Capital W, Capital W

Michael Wood

  • Women Writers at Work edited by George Plimpton
    Harvill, 381 pp, £9.99, February 1999, ISBN 1 86046 586 2
  • Just as I Thought by Grace Paley
    Virago, 332 pp, £8.99, August 1999, ISBN 1 86049 696 2

‘It is fatal for a woman,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘in any way to speak consciously as a woman.’ Fatal for her as a writer, Woolf meant, but even so, not many people will now agree with this view. Not all that many, perhaps, will understand it straight off. How could it be fatal? How could you not write or speak as a woman if you were one? Except by pretending to speak or write as a man. But Woolf didn’t want women to write like men. ‘It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?’

And when Woolf’s imaginary young writer Mary Carmichael learns the ‘first great lesson’, it is this: ‘she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman’ – the fatality, it turns out, is a matter of too much consciousness rather than of too much gender – ‘so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.’ This is dizzying stuff, but it is very precise. The sex of the writer is present in the writing, but only in a ‘curious’ way. You would have to be a woman, of course, in order to forget you were one. But you would have to forget in order to achieve the effect that Woolf describes. We may feel that Woolf’s preference for obliquity is too passive and too polite – in any event we have our writers, whether we want them or not – but the effect she describes is familiar, and memorable, and can be recognised more generally. The pages of Henry James, for example, are full of a sexual desire he has ‘forgotten’ in this sense, that is, neither shouted out nor encrypted nor entirely repressed, just allowed to slip beyond the reach of his conscious word-choices.

In her very sharp introduction to Women Writers at Work, a collection of Paris Review interviews first published as a volume in 1988, and now expanded and updated to include Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag, Margaret Atwood remarks that the writers have been brought together ‘over what, in some cases, would be their dead bodies’. Dorothy Parker, for instance, says she is ‘a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex ... But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lamp-posts to try to get our equality – dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers.’ Mary McCarthy is more acerbic. ‘Some women writers make it. I mean, there’s a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W. Virginia Woolf certainly was one, and Katherine Mansfield was one.’ McCarthy doesn’t think Eudora Welty is one, but then changes her mind: Welty has ‘become one lately’ (the date of this interview is 1961). Elisabeth Sifton, interviewing, asks McCarthy what happens to turn a woman writer into a Woman Writer, and McCarthy snappily says: ‘I think they become interested in decor.’

‘No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman,’ Atwood writes, ‘but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone.’ Couldn’t one just be a writer, unrestricted by adjectives or allegiances or definitions? Atwood’s introduction moves firmly in this direction. ‘What these writers have in common is not their diverse responses to the category “woman writer”, but their shared passion toward the category “writer”.’ Well, not quite, since that is what they have in common with a great number of men writers, and this volume’s very excuse for being starts to look a little shaky. All is not lost, though.

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[*] Virago, 398 pp., £8.99, 26 August, 1 86049 521 4.