I seldom read the excellent Alas, A Blog because I like to maintain my equanimity against what Alas calls “anti-feminist zaniness.” But, when this story from the Guardian crossed my desk twice today (first via the Vwoolf listserv), I felt like, idiotic though it was, I had to bite. It seems the editors of 13, a new collection of writing by young writers, the editors take women to task, writing:
On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell.
To underline their point, the folks at the Guardian have helpfully reproduced that famous portrait of Woolf, aged 20, with the caption: “Did Virginia Woolf's efforts fail to alter negative views of women writers?” Never mind that the photograph predates her writing life by two years and her first novel by eight. Such perpetuation of the image of Woolf as a delicate failure is disheartening indeed. As Brenda Silver has argued, even the picture we choose as the picture of our author affects readers’ impressions. It is time, I think for an older, bolder, and more authoritative Woolf to capture our imaginations.
Woolf wrote in 1929 of how, in a patriarchy, men get to decide what’s important—for example, sport—and what’s not— perhaps fashion, and she mocked the arbitrariness of this even as she railed against its injustice. The comments in the Guardian are silly and beneath contempt and it is, frankly a relief to skim through the letters from the many, many eminent women who say just that (including one from one of the editors, who feels misrepresented), and to see, too, that they’ve reprinted the whole introduction so we can decide for ourselves. Still, I found myself thinking about how to begin a rebuttal.
One might list great counter-examples—anti-domestic novels by women and domestic novels by men—I thought. Then I remembered this weekend's spate of reviews of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. A day in the life of an upper-middle class, middle-aged doctor in contemporary post-9/11 London surely sounds insular. McEwan himself acknowledges the tradition in which he is working: the novel focused on a single day in the life of an ordinary protagonist was the great twentieth-century innovation. But, in his interview with NPR, he quickly moves past Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses to identify himself with Saul Bellow. I think this is disingenuous in the extreme and may perhaps be gender anxiety.
Surely a novel about a man who sets out from his insulated Fitzrovia home to make the fish stew himself for a party he is to throw that night and finds, in doing so, that he must confront the ugly urban aftermath of war has some resonances with Mrs. Dalloway...
Elsewhere: If you want to help the Feminist Press, here's how. (Via Chekhov's Mistress's revamped headlines page.)