Literary Luminaries: Gender and the Avant-Garde Novelist – Part I

 Part I: Beards Vs. Vaginas

“WHY DON’T YOU have a beard?”

This was a question that a London taxi driver once posited to me. I’d just told him I was a novelist, and he eyed me with great suspicion, questioned my lack of facial hair and then concluded, with authority, “A Proper Author ought to be old, and look jaded, and have a beard.” I pointed out that Jane Austen and George Eliot had managed to pen fine prose despite having hair on their cunts rather than their chins; he merely looked confused. Having got out of the taxi and walked into the bookshop where was I due to give a reading, I evoked a similar response, though one expressed more sweetly.

The bookshop owners did a double-take, blinked, digested the mismatch between my prose and my persona and said, “Ah, we weren’t really expecting you to be a wom-… well, your book – it seems like the sort of thing a man normally writes.” Whilst I was offended by the lazy sexism of the taxi driver, the bookshop folk amused me; I had, after all, chopped my name down to the androgynous Sam in order to obscure my gender. But for much of 2012, as I promoted my novel, my appearance seemed to jolt people and was endlessly commented on. I didn’t face a repetition of the taxi driver’s sexism, but did find that whenever I told people that I was a writer, they immediately asked if I wrote romantic fiction. When I corrected them and explained that no, I’d written about Will Self and schizophrenia and a secret society that performed orgiastic rituals, they looked bemused. Fair enough –my list of literary ingredients was an odd one, but clearly this didn’t tally with their assumption that I should be taking up Barbara Cartland’s baton. I soon began to feel as though I was one of those mismatched book covers that fails to align to its inner content. I frowned at my reflection in the mirror as bodily dysmorphia crept over me: I had long hair (mainly due to not being able to afford to go to the hairdressers; keeping it long hid the raggedy mistakes of my own scissor-trimming), I dressed in fairly ordinary clothes, and I tended to smile rather than look scary. I wondered at times if people expected me to obey the cliché dress code for an Intellectual Female and sport shorn hair and black-framed spectacles. But why should I fit in with a stereotype? I don’t use my dress as a billboard for my writing. My trouble is that I don’t pay much attention to my appearance at all, since every time I intend to go to a clothes shop I inevitably end up being sidetracked by ones selling books, and the money I mean to spend on a pair of shoes to replace my falling-apart sandals ends up being spent on a new novel. Frequently, I was congratulated on having written a ‘masculine’ book, and it was clear that my ability to transcend my gender was seen as something to be lauded.

The idea that my natural medium ought to be romantic fiction doesn’t just stem from the cliché that women ought to be writing about love because love is their redemption or that women deal in emotions, men in ideas. I think it’s connected to the idea that I/a woman should be a mimetic rather than innovative writer. Barbara Cartland took a formula and made an even more plastic formula from it, so she was able to dictate her Boy Meets Girl tales from a couch and rattle each one off within a fortnight. They were really the literary equivalent of coloring in, whereby the novel’s outline is sketched out in clean shapes and all that was needed was slightly different shades of plot and characterization for each one. The idea that a woman’s natural domain is romantic fiction suggests that female writers should be playing it safe. Their prose should be seen and not heard; they should stick to a traditional literary role; moreover, they should obey the dictates of capitalism. Capitalism loves nothing more than telling women that they ought to love pink and take care of their appearance and focus on winning a man, because it makes it much easier to sell products if our gender is starkly defined and divided from men’s. Even when commercial women’s fiction evolved in the 1990s and moved on from romantic formula to fiction about modern women, it was soon pinned down and squeezed into the box offensively marked chick lit. The critics were determined to give the genre as narrow and safe a definition as possible – fiction about a young woman with a gay best friend who is desperately seeking The One who also diverts time on the way to meeting the One by buying Manolos and sipping Martinis and lamenting her annoying boss. That many of these authors were exploring wider issues, such as marriage and divorce, anorexia and date rape, was ignored, and also glossed over by their glossy covers, which also sought to homogenize the genre and again reinforce a sense of imitation, implying all authors within were just aping Helen Fielding and had nothing of their own to say. It is human nature that we allow our friends and lovers to be complex people but we caricature our enemies; in order to dislike something or someone they have to be narrowed into one-dimensionality. This is the basis of sexism, racism and all those hated-fuelled isms. Effectively, then, these female authors were reduced to caricatures. I am not going to use this essay to debate commercial women’s fiction and that dreaded term chick lit, however, because it has been debated so much elsewhere. My focus is literary fiction and how women writers are expected to behave (and write) within this arena.

