are in Parliament?” “How many women are in the LRB this fortnight?” Over the history of the LRB 82% of the articles have been written by men and 18% by women. None of the editors — count them, four men and five women — are proud of that. We need to do better.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that doing better isn’t as easy as it seems. The number of women’s bylines are low in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the TLS. Just as numbers of women are low on corporate boards. It’s down to more than editorial whim.
The problem is, as Jenny Turner said earlier this year, both subtle and deep-rooted. Partly a matter of social arrangements that work against women and partly due to the effect a sexist world has on women. Women send fewer pitches to the LRB. They often prefer not to write critically about other women. They are under-represented among historians of the Second World War, particle physicists and macro economists. And any number of academic disciplines the LR Books covers.
When the editor of the London Review [sic], Mary-Kay Wilmers, gave an interview to PN Review in 2001, she put it this way [HERE COMES THE BEST BIT]: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities. And they’re not so newly arrived in the country. They’re not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please. They’re going to write their pieces and to hell with the rest. And I don’t think women think that way.”
Perhaps they do say “to hell with it” on Twitter more these days. And perhaps eventually these days that will make it easier to say “to hell with it” in the real world. But it’s not a pathetic excuse to say that the world is still sexist and that the feminist revolution is hopelessly incomplete. You can see evidence of this everywhere from the pay gap to rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.
Counting women is one way of looking at the problem. For the counters, the answer is a quota. A women’s edition. Positive discrimination of one type or another. But counting then trumps all other considerations. The LRB’s way — which isn’t to say it’s the best way or that it doesn’t have disadvantages — is to publish women writers in the same way as male writers — as writers. We give them space, work with each sentence to make it the best version of itself, encourage them to write about the things they can’t write about elsewhere.”
If this is the country, I don’t want to live in it. Fortunately the country they describe is no place I recognise. Now I must go and cook dinner because obviously (a) men cannot cook dinner and (b) no pre-prepared food is freely available in this country. *bangs head against wall*
We have two great debut writers at Bath Literature Festival: literary supremo and ex-Booker judge Alex Clark is continuing the series she started at Stoke Newington Literary Festival — Alex Clark’s Stars of Tomorrow — with Darragh McKeon, author of Everything That is Solid Melts into Air on Friday March 7 at 8pm. This is a much-talked about elegant debut which tells the story behind what happened at Chernobyl. (I am struggling not to use the word “fall-out”.) Recommended. Colm Toibin: “Daring, ambitious, epic, moving.”
Here’s the blurb: “Russia, 1986. In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbours. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbour’s cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened. Now their lives will change forever.”
I am also so proud that Joanna Rossiter is the (debut) author of this year’s Big Bath Read. I need to check the archives but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a debut novelist has been chosen for the Big Bath Read. The local response to the book has been phenomenal. Over 60 people signed up for our Goodreads book group online (the first time this has ever been trialled — and already it has been chosen as a featured Goodreads Group, promoted to Goodreads’ 18 million members) and we’ve been holding face-to-face book groups across Somerset, talking to readers about The Sea Change.
Tonight’s group at Midsomer Norton (pictured above) awarded it an unprecedented (for them) 7.9 out of 10. Judging by their faces, this was an exceptionally generous mark and meant it was a book they would recommend to anyone. (They gave Wolf Hall 5 out of 10 and they really liked it. Scary.) Earlier today, I talked to Joanna Rossiter on BBC Radio Bristol and she talked about how much something like this means to an author with their first novel. This is exactly what the Festival is for and it makes me very happy.
You can join me for our big Festival Big Bath Read Book Group on Wed 5 March at 1pm in Bath — it will be a lot of fun.
Or you can join Joanna at Keynsham Library at 7.30pm on Wed 5 March — or in Bath at 1pm on Thurs 6 March — both are waiting list only now, I’m afraid.
Germaine Greer’s White Beech: The Rainforest Years reviewed in Red.
“With all Germaine Greer’s campaigning and public speaking it can be easy to forget that she’s a great writer too: above all White Beech: The Rainforest Years is a surprisingly compelling read, filled with expert botanical details and personal asides.”
There is an outside chance still to see her in Bath on Saturday March 1. The event sold out just before Germaine’s 75th birthday in January — but you can still go on the waiting list if you call 01225 462231.
For a video guide to the events featuring me wearing a slightly ill-advised leopardskin sequin cardigan, click here
The launch for the Independent Bath Literature Festival is well underway! For a more detailed run-down of the programme, check out the Bath Magazine where I am (not inaccurately) described as a “candy floss lover”. (The brochure features a huge picture of candy floss on the cover.)
Superhot tip for now: buy tickets for Austentatious and Germaine Greer while you still can. My own favourites: the Great Bath News Debate, Jennifer Saunders and our fantastic foodie events with superchef Mark Hix, Jewish food legend Claudia Roden (or at least that’s how I think of her because I love The Book of Jewish Food) and Jane Austen culinary scholar Pen Vogler’s Literary Lunch with Mr Darcy.
Making it into my list of 2013 novels in the Observer (click on the book title for the original full-length review): Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (The Observer), Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (The Observer), The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Home Fires by Elizabeth Day (The Observer), The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Deaths by Mark Lawson, Unexploded by Alison Macleod (The Observer), Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright (The Times), Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant (The Times), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Red), The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Red), Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (The Observer), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (The Times), Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Red) and May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (The Observer).
Whilst I recommend all these books, it’s interesting to note the ones I read even though I knew I wasn’t going to be reviewing them: Claire Messud, Meg Wolitzer, Mark Lawson. With all the others, lots of them I read and then ended up reviewing (it’s relatively rare for me to read something because I *have* to review it and have no choice).
I loved this book by Rachel Cooke — reviewed here in Red. I interviewed Rachel recently at Foyle’s where the general feeling in the audience could be summed up as: “I am going to buy this book for every woman I know for Christmas.” As Rachel more or less put it herself, it’s a sort of Grazia of modern social history. It has a serious point behind it. Why don’t we know the names of these women? Why do we imagine that everyone was a housewife in the 1950s? Why is it surprising that women were able to make the lives they wanted? But it has a wonderful light, gossipy touch that makes it so fun to read. Buy it with Hadley Freeman’s How to Be Awesome if you like someone enough to give them two books. Or – sod it – take the message implicit in both books (“You make your own luck, ladies”) and buy them both for yourself.
If you love ghostly, wintry stories, you’ll love Kate Mosse’s Gothic collection The Mistletoe Bride, reviewed here for Red. I was lucky enough to watch Kate Mosse perform an extract from the book at 5 X 15 at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill recently (I was there to interview Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk). She’s an electric speaker and really brought the almost creepy, romantic quality of the stories to life. Great stocking filler for anyone who loves her novels or for fans of Susan Hill and/or The Woman in Black.