Women will be fly-by-nights

What does the brain matter compared to the heart? These words from Mrs Dalloway. I have been watching Marleen Corris’s film of the story with the same name, Virginia Woolf’s glorious story that says so much of a bygone era, written with a woman’s voice.

I have a preoccupation at the moment with women’s voices as opposed to those of men. More so since the conference. The conference of course was inundated with women. Forty women I’d say, to only three men, and one of them a convener.

I prefer a more balanced ratio, men to women, but it rarely happens for me these days. In my own household dominated by women, even with visits from the odd regular boyfriend or partner, my husband is never alone sufficient to overcome the impact of what one of his friends has described as ‘too much oestrogen’.
‘There’s too much oestrogen in your household,’ my husband’s friend tells him and I know exactly what he means. Too much oestrogen, as opposed, I suppose, to too much testosterone.

It is hard for my husband to get a word in, and so he takes to making jokes much of the time or of becoming authoritative. It’s hard for him to find a middle path. What is this about? It is more than a function of his own idiosyncratic upbringing, I suspect. Why the imbalance between the genders? We cannot simply ascribe it to difference.

During the conference there was often talk of feminist perspectives and how much these have altered the degree to which storytelling has changed. How much women’s voices are now more often heard.

Sometimes I confuse the notion of women’s voices with my understanding of the role of middle children in families. This tends to be the role of the conciliator, the one who tries to get both sides together and yet at the same time the one who rebels, the one who is subversive.

I am struggling with this at the moment. In the last several days I have had at least three conversations with different men about the intricacies of my paper, Straddling Two Worlds, the writer and the therapist. The men have all been generous in their responses and in their efforts to help me work through what it is I am trying to say. By and large it is women who have been my detractors, though not all women of course. Still it is striking that within my professional association it is mostly the women who have taken me to task.

This is my favourite time of the week. The time when I have energy to write and often with no agenda.

I read Peter Craven’s review of Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and felt the same sharp thrill of pleasure at Gerald’s success and jealousy, that no one should ever appreciate my work in such a bold and clear way. Peter Craven is clearly an admirer. But in his text he does not mention a single woman writer. They are all the famed fellows and Craven imagines that GM will join them, the one who will be read in 100 years time, akin to Marcel Proust.

Women will be fly-by-nights. Is there a woman writer today whom people write about as someone for the future, someone whose work we will be reading in years to come? I think of GM’s ‘future creature’, the young researcher whom he imagines as an attractive woman, a student of literature who pores over his archives and is the first to know all his wonderful and as yet untold secrets. GM has fantasies of how his future creature will respond, and how she will be amazed by the secrets she unearths.

I have at times wanted to be that future creature but my time for such research is past, besides I do not want to spend my time researching other people’s work. I want to write my own. Yet in the back of my mind I take great pleasure in being part of GM’s archives.

These days whenever I write my letters to him, I write with a broader audience in mind, the future readers, future creature, future researchers of GM’s writing and work. In this sense I am a parasite living off the great man’s reputation, a tic on his skin, a louse in his hair.

These things are not set in stone. I met a man at the conference Michael, an older man who is doing his PhD on notions of disability relative to his son who died at the age of 22 from muscular dystrophy. This man showed photos and talked of Roland Barthe’s differentiation between what he calls punctum and studium. The latter is visible in ordinary photos that reveal only conventions, where every event is balanced such that it might represent a stable and predictable moment in time as opposed to punctum that carries the sting, the punch, the sudden shock in one or other of its elements. Punctum can emerge not simply from the photo itself but from our knowledge about the photo, which may come after we have first viewed it.

Michael showed two family shots. He is sitting in the background, his then wife in the foreground in a wading pool. She is dressed in bathers and holds her 18 month old son. Their daughter, seemingly a couple of years older than her brother is also in the wading pool. She sits to one side and is smiling. A family photo that reflects Barthe’s interest in all things photographic, including the seemingly benign and predictable. Then Michael showed another photo in which his little boy’s disability is more visible.

Would we think it if we did not know? The little boy is stretched out in the second photo as if caught in an awkward shift of body. There is something in that shift that bespeaks some sort of bodily spasticity, some awkwardness of tone, but all of this punctum, we can surmise only on second sight.

