In 2015, the novelist Catherine Nichols sent the opening pages of the book she was working on to fifty literary agents. She got so little response she decided to shift gender and try as ‘George’ instead. The difference amazed her. ‘A third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.’ The words, as written by George, had an appeal that Catherine could only envy. She also, perhaps, felt a little robbed. ‘He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.’
This was hardly a scientific study, but it is tempting to join her in concluding that men and women are read differently, even when they write the same thing. If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we admire the economy of his prose; if a woman does we find it banal. If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we are taken by the simplicity of his sentence structure, its toughness and precision. We understand the connection between ‘cat’ and ‘mat’, sense the grace of the animal, admire the way the percussive monosyllables sharpen the geometrics of the mat beneath. If the man is an Irish writer we ask if the cat is Pangúr Ban, the monk’s cat from the ninth-century poem of that name – the use of assonance surely points to the Gaelic tradition – in which case the mat is his monk’s cell, a representation of the life of the mind, its comforts and delineations. The cat, female and probably white, is the secret sensuality of the ascetic life; not in the monastery garden, or out in the bog, but sitting in its proper, bounded place. Or the mat is Ireland itself, if this is not too much of a stretch, in the age of saints and scholars, that golden, undivided time before the Norman invasion, in which case the cat could be anything at all: the playful cipher, sitting on a very inert, territorial mat. No – scratch all that – this is just a very truthful, very real sentence (look at those nouns!) containing both masculine ‘mat’ and feminine ‘cat’. It somehow Says It All.
If, on the other hand, a woman writes ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ her concerns are clearly domestic, and sort of limiting. Time to go below the comments line and make jokes about pussy … I am kidding, of course. These are anxieties, projections, phantasmagoria – things to which women are particularly prone.
In the first week of 2013 I started to count, in an idling way, the number of books by women reviewed in the weekly arts pages of the Irish Times and found none. They were all by men. There was a short interview with a woman, Mary Costello, a writer whose sentences are notably clean and assured. Under her photograph a subeditor had put the quote: ‘I find the public side of being published very difficult.’ A single subheading read: ‘Shy and unassuming’. A poem, ‘Women’s Christmas’, was also printed in the books section. This was a translation of Sean Ó Riordáin’s ‘Óiche Nollaig na mBan’, about the feast day on 6 January when women traditionally gathered to socialise without men. ‘There was power in the storm that escaped last night,/last night on Women’s Christmas/from the desolate madhouse behind the moon/and screamed through the sky at us, lunatic.’
The following week I couldn’t find, in four pages of book reviews, any discussion of a book by a woman. A later search revealed that there were two single paragraphs in the paperback round-up. In the third week of January there was finally a substantial piece on a book not only by but also about a woman – Grace Coddington, who works in the fashion industry – as well as two paperback reviews. Works by or about women took up one half of four pages, or 12.5 per cent of the available space that week, bringing the total so far to less than 8 per cent. Over the year, the figure for books written by women reviewed in the Irish Times rose to 29 per cent. Beside it on the newsstand, the Irish Independent had higher figures without much fuss: 37 per cent of reviewed books were by women. In October 2013, the Independent even had an unheralded, possibly accidental, all-female review section.
The poem ‘Women’s Christmas’ is actually about male anxiety, which made its publication to mark that day feel a bit of a con. Once I’d noticed this sleight of hand it was hard to stop seeing it – the idea that women are somehow present when men write poems about them, or have them as characters in their books, or write about their role in Irish history. It made me wonder what disaster awaits when you let in women’s actual voices (screaming through the sky, lunatic).
In April 2013, One City, One Book, which promotes a single book throughout Dublin over the course of a month, announced for the eighth year in a row that the book selected was by a man – although, of course, this was not how it was phrased. If it had been they might have noticed, because the next two choices were also books written by men, making for a ten-year straight. Unlike a newspaper, this is a publicly funded programme. What were they thinking, the good people of the Dublin City Libraries and of the Unesco City of Literature? Hard to say.
A shift at the Irish Times was signalled in early 2015 by a series of articles, published online in praise of Irish women writers. A selection of these came out on Women’s Day in March, and ran on a double-page spread in the paper, opposite a poster of female Irish writers, ‘an antidote to the all-male Irish writers poster of bars and student bedrooms’ (the original can still be seen in pubs; I don’t know about student bedrooms). This was an interesting hybrid, fed by the online discussions that have opened the critical conversation in recent years, but still asserting the old authoritarian style which liked to keep men and women separate.