On the battlefield of literature, it seems as though feminism is starting to win key territories. In the U.S., Alice Munro has recently been awarded the Nobel; Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for A Visit From the Goon Squad; Hilary Mantel has won the Booker twice for her historical Tudor series Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Last year Eleanor Catton stole the Booker Prize for The Luminaries, and how refreshing it was, to see an intelligent, young, attractive, blonde-haired woman proudly taking the statue after decades of success awarded to the usual grey-haired crusty middle-aged git. Ultimately, of course, a prize should be awarded to the best book – and whether the author of that book is an attractive blonde or a grey-haired man shouldn’t matter, and yet it did indeed feel that it had mattered over the last few decades, given how many female greats, such as Angela Carter, the prize overlooked.[1. Thirty-one years have now passed since Carter was a judge on the prize that ignored her.] As Catton said – “I feel very honored and proud to be living in a world where the facts of someone’s biography don’t affect how people read the book.”

And yet, how disappointing was the reaction of the press to Catton’s success. Online the next morning, it was next to impossible to find a full citation of her speech, but what was remarkable was the focus on her handbag. She’d chosen in her acceptance to discuss the relationship between money and art, referencing Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: “I am very aware of the pressures upon contemporary publishing to make money and to remain competitive in a competitive world, and I know that it is no small thing that my primary publishers…never once made these pressures known to me while I was writing this book.” (You can read the full text here.]

Her point about the creativity flourishing when it is unshackled from financial considerations couldn’t have been more relevant and topical in current age. The newspapers could still have compressed her points into a soundbite. Instead we got Catton’s handbag. She made one throwaway remark about how her novel had been so large that she had been forced to buy a bigger handbag. Imagine if a male author had written a hefty book and made a similar comment about needing a bigger rucksack. I can’t see that it would have been picked up on at all. But for Catton, it frequently became the headline. The BBC’s story cited two men, a Booker judge and a bookseller, both quoted at length. These are intelligent men who deserve to be quoted – yet the article became a piece where the men did the talking and Catton’s handbag line was reported as her main quote.

The interview coverage for her was also dismaying. The Telegraph implied that she was slightly ditzy for exploring astrology in The Luminaries, even though elsewhere Catton had explained that it was an intellectual conceit which gave structure to her novel, “akin to a structure a composer might work within,” expressing her fascination with the book Godel Escher Bach, which explores patterns and systems in the work of the mathematician, artist and composer. In The Times, the interviewer described her blonde hair, her pretty Glee-like nerdiness and summed up with: “She’s a chick, but nobody could mistake her work for any kind of chick lit.” Imagine an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan where the author penned a line saying that, despite their gender, they had managed to transcend the usual material found in a lad lit novel. Only a few papers such The Guardian really gave her due credit, allowing Catton to make the point: ”I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.” Interestingly, her novel was repeatedly described as a historical novel when it could just as easily have been described as an experimental novel, given its unique form/structure; Stuart Kelly, one of the Booker judges, observed that Catton won because of her ability to “make the novel think in a way that the novel doesn’t do normally,” concluding, “The prize went to the true avant-gardist. No novel has been like this before.” I am not implying that a historical novel is a lesser genre by any means, but that the experimental novel is more often seen as the preserve of male authors. After all, compare Catton’s portrayal to that of Tom McCarthy, also shortlisted for the Booker for C, an experimental novel which was set in England at the turn of the century. C was never simplified to the status of a historical novel. The press were perfectly happy to refer to him as avant-garde, in contrast to their curious reluctance to attribute this epithet to Catton.


