Thursday, 28 January 2010

Stroke Signals

Immobilized, she tries to move her arms, her legs, her toes. But the messages sent from the synapses in her brain to her body are jumbled; somewhere the current is broken. Her eyes, at least, retain their motion, and flash around the kitchen in search of a phone, or a stool to pull herself up with. In the prismatic claws of paralysis, however, such an object’s functionality would be rendered useless, an ironic taunt to her physical state. Air hisses out though her clenched teeth and though she attempts to call for help, her words transpose into the nonsensical vowel sounds of a baby and are not her own.

Matthew’s words pierce through her ensuing panic. Living alone is not a viable option for someone of her age now. There are risks that became dangers if ignored. True to her stubborn nature, she dismissed the idea without due consideration. “People go into those places to wait to die.” She had told him, “I’m sorry darling but I wont do that to myself. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fit as a fiddle.” Now, with the curse of hindsight, it seems age is the only battle she was doomed to lose.

Her thoughts whirl as if caught in a maelstrom. She had had no chest pains, no tingling down her arms. But if not a heart attack, what else? An explosion in her brain, like a firecracker lighting the sky, was her only indicator, and in the grips of panic she couldn’t decipher its meaning. Skimbleshanks, her gargantuan ginger cat strutted into the kitchen and jumped on to the worktop. Her eyes follow his movements as the cat sniffs at the jug of milk and then bats it with a fat paw. A waterfall of white gushes over the counter drips on her face with metronomic rhythm. She closes her eyes and in her mind she began to scream.

On Writing

For a long time I prescribed to the notion that you’re not a writer unless you write every day. You need to find the time and space to write, even if that means getting up an hour earlier than you would normally, just so you can sit at your desk and let the ethereal words ‘flow through you’. And I tried. I really did try. But after a while I realised that many of the words I’d forced myself to write were tosh. They were not up to the standard and calibre that I knew I was capable of achieving. I was writing for the sake of it, to keep the demons at bay, rather than to represent my particular way of seeing. It was arts for arts sake, and inevitably it was unsustainable.

When I look back to the things I have written recently, the pieces that have weight, meaning and worth, they have all been stories that have come naturally to me. Pieces which I have had the smallest inkling of an idea for, and have invariably ‘written themselves’. I used to hate it when a writer would talk about how pieces write themselves, as if the act of writing is effortless and we are just the conduit for a higher power. However, I can now see there is some element of truth in that mantra. The good stories I write have all developed from the tiniest seed of an idea, which has grown into something much larger as I write it. For me, writing is a very natural and intuitive process, and I find forced creativity doesn’t produce the work that I am proud of. Work that rings with an element of self and truth. Therefore I’m trying to learn to keep my demons at bay, and be comfortable with myself as a writer, by understanding which ideas are the sparks that will grow into something bigger. I don’t want to simply write for the sake of writing, I want to produce worthwhile work. However I also recognise that I need to be better at not feeling bad when I have no such project or story on the go, for one will inevitably present itself. Well, that’s the hope at least.

At the moment, as I have no driving project propelling me forward, I have taken to editing snippets of free writing pieces I have done in the past, in the hope of creating a collection of complete pieces. In this way I hope to clear my head of the old, half finished ideas and spiritually make way for the new. Some of them may not be great, but I’d rather get them up to a certain level and then leave them, than have a mind full of muddled, segmented stories. That’s the theory anyway.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Reviewing the Reviews

In 2008 for my Creative Writing dissertation, I conducted a 6-month case study on the female author’s place in the book review pages. Now, spurred on by a recent article in this issue of Mslexia magazine, I have decided to revisit my findings, baring in mind their recent research.

In the past, many female writers have been forced to adopt male pseudonyms in order to have their work taken seriously by the literary establishment and receive a ‘fair’ book review. With the rise of first, second and third-wave feminism, women writers have now come a long way from the constraints forced upon the 19th century female novelists such as George Eliot. But, can it now be said that women writers have finally managed to penetrate the glass ceiling and reach a state of equality within today’s literary world? And if not, what does this reveal about both the current attitudes towards female authors and publishing and reading trends in today’s market?

With the current market flooded with new and established writers, book reviews are one of the few methods available that identifies a book of significance to readers. And of all the different types of reviews, the newspaper book pages are regarded as the most influential in terms of sales as they reach the widest audience. It is therefore crucial that writers are treated without prejudice within these pages and receive a fair book review. Admittedly a review does not necessarily have to be a favourable one to be recognised fair, though ideally, it should be honest, constructive and free from discrimination.