In November 2015, the Abbey Theatre announced its schedule for the commemorative year of the 1916 Rising, which contained nine plays by men and one by a woman. Online criticism provoked an impulsive response from the then director of the theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail (‘Them’s the breaks,’ he tweeted, while running to catch a plane). This led to a gathering of hundreds of women in the theatre on 12 November to demand an explanation, which he bravely tried but failed to give. Waking the Feminists, the group that organised the protest, compiled statistics on gender representation in Irish theatre between 2006 and 2015 and found that the more funding an institution received the more male it became. The Abbey is the national theatre of Ireland so its programme was also skewed by the important, and clearly male, business of reflecting or defining the national consciousness; work started very deliberately by Yeats and Lady Gregory when they founded the theatre in 1904.
The argument about excellence – that women’s work just isn’t good enough – is incredibly hurtful given that there is so much mediocre work by men around. Theatre is a high-stakes medium. Some of the Abbey plays I have seen over the years have been wonderful, and some truly excruciating. I would fall out of the theatre afterwards thinking there was no point in being high-minded: what we needed was more – or at least some – ghastly plays by women.
Perhaps the roasting of the theatre’s director focused a few minds in the cultural community. Recently I went back to the newspapers to find that the atmosphere had changed. The figures were up 10 per cent at the Irish Times, with a total of 39 per cent of books reviewed in 2016 written by women, and up by 3 per cent at the Irish Independent, which despite some all-male weeks in October still came in ahead at 40 per cent. This matches, more or less, what we know about the gender balance in published books. It is impossible to be definitive here. A study based on the online Hathi- Trust library shows that nearly 40 per cent of fiction is currently written by women. The percentage is lower in crime and higher in popular fiction. In non-fiction women tend to have a lower profile, but they do exist, probably around or under 20 per cent. The figure for all published books is often given at something over a third. When it comes to literary fiction, my sense of the market corresponds with what Ruth Franklin found in American publishing in 2010, when she pointed out that the gender ratios at ‘the elite literary houses’ were sharply different from those pitching to a broader audience, citing the gap between Random House US at 37 per cent and Knopf at 23 per cent.
Growing awareness and dissatisfaction with the situation has been fed by organisations like Vida, an online resource for women in the literary arts, which started counting book reviews in 2010. This spring, to take one example, Vintage, which publishes paperbacks from eight imprints as part of Penguin Random House UK, had 38 per cent of books written by women on their contemporary list. Irish publishers have not, so far, engaged in the discussion, but their figures are far from terrible. New Island publishes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and crime. Its website lists 286 books, going back more than twenty years, and 33.5 per cent of them are by women. This figure rises to 37 per cent of new releases. Lilliput Press, with smaller numbers, has increased publication of books by women from a typically low 13 per cent in 2015 to 40 per cent this year. In 2016, Gallery Press had three titles by women out of a list of eight, a small sample (with the collected plays of Brian Friel counted as one), which nevertheless yields 37.5 per cent. These numbers are far from parity, but they are certainly not excluding. After spending a long time looking at the figures, anything over 40 per cent feels like a miracle and anything under 30 per cent a crime.
Everyone I spoke to in Irish publishing was alert to the issue, keen to catch a sense of change. There is a boom in small magazines: Banshee, with three women editors, is predominantly female. Gorse and Winter Papers come in around the halfway mark. The Stinging Fly, founded in 1998 by Declan Meade and Aoife Kavanagh, moved quickly to parity and women writers were in a majority in 2016. The editor of the Dublin Review, Brendan Barrington, an advocate of ‘that under-recognised creature, the Irish non-fiction writer’ remains dissatisfied with the journal’s gender balance, although it rose from 31 per cent in 2013 to 39 per cent last year.
The traditionally low number of women in non-fiction, especially history, invites many questions about the kinds of discourse we consider useful or true. We must be in possession of the facts; without them we are dispossessed. In Ireland the question of ownership is overwhelmingly about who owns the past, a place that remains unstable or unfinished, and one from which women have tended to disappear. Here in the present, it is hard to know how many women try to get into print. Most houses do not keep a gendered tally of submissions, but I couldn’t draw the conclusion, from the tiny samples available, that women were being turned away en masse. Tramp Press, a successful feminist house well known among aspiring writers for working its slush pile, reports 2145 submissions since it was established in 2014, of which 818, ‘a disappointing 38 per cent’, were from women.