Later during a tea break, Michael talked to me about his observation that women, many women in their fifties and sixties seem to be coming into their own. Their children have grown, their familial responsibilities begin to ease up and they can begin to find new interests, new ways of fulfilling their lives, lives perhaps to some extent that were held off during the years before. Men on the other hand, he observed, hit sixty and they go into a decline, both physical and emotional. They feel that their best years are behind them. Meanwhile the women are beginning to find theirs.

It’s a terrible generalisation, and I can think of many exceptions and yet it resonates with my own observations of many women, and particularly the women at the conference last week. All these women, intelligent, articulate and fired up to explore new ideas and consider their own identities in the light of these new ideas – educated and bright women, who are interested in the story of the story.

Someone asked, where are all the men? Why is it that women take an interest in life writing and many men not. Though at the IABA (International Autobiography and biography Association) conferences there is a much better balance, still many more women than men, and yet there is no shortage of men. Mind you, I notice many of the men are older, near and beyond so-called retirement (as if anyone needs to retire) and many of them are the early pioneers in auto/biographical theory. There are those like Philippe Lejeune who established the now controversial ‘autobiographical pact’ and my hero, despite his slightly ‘protestant’ flavour, Paul John Eakin, who writes so much about autobiography and identity formation.

There’s room for men in theory-making it seems, but less so in the business of personal storytelling. That’s where they turn to novel writing and fiction perhaps as a safer means of telling their stories.

Women perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, might feel safer in the realm of so called creative non-fiction and life writing. That’s not to say there are no fantastic women novelists, nor equally fantastic male life writers. I’m talking proportions here.

5 thoughts on “Women will be fly-by-nights”

  1. Love this post. I have been thinking a lot about women's stories of late and how often they are taken to task for being fictions. I have been looking at that bugbear of authenticity in autobiography but also how men seem to question women's stories. I am trying in my mind to accommodate 'alternative truths' within this seeming gender imbalance

  2. That's the rub isn't it.
    I hate getting into these gender polarizations, and yet they seem to apply when it comes to writing.
    A couple of years ago I counted the ratio of male contributors to the Best Essays for 2001 and 2003,here in Australia, the only two series that I have in hard copy.
    I am sad to say that in 2001 the ratio of female to male contributors stands at 14 to 48, not including Peter Craven's introduction, and the ratio for the 2003 edition stands at 9 to 43, also not including Peter Craven's introduction.
    Maybe men are better at writing essays than women but I doubt it.

  3. "Feminist perspective" – whatever happened to the word 'feminine'? Has feminism completely replaced it? Just a thought. It sometimes feels that way.

    On the subject of female authors, I have to say that I own far more books by male writers than female but then I own far more music by male composers and I actively look for work by women composers, they're just hard to find. It's something that bothers me. Who's to say who will be remembered in 100 years, Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates? It's hard to say. I'd put money on Jeanette Winterson myself who I have a lot of time for.

    I neither avoid female writers not consciously seek out males writers, I buy books based usually on some kind of merit – for a few years in my twenties I read nothing bar Nobel Prize winners and there are precious few women on that list – and women writers never really seemed to come into my line of vision.

    I probably read more women now that I used to but that's because I get sent free books by them. Although most of them have been quite good I have my doubts how many will show any real staying power. The problem now if that there are simply too many books appearing and even the greats must be having a hard time getting their books reprinted. I doubt quality has much to do with anything. Everything is so commercial these days.

  4. To the women you list here, Jim, I list others from the past, the Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf.
    Their names are as luminescent as those of their menfolk. But it's harder to find female names, needless to say.
    And I agree with you, there's such a glut of talent around these days, it's hard to rise above it.
    I am sure there are many bright stars who do not get to shine beyond their local firmament. Maybe that's enough.

  5. 'I am sad to say that in 2001 the ratio of female to male contributors stands at 14 to 48, not including Peter Craven's introduction, and the ratio for the 2003 edition stands at 9 to 43, also not including Peter Craven's introduction.
    Maybe men are better at writing essays than women but I doubt it.'

    And you're quite right to doubt it. Best Aust Essays 2004, ed Robert Dessaix: female to male ratio 11 to 19. 2005, again ed Robert Dessaix, the ratio is higher again: 3 to 4. And in the 2007 anthology, edited by Drusilla Modjeska, it's 4 to 5. Compare these to Craven's figures. It's not about women writing worse or fewer essays; it's about the tastes of critics and editors and the way those tastes were formed.

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