There has been a lot of interesting research on women’s place in the book review pages over the years. In 1985 the group Women In Publishing completed an extensive study into this subject and found that the broadsheets, including the Times, the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday, were not only the most discriminative against women regarding the length of reviews, but they also showed a clear preference towards the male author. WIP also discovered that although women write and read more fiction than men, female authors actually received far fewer book reviews than male authors. For example, in 1985 the book pages of the Guardian, a newspaper that has always claimed to promote true journalistic standards of objectivity, reviewed on average only 19.54 per cent of women’s writing, compared to 75.86 per cent of fiction written by men.

However, WIP’s research was conducted over twenty years ago. So, what can now be said of more recent findings on women writers in our modern literary world? In 1999 writer Debbie Taylor founded a woman’s writing magazine called ‘Mslexia’, which focuses on practical and creative issues connected to women and writing. In an article written for the first issue entitled ‘Three Cures for Mslexia’ Taylor documents extensive research, which identified the modern female writer’s position in the literary market. Taylor discovered that in Autumn 1998 women writers received 32 per cent of the book reviews printed, whereas male writers received a much higher proportion of 68 per cent.

My own research, focusing solely on The Guardian’s book pages, revealed that in the Spring and Summer of 2007 male authors received approximately 64.3 per cent of the reviews printed, with women just receiving 35.7 per cent. Compared with Mslexia’s findings in the last ten years, the female author’s place in the review pages has only improved by approximately 3 per cent. Could this preference towards male authors in the newspaper review sections merely reflect a world in which women publish fewer books, or does it point to a pervasive, unconscious sexism in how these books are chosen for review or even how they are marketed and classified into genres?

Ironically, research suggests that women still write, read and indeed borrow significantly more fiction than men: the current statistic widely quoted by booksellers is that 60 per cent of all novels published are written by women. The discrepancy between how much work is published by women, and how much is actually reviewed may stem from the subjects that women typically write about. Men and women have different reading and writing preferences and women’s writing is often typecast under the headings of ‘chick–lit’, ‘mum–lit’ or the ‘domestic’ novel. Perhaps it’s because men’s genre writing is broken down into crime/adventure/S.A.S – it’s not called ‘men’s writing’ yet, and genre writing for women is called: ‘women’s writing’. But by categorizing different novels under the same headings, women’s writing does not receive as much (if any) coverage in the press as male orientated genres such as crime fiction. The domestic experiences are often perceived as pertaining only to women, whereas the experiences of men are supposedly universal. While, admittedly, many women do write ‘chick–lit’ and popular fiction, there is a sense that many novels written by women who challenge set stereotypes are often misunderstood or misclassified.

But by not reviewing women’s writing as much as men’s, the literary establishment could be construed as signifying that the experiences of women are not as valid or important as men’s experiences. For if women’s writing is defined as inferior, then women’s experiences are automatically denigrated as well. A discrimination against women’s writing in the literary industry may not even be a conscious one, however it is still as damaging if women’s experiences are simply not seen, and particularly when women’s work is not represented adequately in the book review pages. Literary editors may claim that their book pages reflect the tastes and demands of society, but by producing book pages that are biased against women, whether consciously or unconsciously, the literary establishment is simply perpetuating existing prejudices and subtly shaping people’s perceptions of reality. The problem may fundamentally lie in the way that women’s work is marketed, however, literary editors are in a unique position of responsibility to deal with the world of ideas, and are best placed to influence changes in attitudes.

What can we, as readers, do to combat this problem? Interestingly, in our technology rich age, there are many other mediums readily available for us to review books that we have recently read. As Jane Mackenzie points out in Myslexia, the literary pages are not the only door into the realm of books and ideas. There are thousands of book groups, review sites and discussion groups taking place now, and the more women try their hand at reviewing, the more chance we have of resetting the balance in the book reviewing world. There remains a great need for the promotion of women’s writing, an awareness and awakening of consciousness for us all to set the numbers straight.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

This week, I have been mostly reading: Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Beginning with the tragic death of an unknown man in a ballooning accident, Enduring Love captures the spiralling events which proceed this, following Joe as he is led astray from his love, Clarissa, by a mentally deranged stalker Parry. In response to Parry’s unwelcome love towards him, Joe becomes obsessed with his antagonist and is increasingly incensed as the people around his fail to recognise the deep threat that Parry poses to his life. Enduring love explores how tragedy can connect, us, shape us and change our lives irrevocably. McEwan’s prose is thought provoking, involving and intelligent, with metafictional reference to the nature of narrative and how we understand and interpret the world around us; defiantly one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

Now…what to read next?