The very term avant-garde is a military one, derived from the French for vanguard, suggesting masculine power and might in marching forward to smash the conventional boundaries of fiction. Consider how often critics use the expression this author has mapped out a territory all of their own when praising a novelist they admire. The attitude still permeates, however, that men ought to be out there fighting with their prose whilst women stay at home and stick to the domestic. A few years ago, I went into a branch of one of the biggest bookshops in London to discover a wonderful treasure: an entire floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with many of my favorite books. The sign next to it said CULT FICTION. It included Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. There was Tao Lin, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, Gaiman’s American Gods, Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, Junky by Burroughs, The House of Leaves by Mark Z.Danielewski, Crash by J.G.Ballard, Cock & Bull by Will Self, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Calvino and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder… and not a single female author. I found myself wondering what female novelists I’d expect to be there anyway. I couldn’t think of many who fit into the cult category. Where was the avant-garde equivalent of Laurence Stern or the equivalent of William Burroughs,’ druggy, cut-up prose? Where was B.S. Johnson’s feminine mirror? Nearby was a table piled with novels by female writers, sporting covers bright as washing-powder ads. I had a suspicion there probably was a Burroughs lurking in there somewhere, beneath a pink cover with a daisy on it.

As I began to mull over this, I realized that there did exist many a female Sterne and Johnson. There were the obvious big name examples, such as Angela Carter, Nicola Barker, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Deborah Levy, Lynne Tillman, Lydia Davis, Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, all of whom have launched successful military campaigns against the traditional form of the short story or novel. There were the numerous female novelists in the past who were considered ‘cult’ in their day and ought now to be in print as ‘classics.’ There was Ann Quinn, who wrote the haunting avant-garde novel Berg, and was one of B.S. Johnson’s set (though whilst he was remembered for cult classics such as Bartleby or Christie Malry’s Own Double- Entry, she remains largely forgotten). There was Bridget Brophy, who penned the playful metafictional In Transit, as well Hackenfeller’s Ape, centering on the relationship between an ape at London Zoo and a professor observing its mating rituals. There was Kathy Acker’s wild and searing Blood and Guts in High School about the nymphomaniac Janey Smith who is incestuously in love with her father and is sold into sex slavery. There was Anna Kavan, who penned the eerie, dreamlike, slipstream novel Ice, had a heroin habit that lasted for 40 years, and was much admired by J.G.Ballard. And Rachel Ingalls, whose wondrous novel Mrs. Caliban – a book about a housewife who has an affair with a six-foot seven amphibian – was one of the most delightful, surreal, touching and imaginative novels I’ve read in a long time. But, bar the big names, not many of these books are all that easy to obtain. Few are stocked in shops, and many are sold on Amazon in the second-hand store for a premium price by some canny seller who has found a copy in a charity shop and is now gleefully able to charge £50 knowing some fool like me will pay for it.

Even in recent times, it is hard to name many cult fiction female authors. I realize that I am seeking an oxymoron here, for the very word cult implies a rarity. But over the last decade, they are still too rare. Some examples include The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas; Eat Your Heart Out, by Zoe Pilger; Fractals by Joanna Walsh. One of the UK’s most famous cult publishers, Rebel Inc. (which was founded with the slogan “Fuck the Mainstream!” and were one of the first to publish Irvine Welsh) published a series of Rebel Inc Classics. It was a list that became iconic, rediscovering lost cult authors such as John Fante, championing more recent ones such as Richard Brautigan, and bringing them to a wider readership. The series of 45 books were all by men.


There are two paths for the novel, Zadie Smith argued in her 2008 literary essay for the New York Review of Books. To boil this down to a succinct summing-up: on the one hand, there is the traditional style of lyrical realism (think Bellow, Updike, Joseph O’Neil); on the other, the avant-garde, the experimental, the postmodern (David Foster Wallace, Tom McCarthy). Yet it could be argued that at present female novelists are still celebrated for the former, whereas those in the other camp are rarer and treated with wariness and suspicion. And this begets the interesting paradox that concerns our most edgy and innovative female authors. In 1991 the Women’s Fiction Prize (formerly the Orange Prize, now the Baileys Prize) was set up when that same year the Booker ran an all-male shortlist. Every year since there is a debate about whether it should continue to exist and whether men ought to have a prize for themselves. I definitely think it should continue, for it has introduced me to some superb female authors: Anne Michaels, Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The 2005 winner was a particularly interesting one: Lionel Shriver’s controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin, published by small indie Serpent’s Tail. I remember feeling excited that the prize was heading in a new direction, seeking out female authors who weren’t afraid to explore transgressive, darker, edgier subject matter. But somehow that didn’t happen. In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years. Ironically, the Booker Prize, that old bastion of apparent chauvinism, has done more to highlight innovative female authors.

