I hope you don’t mind a slightly musing-meandering post today, on a topic I’ve thought about quite a lot, but seems to fit with a week of thinking about Virago. I hope I’ve expressed myself properly, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One of the things that annoys me a little (other than not being certain whether I should have used ‘that’ or ‘which’ in this sentence) is when, at book group, someone says “Hmm, do you think this is just a book for women?” or “–just a book for men?” and then turns to me, quizzically. I am of the opinion that the ideas of ‘men’s books’ and ‘women’s books’ are mostly marketing tools, and pretty insulting to any individual reader whose subjective reading experience shouldn’t be boxed up like that. And, speaking personally, when I think of the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’, I don’t particularly identify myself with either of them. I’m simply me. Of course I am a man, but I don’t recognise myself in the portrait of men that is held up by those shoving war novels and football sticker books etc. in the corner marked ‘male reading’.
That’s one of the things that comes to light, reading Viragos and Persephones – which, of course, I love. Both describe themselves, to different degrees, as publishing books for women (although I do remember, in an early Persephone Quarterly, a little article about Persephone Men – we apparently made up, at that point, 10% of subscribers). The Women’s Press is even more open about it! Naturally I’m not complaining about this. Virago, especially, have done an astonishing and necessary job of bringing neglected writers and neglected novelistic topics to the fore. Rachel wrote brilliantly and movingly about this last week. I hope she won’t mind if I quote a couple of excerpts from it:
I have always been interested in women’s writing and history, but never to the extent I became interested in it at university. There I learned for the first time how women had been sidelined from literature and history; how they had been allowed to become an unspoken, unmentioned background figure, sewing in the parlour while the men were at war; scribbling away at trivial, unworthy of note novels about their limited domestic sphere; living unrecorded, undervalued, hidden lives, prevented from having a voice.
So thank goodness for Virago. Thank goodness that I can read something intelligent and witty and thought provoking by a woman, that isn’t a shallow, cliche ridden pastel coloured novel about sparkly rings and mini breaks. The women who invented Virago, and the authors that originated their list, believed that women deserved better than this, and I heartily agree. We are complex, conflicting, passionate, intelligent, political, ambitious individuals who cannot be distilled into one concrete definition or given one path to happiness.
My question is… where does this leave me? Please don’t read anything cross into that; those of you who know my blog probably won’t, I hope. I just always wonder, when I read about the incredible job that feminist presses have done, what sort of literary and social antecedents I can claim as my own. Of course, as a feminist myself I can get on board with the rediscoveries and re-evaluations being performed, and perhaps I can even put myself in a line of those who value the domestic and the topics which had long been erroneously considered inferior to tales of war and politics etc. (really, who could possibly want to read a novel about war over a novel about, say, a family preparing for a wedding? Each to their own, I suppose.) But, as a man, I seem to have only a legacy of the type of people who sidelined these novelists, and caused the problems which Virago and others helped in the direction of resolution. I have little empathy for monarchs and prime ministers (neither, however, exclusively male professions), and none for soldiers or leaders in war – I have sympathy, but not empathy. Where are the histories of quieter, homelier men? Where are narratives of male lives lived unassumingly and with great beauty? This, naturally, is not the fault of the publishing houses which unveiled the issue – nor is it their responsibility. But I do always muse, when wonderful posts like Rachel’s appear, quite what it is that I see when I look over my shoulder.