Tuesday, 17 May 2011

An open letter, a closed culture

My desk is an old kitchen worktop cut to size and set into the window bay, just below the windowsill. From far left to far right these are the books within reaching distance: French author Margeurite Yourcenar’s classic Memoirs of Hadrian; Classics academic Mary Beard’s non-fiction book It’s A Don’s Life; acclaimed memoir Travels With A Circus by Katie Hickman; a review copy of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Angela Carter’s novel Nights At The Circus; Jesus by A N Wilson; an academic work on masculinity during the earliest Christian period called The Manly Eunuch by Mathew Kuefler; a clutch of Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter; French crime fiction by Dominique Manotti; contemporary crime classic What Survives by Joan Smith; Susannah Clapp’s illuminating and beautifully written biography of Bruce Chatwin, With Chatwin; In A Dark Wood, one of my favourite novels by Amanda Craig; Mud, the short story collection by Michele Roberts; historical fiction The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett; an international family memoir by Tamara Chalabi; about a dozen academic and history books for a future project by authors including Larissa Juliet Taylor, Timothy Wilson-Smith, Vita Sackville-West and Marina Warner; science fiction novel Spirit Gate by Kate Elliot; 2010 Orange Prize winning novel The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde; award-winning Kenyan non-fiction investigation by political writer Michela Wrong; science fiction novels by Jacqueline Carey and Mary Gentle; historical fiction by Fiona Mountain, Suzanne Dunn and Hella S Haase; Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Rachel Polonsky’s Russian literary history/sociology/portrait/adventure Molotov’s Magic Lantern; Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism; Clare Clark’s novel Savage Lands; comedy A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene; Jason Goodwin’s historical sleuthing saga The Bellini Card; Bodies by Susie Orbach; science fiction thriller The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist; Indian mythology, spirituality and folklore collections including The Ramayana, The Upanishads,  The Rig Veda and the Mahabharata; a short story collection called On Becoming A Fairy Godmother by Sarah Maitland; Bulgakov’s Russian classic The Master and Margarita; Jennie Rooney’s novel The Opposite of Falling; a beautiful Everyman edition of Middlemarch; Naomi Alderman’s second novel The Lessons and a collection of Angela Carter’s journalism. Then, stacked on my far right at the end of the desk are books by historian Bettany Hughes, memoirist G Willow Wilson, war writer Romeo Dallaire and novelists Kathleen Kent, Dawn Garisch, Annabel Lyon, Jenny Erpenbeck, Louise Doughty and Emma Donoghue.

Most of the books above are by women and most were picked, by me, out of the bins at work, in radio stations, TV stations, newspaper offices, magazine offices, arts venue offices. The reject bins, the recycling bins, the unwanted pile, or ‘the box of crap’ as I christened one particularly capacious depository. All the books above are excellent and did not deserve to be thrown away. They were, in many cases, infinitely superior to the books we eventually covered in the newspapers, on radio, on TV and at book events. That coverage was dominated by male creators, while women creators were ignored, even though most of the events were put together by women organisers and producers. To be totally blunt, I read most of the chaps' little whimsical books that are feted with buzz and prizes and congrats and am always astonished by how often they are totally shit and openly and thoroughly sexist. Then I look at all the women who come to lick the floor at these men's feet and I think to myself, God, how you must hate yourselves.

I have for nearly twenty years observed and railed against the ubiquitous cultural ignoring, belittling and downtalking of women’s work, but nothing I have said has made any difference. I feel despair about this and about the way women who point this out are themselves punished. When perpetrators, many of whom are women, are asked to explain their discrimination against women, they do what perpetrators always do when women are attacked: they victim-blame. They say that women are not pushy enough, not shrewd enough, don't care enough, are not driven enough, are not energetic enough.

They are lying. They are lying through their teeth. At events which have been set up deliberately to celebrate women - like the WOW festival at the Southbank - each available slot for a writer, artist, thinker, speaker, eperformer or any other female authority or creativity figure is triple- and even quadruple-booked with potential candidates willing to be involved, to suggest other women or to contribute in some way. Each woman has countless anecdotes about putting herself or other women forward at other events, simply to be ignored outright or lightly put down or to find her work sabotaged or limited in some way. For every anecdote that is told, most of the women in the audience nod in recognition. Everything you have heard about misogyny, about female misogyny, about the glass ceiling, about the rigged game, is true. The shocking thing is that many of the perpetrators are women.

This site was created as an antidote to the under-representation of women in culture such as at the New Yorker, or generally on the literary scene (click the links in this last article for even more hair-raising stats) and the prize circuit in all different genres. This is down to misogyny, the double standard and man-worshipping (women's particular perverse internal disease - thankyou, 3000 years of patriarchy!) and nothing more. I want to write about the countless works of women's genius, examples of activism and displays of energy that, every day, I literally or metaphorically pick out of the discards pile. But I and other women deserve more than that. I and we and they deserve to be paid for this cultural labour. I and they and we deserve proper credit in the establishment and the mainstream, in history and posterity. We deserve more. The perpetrators must be fought, challenged openly, made to squirm, defeated, overturned and replaced. We must remember that when they defend their crimes, they are lying. They cannot be permitted to get away with cultural femicide.