Take Nicola Barker. She is one of the most famous female writers in the UK. Her books are gloriously eccentric; she has been compared to Chaucer; The Financial Times reviewed her latest novel as “a state of the nation novel of the sort Dickens and Hogarth might have jointly conjured up had they ever visited Luton.” She has won the IMPAC, she has won the David Higham Fiction Prize, she has won the John Llewellyn Rhys, she has won the Hawthornden, and yet she has never made it onto a Women’s Fiction shortlist. It was the Booker shortlising of her epic Darkmans that brought her to prominence over here. And interestingly, early on in her career, when Barker was interviewed by the Guardian, the reporter noted: “She is frustrated at the expectation that she should be what she dismissively calls ‘a girl writer.’ ‘It’s something I never wanted to be. Girl writers don’t get taken seriously. I don’t take them seriously. I am a boyish writer.’”

This sort of hermaphroditic declaration is common across the arts, where women are still fighting their ground; consider Nikki Minaj’s declaration, “I’ve got bigger balls than the men.” It calls to mind Queen Elizabeth I reassuring her troops that, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” It’s also disconcerting that even in this day and age women have to reject any accusations of femininity, adopt male names, and declare surrogate penises (as though semen is a quintessential chemical for sparking good prose) in order to assert themselves as serious artists.

In 2012, a novel was published in the UK and the US called Lightning Rods by Helen Dewitt (who previously penned The Last Samurai). The book was a hilarious and brilliant piece of satire on American corporate culture, self-help bibles and the ruthless, icy logic of capitalism. The novel centers on Joe, a failed salesman.

“All I want to do is be a success,” he says to himself. His brainwave comes when he decides to weed out sexual harassment in the workplace by offering workers a chance to go into a toilet and have sex with the bottom half of a semi-concealed woman. It attracted some rave reviews – ”A masterclass in contained satirical exploration,” said the Times Literary Supplement. “The most well-executed literary sex comedy of our time,” declared Salon. It also confused some readers. A quick skim of Goodreads’ reviews shows a good number of five stars, but also quite a few one-star-ratings, and each of those cites the same complaint – it’s hard to believe that it was written by a woman….everything you don’t want to see in a contemporary novel, by a woman, no less….These criticisms come from women, incidentally, and they no doubt stem from the fact that the readers didn’t realize that the book was satire. Satire is, after all, very much seen as a male tradition, grandfathered by Aristophanes, perpetuated by Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Orwell, Ballard right up to our modern-day South Park writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

When I penned The Quiddity of Will Self, I wrote about obsession, about characters who were so enamoured with the author that they formed a society that worshipped him with religious rites; the book also contained satire on religious beliefs and the literary world. It took detachment to write about obsession, and though I enjoyed mostly good reviews, I also found that a number of people (usually those who hadn’t read the novel) assumed that the novel was a gushing collection of my sexual fantasies about Self, or that I was some kind of over-emotional stalker. When my publishers released the novel, they described it as “the literary equivalent of Being John Malkovich, with Will Self as the object of fascination.” But when Charlie Kaufman penned his cult film, nobody accused him of having a gay crush on Malkovich, despite the scenes in the film that included characters slipping into his psyche and then having sex with other characters. People love to associate female fandom with hysteria. That women might write a novel as a cerebral exercise is puzzling for some; and therefore what is written as satire is all too easily interpreted as sincerity. A woman might write with her head, but it is assumed the words have flowed from her heart.

Lightning Rods should have been a serious contender for the Women’s Fiction Prize. And then there was Jenni Fagan’s The Panoptican, also celebrated by other awards and overlooked by the Women’s Prize, another gritty, edgy read which had the author hailed as a female successor to Irvine Welsh. There is a sense that women writing on the edges will stay on the edges, that the Women’s Fiction Prize won’t necessarily draw them into the mainstream and put a spotlight on them.