Most books that make it into print don’t come from the slush pile: they are commissioned by editors or submitted by agents who keep their processes confidential, and this is a significant gap in the numbers, both in Ireland and elsewhere. Recently I walked into a shop in Dublin and counted the volumes in the Irish Fiction section. Books by and about James Joyce took up 20 per cent of the shelf space and the weighty representation of Beckett, Wilde, Bram Stoker and Swift also skewed the figures towards a male past, but if you discount secondary or critical texts the numbers aren’t as bad as they might be: 290 books by women out of 671 fiction titles, that is, 43 per cent. The percentage declines sharply as you move up the food chain. The main prize for Irish novels, now sponsored by Bord Gáis Energy, has been won ten times by men since 2003, and four times by women (28.5 per cent). Their Prize for non-fiction, which has run since 2006, has been awarded to a man nine times and to a woman twice. The International Dublin Literary Award (formerly known as the Impac), the richest on the literary landscape with a purse of €100,000, has been won by a man each year for the last 16 years.
The clumping of men at the top is such an international phenomenon that it is worth looking at how reviewing works in a country like Ireland to see some of the dynamics at play. If you open out the figures for the Irish Times a more complex picture emerges. In 2013, 29 per cent of books reviewed were by women. This figure sank to 24 per cent of large feature reviews (including interviews) and rose to 32 per cent in regular reviews (800-1500 words). It rose again, to 41 per cent, in small reviews where books get less than 150 words apiece. So although all of these books by women were worth noticing, they were not, in 2013, all worth noticing at length. More prominent coverage was afforded to male writers at a rate of three to one, despite the fact that women wrote 41 per cent of the longer reviews.
Overall there were many more women doing the reviewing than being reviewed. Women wrote nearly half the small pieces, and almost two-thirds of the standard reviews. Editors sometimes say that it is hard to persuade women to write pieces, but that was clearly not the case here. The figures were not weighted by the fact that the paper’s literary critic, Eileen Battersby, is a woman, as only around a quarter of the pieces she wrote that year were about female writers. Her Books of the Year page ran 18.5 per cent female, a low figure that can be partly explained by the focus on literature in translation, which, according to Rachel McNicholl of Women in Translation, is three-quarters male. The most distinctive thing, to my mind, is the pattern of gender interaction. Of the regular and longer reviews, women reviewed 80 books by men, and men reviewed 28 books by women. This ratio of 2.7 to 1 is very much out of whack with the balance of reviewers, who were 53 per cent male. We can only guess at the reasons men might not be asked to review books by women, or why they might decline.
The improvement in 2016 was not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of space allocated to books by women. The increase was seen in regular reviews, which went up to 49 per cent female, and also in longer, more prestigious pieces, which ran two to one, male to female. Of reviewers, 49 per cent were male. The gender interactions, though more even, were still skewed. Men reviewed 48 books by women, while women reviewed 86 books by men, a ratio of 1.7 to 1. The story of women’s role in the Rising was a dominant theme in the popular commemorations during the centenary year, and this new perspective owes much to the work of women historians, who are a minority in the field. Which makes you wonder why, on the Easter weekend, the Times literary editor, Fintan O’Toole, ran a full page about women of the Rising that was written by three men.
Ken Keating who compiled the figures on the Irish Times noted that the proportion of women reviewed dipped towards the end of the year. Perhaps this is a reflection of the work it takes to maintain gender balance, as many editors have claimed, both at home and abroad. The difficulty is framed not as a problem ‘for’ women but a problem ‘about’ women. Women are under-confident; they don’t step up; they lack self-belief. The female reviewers of the Irish Times clearly did step up, reviewing both men and other women, so just for a moment I would like to stop saying, ‘the problem with women is …’ and start looking in another direction.
Affinity is a joyful thing. I have often admired the ease with which men praise books by other men, and envied, slightly, the way they sometimes got admired in their turn. This spiral of male affection twists up through our cultural life, lifting male confidence and reputation as it goes.Work by men is also read and discussed by female critics; only one side of the equation is weak: the lack of engagement with women’s work by men.
There have been, in my lifetime, so many arguments about whether women are any good, as writers, whether they could ever be considered great, as writers, most of them started by angry old men. Women found these arguments – so casually made – confusing, undermining and worth disproving. A vast amount of work was undertaken, some of it by women in Irish universities, in order to do so. It always seemed to me a double burden that women should suffer the discrimination and do all the work to fix it. (Besides, who are you trying to convince?)
