Literary Luminaries: Beards, Vaginas and the Avant-Garde Novelist – Part II

Part II: ReadWomen

IN THE FIRST PART of this essay on Monday, I took a look at the way in which cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination. The same issue lies with women who are writing Big Books on a large canvas. Many of these problems arise from the death of the death of the author. Sadly, the argument of Roland Barthes’ famous essay where he declared that a text should be separated from its author and interpreted without any reference to that author’s identity, political views, biography and so on, has been subsumed by the current promotional circus accompanying each new debut novelist and the pressure on us to tweet, to Facebook, to blog, to read, to go on the radio, to tweet, to Facebook, etc etc etc. Within the pages of my own novel, The Quiddity of Will Self, a character laments the rise of the Literary Celebrity:

In days of old, writers were recluses. Anonymous ghosts that hovered behind their prose. Sometimes they would rattle their chains to remind us of their presence. Nineteenth century writers often addressed their readers directly ­– Reader, I married him. Or they favoured intrusive omniscient narrators, lest we forget that the characters we were bonding with were the children of their imagination. In contemporary fiction, addressing the reader is considered a stylistic sin; it has become redundant now that readers can be addressed in book tours. Now our words are merely clothes and without the author the clothes lie flat, as though on a mannequin. Our prose requires flesh and blood, a face to show at Hay and Cheltenham, hands to shake and sign books.

Our love of the literary festival and hearing authors present their Opinions about a Topic springs from the two things. Firstly, philosophy has gone out of fashion and self-help, its shallow, pop art replacement, is unsatisfying for any serious thinker. Secondly, we have fallen out of love with politicians. They are no longer worth listening to about the great issues of the day, and their slick speech, shaped by the big corporations that sponsor them, leaves us yawning and empty. Effectively, we want authors to occupy a role somewhere between politician and philosopher, to offer life wisdom, to weigh up ethical questions, to widen our insights into what it is to be human. There is a paradoxical element to this desire; though we thirst for authenticity, we also desire outer sheen, authors with polished personas, who are articulate and persuasive to listen to, who are easy on the eye. This is also disconcerting for female authors, because women aren’t doing that well in politics; the US has yet to elect a female President and Margaret Thatcher has been an anomaly on the British political landscape. Take a look at a picture of Jonathan Franzen: he looks like he could run for President. His expression exudes intelligence and authority. Franzen himself, frustrated that Alice Munro’s readership is not as big as it should be, noted that her amicable persona is a problem: “Her jacket photos show her smile pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.” Ladies, remember to scowl Franzen-like on your author photos and dress sternly. Zadie Smith also comments on the way women dress for seriousness (or the appearance of it) in a recent interview, “I notice when women go to teach at university, they dress very severely. You have to bring something added to establish your credentials; whereas any old guy can walk into a classroom, particularly if he has a beard, and people will assume genius.” And we’re back to the beard again, that signifier of seriousness and credibility.

In her novel How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti makes the witty observation, One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t had too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There’s no ideal for how my mind should be…”

Historically, of course, we have tended to regard female geniuses as mad. This is our procedure for becoming comfortable with female intellectuals. Recently I researched famous eccentrics for a novel set in 1850[1. It would be funny if this ended up being my popular breakout book, because it could be easily classified as historical fiction rather than an avant-garde novel.]. The Victorians loved their eccentrics, making quirkiness highly fashionable during this era, but all the examples I found were men, mostly aristocrats, like Oscar Wilde, who dandied about with a lobster on a leash, or Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, who kept a pet giraffe with whom he dined for afternoon tea. No doubt women would have been nervous to show any eccentric traits because for them it would have entailed the asylum. In our present times, a quirky male might be seen as eccentric, whilst a woman will be dotty or ditzy. Full blown madness, however, is something that enables us to accept intelligence in a woman. Look at the character of Carrie Mathison in Homeland, which has been cited by other leading Hollywood actresses as the best female role around. Carrie is a CIA agent. She’s the smartest character in the show. She is perceptive, intuitive, and like the Greek Cassandra, is doomed to see what others cannot. She also suffers from bipolar disorder and has a meltdown when she stops taking her meds. I love Homeland and I love Carrie, and, at least, it’s a huge step forward from another Carrie, the one on Sex and the City with its implications that shoes and shopping and fucking and weddings are the chief preoccupations of a female audience. But it is sad that even in this day and age, genius in a female character is seen an anomaly; a disability, even. A woman who has a high I.Q. must carry its weight like the stones that Woolf filled her pockets with as she waded into the River Ouse to commit suicide. And this is the image of Woolf we tend to treasure and focus on, Woolf as a tragic character, rather than the Woolf who had an impish sense of humor, who enjoyed practical jokes, such as the time she and the Bloomsbury set donned beards and costumes to disguise themselves as Abyssinian princes and gained access to the pride of the British naval fleet as a hoax.