It was a beautiful evening in London, one of those rarities when the summer answers hope and produces blue skies and birdsong and keeps the clouds tucked away. I was attending a party hosted by a publishing house. I didn’t know anyone at the party, and I felt quite shy about approaching a stranger. Finally I spotted a familiar face, a male member of the publishers’ sales team. As we chatted, he told me that the publishers had recently decided to hire a new female editor; he cheerfully explained that, “She’ll be taking care of the more commercial, accessible literary fiction, more paperbacks, that kind of thing.” I couldn’t help feeling depressed by his words. The subtext was clear: the hardbacks were for the men and their Big Serious books.

Where the Women’s Fiction Prize has been wonderful, however, is in its consistent celebration of female writers writing books on a larger canvas. It has shown that women can be just as brave and brilliant at tackling the weighty subjects or The Big American Novel, awarding the prize in 2013 to A.M. Homes for We May Be Forgiven. This year Rachel Kushner was also long-listed for The Flamethrowers. In Salon she was dubbed by Laura Miller as the novelist “who scares male critics … When Rachel Kushner – not a venerable male auteur – writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers are flummoxed.”

Elissa Schappell, contributing editor at Vanity Fair [2. And a fellow Weeklings contributor], is also irked that some reviewers were surprised that Kushner could write from a male viewpoint. When I interviewed her on this matter, she explained: It’s expected that a man has the skill (as well as the permission) to write from either gender’s point of view. Whereas women by virtue of their gender are by some considered simply not up to the task to imagining how a male might see the world. Which is ironic given that females give birth to males and raise males, and are scientifically proven to be more empathetic and emotionally intelligent than males. Not only that school curriculums are heavily loaded with literature written by men, so women grow up with the voices of men their heads–we have inhabited the world of Moby-Dick, we’ve seen society through Nick Carraway’s eyes, we have prowled dark alleys with Sam Spade.”

I’ve raised issues here concerning literary personas, and Wednesday I’ll explore them in more depth. Part II of my essay will cover why the public secretly wants authors to be politicians and the death of the death of the author and just what that means for how gendered our reading expectations have become…

Eleanor Catton, the youngest novelist to ever win the Man Booker Prize.

Eleanor Catton, the youngest novelist to ever win the Man Booker Prize.

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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4 Responses to Literary Luminaries: Gender and the Avant-Garde Novelist – Part I

  1. Pingback: In the Media: 14th September 2014 | The Writes of Woman

  2. Jonathan Ruppin says:

    As the bookseller mentioned above who was quoted more by the BBC than Eleanor Catton herself, I certainly agree. Catton should have been properly celebrated for her writing – she’s a genius. The one thing I would say in the BBC’s defence is that I have rather more experience than Eleanor in coming up with quotes that I know media organisations will use: it takes a bit of practice and Eleanor’s beautifully honed acceptance speech was not, in any case, designed to be chopped up into soundbites. But Sam’s point about the imbalance still stands.

    With regard to the Women’s Prize and the omission of authors like Helen Dewitt and Jenny Fagan, I think – especially with Baileys taking over sponsorship – that we have to concede that the award is aimed more at the mass market than some tohers. It’s more Costa than Booker, and this year that is shown by the fact that only one of five judges has books as a central part of their job: inaugural winner Helen Dunmore is joined by two rights activists and two journalists. Next week’s shortlist will be very telling.

  3. Thank you for this interesting work which highlights sexism inherent in establishing categories. I’m interested to read about the women writers here. I have to admit that I read your work because it had Will Self’s name in it and I enjoyed his standing essays on Radio 4 for a while until I got sick of the sound of his voice and wrote an essay of my own instead, which you can read on my blog if you’re interested. It’s called On Beauty.

    Reading your work gave me hope for my own strange book published in 2012, also; Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn. I thought it might be a similar genre. Breakout of Theory or something. Breakout even… Chic Lit and pink. No. What is wrong with attempting a new genre? Out with the old. Jung said it was all up to women. Men should get jobs as cleaners and leave the writing to women. I don’t mean that because I’ve enjoyed too many books by men. I’d just like to be heard by women because men tell me they like my writing.

  4. Hermione Laake says:

    I wanted to add that I read your work as satire, of course. Mine is satire too, but you can’t state that; it spoils the fun.

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