In 1991, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was published and, as everyone knows, they (mostly) forgot to put any women in there. I was just starting out as a writer and I would like to say that I was outraged, but I just felt contempt for the editors involved. I also felt a great sense of freedom. If you aren’t going to be heard, then you can say what you like. This unmasking of false authority gave me a sense of childish delight, and in the decade or so that followed I noted gleefully every time I was the only woman on the panel, every time I was interrupted on a panel, every time I was asked to go on a panel or read or speak ‘because they had no women’, because ‘they needed a woman’, because ‘they forgot to get any women’ or the more benign iterations of ‘because they would love to hear a female voice’. I ran a private competition for ‘worst introduction from an Irish male academic’; a close-run race, definitively won by a distinguished professor who was so drunk as to be incomprehensible, except for the phrase ‘we must forgive her for writing well.’
You never hear this guff from other writers, who are mostly interested in each others’ sentences: the problem was always in the public realm, not on the shared privacy of the page. I was included in literary conversations in order to discuss women’s exclusion from these conversations, and this didn’t happen outside Ireland, or at least not to me. I am happy to read both men and women, so I found it hard to explain an attitude I did not share. Nor did I know what these people wanted me to be. I realised that when they said ‘woman’ they meant something that was hidden – from me, certainly, but mostly from themselves. It was extremely tiresome. To be constantly reminded that you are female is to be pushed back into your body, over and over, when, as a writer, you function not as a body, but as a voice.
I have met men, not just in Ireland, who are happy to say that they don’t read women. They. Just. Can’t. There are so many problems ‘with’ women. They write about feelings and not facts (they take and do not give). They use qualifications, modifiers, metaphors. They go all fuzzy on you. It is not enough to connect – in fact connection is a fraught business – we must also establish distance; writing must clarify, not embroil. There is some anxiety in all this, not just about the imagination, but about presence or disappearance, tangibility, possession. There is also the problem that women have historically been deemed weak, and weakness is something to be expunged. The association of women with contamination is possibly more fundamental than the problem of feminisation – the fact that some men can’t be caught reading a novel in case their friends call them a pussy. It also precedes male anxieties about female anatomy, which are often anxieties about their own anatomy, especially its penetrability. Perhaps this is why I am asked what it is ‘like’ to be a woman, as if the female condition were some kind of mystery beyond the power of men to understand.
There are many things to consider before the question, in Ireland at any rate, becomes one about Catholic repression or the drama of sexual attraction. These themes are too social, somehow, to describe the kind of deafness I want to identify (though it is true that Edna O’Brien, as beautiful and sexy on the page as in life, really was chased out of town).
It’s hard to remember what it was like back in 2013, but I seem to recall that you couldn’t complain then without being told that other people had it worse. What women put up with was nothing compared to what happened to children in Catholic institutions. The wound can’t be about gender, while Northern Ireland still bleeds. It was a pain competition, one that women couldn’t win.
There is a difference between a culture that tilts male and a culture that does not see what it is doing; you might include this publication in the first category: only 25 per cent of books reviewed by the LRB in 2016 were by women. The arguments in the first tend to be about excellence, confidence, the prioritising of fact: it is possible that women are held to a different standard, but at least the arguments happen. In a culture that is unwittingly male, the tendency (I have found) is to take offence at the statistics. Awareness is itself problematic, so before you talk about inclusion you have to look at this aversion: a murky zone, where people are not entirely aware of themselves or of what they are pushing away.
Iris Murdoch famously said that being a woman ‘is like being Irish … everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.’ I have spent most of my published life on predominantly male UK fiction lists. The best of them are great and humane company on the page, but there is a confusion at the knotty end between great truths and ones that are merely horrible. This results in books charged with male anger, male violence and male self-disgust, sometimes expressed as misogyny. Successful male writers of Irish fiction are seldom ‘manly’ in this way. Their voices are more likely to be restrained, gentle or lyrical, with a number of books taking a woman’s or a child’s point of view. There is also the modernist strand of Irish fiction in which language is chaotically disturbed and remade. I might mention our tragic muse. Sometimes it seems as though Irish fiction of the last few decades is unusually powerless: you get books in which syntax refuses to cohere, novels in which a sense of agency is punished, or fails to matter. These novelists might be said to write ‘like’ women. They are rarely misogynistic, which makes the difficulty harder to see. Fiction, as a trade, is fraught with the thrills and anxieties of feminisation. When a woman writes ‘like’ a woman this tension disappears. There is also, weirdly, an added sense of authority. Irish men writing about women are sometimes praised for their insight, as though this was something women themselves were incapable of.