We love dead authors for their personas as much as their prose, in part because it enables us to shape their ghosts out of our own imaginative ectoplasm. Yet whilst we are enchanted by the idea of feminine madness as a way of accepting female intelligence, we are more wary of female addiction. Why are we drawn to the idea of the Beat writers, why so fascinated by Hunter S. Thompson’s bad-boy drug-taking? They appeal because they were transgressive in both their prose and in real life. Yet female transgression doesn’t seem to excite us in the same way; we imagine Burroughs positioning an apple on his wife’s head with enthralled fascination, yet we rarely picture Anna Kavan sitting in her apartment surrounded by vial upon vial of heroin (apparently by the time she died there was enough in her flat to kill an entire street). Olivia Laing, the journalist and author of The Trip to the Echo Spring (a book which explores alcoholism in writers), has this insight: “I think the problem lies more with the establishment, and establishment ideas of what women are, and what they should and shouldn’t do. So the drinking of Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras is much more threatening and subversive and dangerous, and is seen as a failing, in a way that Hemingway’s never, or very rarely, is. A good quote on the ironies of this, from Duras: ‘When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature.’” 

However, that gulf between persona and prose is a troublesome one for any author, male or female. This I realized when I attended a recording of the BBC World Service seven years ago, as part of a series of author interviews that focused on iconic texts. The choice was Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ supreme First World War novel. As I sat there, listening to Faulks, I couldn’t help envying him. He was articulate, tall, handsome and possessed not only an expression of shrewd intelligence but a splendid gingery beard. The taxi driver’s comment drifted through my mind once again, and I was gripped by beard envy. I thought to myself: I bet he must feel so comfortable in that body. Everyone he meets must take him so seriously immediately. He can’t have any problems promoting his work. Just as I had that thought, Faulks revealed that he was finding his publicity troublesome because of the gap between his prose and persona. He talked about this later in an interview with The Observer: “When I toured the country doing readings after Birdsong most people could not conceal their disappointment. They expected me to be 105 years old, French, and in some weird way, female.” He concluded: “I was reminded how hard most readers find it to grasp the concept of fiction. They assume that everything in a novel is based on your personal experience lightly, or not at all, rewritten.” I sat up, jolted, surprised and rather relieved. I came to the conclusion that the current pressure on authors to publicize their work results in what Will Self has termed body dysmorphia, for Self himself has said that he feels like a young, nervous woman trapped in the body of a middle-aged male. Self also cites Cocteau in saying that all writers are hermaphroditic because they’re engaged in acts of parthenogenesis. I think Cocteau and Self are both right.

The very act of writing transcends gender. I love writing because I escape myself, my body, my gender, whether or not I have a beard. I write in cafés, and each time I will stare down at my empty notebook and chew my pen, my diurnal worries throbbing like splinters in my mind – I don’t have enough money to buy this coffee, how am I going to pay my rent next month, is anyone going to want to publish this anyway, why can’t I write something more ‘normal’ instead of all the crazy stuff that floods out of my pen? Then I’ll put pen to page, the worries quietening as I enter another world and experience, a sense of stillness, a pleasurable detachment. My pen scrawls and I witness a flow of words. It’s a rarefied state, usually followed by the much less rarefied and rather more painful and self-conscious act of editing. But the initial act of writing can feel both highly individual and idiosyncratic and, simultaneously, impersonal and universal. In an interview with The Guardian, novelist Taiye Selasi described how she sometimes rereads her own novel, “And I think to myself: I don’t know even know this. Genuinely, if I, Taiye, knew everything Ghana Must Go knows collectively, I would not suffer heartbreak, I would not suffer any of the petty human woes that I continue to suffer on a regular basis.”

