Will the Nobel to Munro put an end to the patronising of women writers?
In an interview to The Guardian after she won the Booker for The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton spoke about “the bullying” her work had faced from male reviewers, who seemed to consider her an interloper in the club of “big book” writers. “[They felt] that I have been so audacious to have taken up people’s time by writing a long book. There’s a sense in there of, ‘Who do you think you are?’... There’s a feeling of: ‘All right, we can tolerate [this] from a man over 50, but we are not going to be spoken to like that by you’”she said.
Who do you think you are is the kind of silent remonstrance that hovers in the lives of Alice Munro’s fictional characters, many of them women, a few of them women writers, as they attempt to stamp their will, desires and words on the randomness of life. It’s the incredulous scorn she herself met as a young woman in the 1960s for her ambition to be a writer — as if writing, and the claim to “author”-ity were forms of female impertinence.
One is not sure if the Nobel for Munro and the Booker for Catton can stanch an enduring prejudice. It surfaces ever so often, and not just in the idle chatter of a V.S. Naipaul (“Jane Austen, feminine tosh”) or, more recently, Bret Easton Ellis (“Munro is overrated. The Nobel is a joke.”) or a David Gilmour (“I do not teach female or Chinese authors... only serious heterosexual guys”). The last from a Canadian author who teaches modern short fiction but has not found any women authors from his country to admire, neither Munro, nor Carol Shields. Who do you think you are, indeed.
If a woman writes about the lives of ordinary people, the belittling adjective “domestic” latches on to her works, evoking visions of placid, well-scrubbed kitchens. If she produces a grand narrative, the literary establishment seems astonished at that feat. An institutional prejudice shows up in the skewed ratio of male to female authors