The country where I grew up in the 1970s was insular and impoverished, and the idea of greatness was very important to us. Books were not just an escape from the present, difficult moment, their greatness was a talisman against shame. The fact that Ulysses, the greatest of them all, also glories in the transgressive and the filthy kept the ironies in motion. In order to become properly iconised, as he was on the Irish Writers poster, it was necessary that Joyce be dead. An awareness of writers’ gravesites, the impulse to build statues and monuments, all of this was useful when it came to the national work of building a better past for ourselves. The deadness of the writer is especially interesting because they feel so alive on the page: this makes their books a talisman not just against shame but also against mortality. Which makes me wonder –and I have no answer to this – whether women will ever seem dead in the same way.
Many people have looked at the original Irish Writers poster, that trite but effective iteration of the canon, and wondered, to take one example, why Brendan Behan should be preferred over Elizabeth Bowen. Maybe Bowen wouldn’t look right on a pub wall. She seems to be not just the wrong gender but also the wrong class, the wrong religion. This sense of wrongness doesn’t adhere to Synge, Beckett, Swift, Goldsmith, O’Casey, Yeats, Shaw, or Wilde, who were all Protestant. There are three Catholics, Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, but only Kavanagh came from the farming background so beloved of Irish nationalism. The strong representation of playwrights on the poster is a reflection, perhaps, of the role of the theatre in forming ideas of a nation. In the years after Irish Independence, women were slowly exiled, not just from the public house, but also from the playhouse, so the discussion about the canon has to include questions about public story-telling as well as ones about colonialism or the middle class.
An equivalent poster about English or British writers would lean towards the 19th century, and would not be complete without Austen, Emily Brontë or George Eliot. The few novelists on the Irish version wrote, in a way that neither Austen nor Bowen ever could, not just about the poor and the marginal but transgressively about backsides and excrement (Joyce is the only one who wrote about sex). I looked at these writers as I pondered ideas of noble rot, and I remembered instead their childish glee. Drinking is another kind of transgression, and the connection between a drinking culture and a writing culture remains a lucrative one today. Who takes their ideas of literary importance from a pub wall? The Irish tourist industry, certainly, along with their key market in the Irish diaspora. The tilt towards the male gets even steeper in America, with its emigrant nostalgia for an Irish past.
The relationship between creativity and the author’s anxiety about the critical culture is necessarily difficult; you always wonder how a book will be received. Once you get inside the sense of circumference that a tradition provides, the issue becomes not one of acceptance but of status; hierarchies are made and remade, and the writer’s anxiety about critical authority becomes more problematic. What is the difference between authority and dominance? I didn’t understand the game of top dog until I got an actual dog, when I realised that dominance requires submission. For women, this sometimes contains a troubling, erotic content, but it is not, strictly speaking, a gendered thing. Men snarl at each other too (and younger men pink up, sometimes, in adoration).
Which makes me wonder if Irish men have been the victims, not just of the feminising insult that is colonialism, but of other wounded hierarchies: damaged fathers, rotten priests, corrupt or weak political authority. As we shift away from the damage, the question about nationalism refuses to go away. What happens when men believe something together, or try to believe it? What do they have to expel in order to stake territory, claim a history and form a shared identity? It amazes me that the men who spend their time explaining Ireland seldom pause to explain the persistent recurrence of bias in our cultural life. As a woman’s placard on the Trump march said: ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
Though I never did protest it, much, I just got on with writing books, as did other Irish women writers over the last thirty years. Much of this work was welcomed in the newspapers, though the language used can seem a little dated now. It was just hard, given the general climate, to feel a sense of momentum. It’s not so hard any more. In the last six years there has been a stream of notable debuts by Irish women, to complement the stream of notable debuts by Irish men. These women aren’t shy and unassuming (unless they are), nor are they screaming through the air, lunatic (unless they want to be). They are publishing in a time of cultural change, and into a new awareness, one that is fed by social media, acknowledged in print, supported by publishers and encouraged by festival curators. At least I hope they are. I hope we will finally sit side by side – in the newspapers, on the stage, up on the damn poster – men and women together. There is plenty of room.