Writing might, in fact, express parts of an author’s personality that they are unable to translate into real life. In real life, I am shy; in my writing, I am authoritative. In real life, I am afraid to offend; when I write I couldn’t give a fuck. In real life, I am cautious; in my writing, I am bold. In real life I am forced to be sensible, because I care for someone who is mentally ill; in my writing my eccentricities can find expression/zing. Therefore, my outer persona has little to do with my prose. This is the glory of writing – the chance to be free of the many little boundaries that are imposed on us by society and our responsibilities and etiquette and demands of everyday life. Most of all, it gives us a chance to be free from gender. Take a look at these words, by Rebecca Miller, as interviewed by Elissa Schappell for Vanity Fair: “One of the beautiful things about being a writer is you can unhitch yourself from so many things. In this book I lost my gender; I lost my guilt. I became a joyfully amoral person for a couple of years. Which is very unlike my real life. That is what is so amazing to me.


The issues I’ve raised in this essay can’t be said to be part of a male conspiracy. The terrible covers that female novelists have to suffer are often slapped on there by women who then sell them to women in large numbers. Perhaps the fight we face is one not against misogyny in the end, but the damage wrought by capitalism over the last decade. The fourth wave of feminism has in part been fuelled by the fact that the last wave seemed to wilt during the boom era. A capitalist society has a vested interest in encouraging a Mars/Venus approach, where women are brought up to feel their looks speak with a louder voice than their words, that their happiness lies in finding Mr. Right (or Mr. Grey), that they are emotional creatures who are great at multi-tasking but can’t deal in philosophical ideas. It becomes easy to sell such women beauty products, clothes, shoes, chick flicks and books with pink covers. Women have to shake off this kind of conditioning, both as readers and writers, as much as we need men to pay female novelists more love and respect. And I myself have been as guilty of this as any woman. I used to believe that I preferred male authors to women because I found Will Self and Martin Amis and other male greats at the front of bookshops and came to the wrong conclusion that female fiction wasn’t to my taste; it was only when I discovered Rachel Ingalls, Ali Smith and Anna Kavan that I realized how wrong I’d been.

Hence, one of the most exciting campaigns of 2014 has been the ReadWomen campaign. If you are on Twitter, you have probably seen the #ReadWomen hashtag popping up all over the place. This was set up Joanna Walsh, a British novelist, who penned the avant-garde short story collection Fractals. As Walsh explained in a piece written for berfrois :

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, and confirmed by VIDA, that, though women read more books than men, and female authors are published in comparable numbers, they are more easily overlooked: a smaller presence in literary journals both as reviewers, and the reviewed, they also account for fewer literary translations. It’s not whether women are published (because they are) but how they are published. I’ve heard female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing’s not, when reviews, even press-releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “playful” when it is experimental, “delightful” when it is satirical, “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim (none of these examples is made up).

But if we do celebrate female literature this year, I hope we won’t expect it to be too polite or play by the rules. We are still fighting the battle for female novelists to be taken seriously, and we have only won credibility and acceptance in certain literary niches and genres. There remains much territory that is still in the process of being conquered: the big novel, the highbrow, the cerebral, and the cult novel. We need to feel that our prose can be admired even if it is unaccompanied by a beard.

Joanna Walsh. #ReadWomen.

Joanna Walsh. #ReadWomen.

About Sam Mills

SAM MILLS was born in 1975. After graduating from Oxford University with a BA in English, Sam worked briefly as a chess journalist and publicist before becoming a full-time writer. Sam has contributed short stories to literary magazines and websites such as Tomazi and 3am and written articles for the Guardian and The Independent. One of the founding members of the Will Self Club (WSC), Sam Mills was recently elevated to the position of Sovereign Grand Quiddity Inspector General, the most powerful position in the Selfian hierarchy: link.
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One Response to Literary Luminaries: Beards, Vaginas and the Avant-Garde Novelist – Part II

  1. rodriguez24 says:

    “It’s a rarefied state, usually followed by the much less rarefied and rather more painful and self-conscious act of editing”
    I don’t agree:

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