Every year since 1996, one of the most heralded of awards for women writing in English is announced annually. The prize formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Orange Broadband Prize, and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, has – since 2018 – been anonymously supported by a “family” of sponsors, and known simply as the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And the 2021 winner is Susanna Clarke, with her second novel Piranesi.
Clarke’s latest book was described by this year’s chair of judges and former Booker winner, Bernardine Evaristo, as a book that “would have a lasting impact”. It comes 17 years after Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which blends historical fiction with imaginative fantasy.
Every year, there is some discussion in parts of the press, and on social media, on the point of a prize for women writers. After all, the argument goes, Anglophone women writers have won such awards as the Booker – Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood, for example, while many of those shortlisted are also women. Meanwhile, Doris Lessing and Alice Munro have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Do we need an award specifically for women?
Ever since the prize was first mooted in the early 1990s, many have wondered whether the prize is necessary, patronising, or even fair. A common position amongst its detractors is that the prize is sexist and discriminatory. English journalist and novelist, Auberon Waugh, (the eldest son of the novelist Evelyn Waugh) famously called it the Lemon Prize.
These debates about women writers have their origin, however, in the longstanding concerns and debates about the relationship between women, reading and writing: debates which are nearly as old as the history of the novel in English.
The dismissal of women writers
For example, the poet and priest Thomas Gisborne’s 1797 conduct manual, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, recommends to every woman “the habit of regularly allotting to improving books a portion of each day”. But Gisborne does not include novels among his “improving books” – like many of those who have written on the possible dangers of reading fiction for women.
This policing of the woman reader – and it is a short skip and jump here to the woman writer – is far from an isolated occurrence. In January 1855, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher that, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed”. Hawthorne was concerned with the subject matter of women writers – quite simply, it was not to his taste.
This dismissal of women writers continues today. In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society in 2011, the British writer, V.S. Naipaul, was asked if he considers any woman writer his match, to which he replied “I don’t think so”. He claimed that he could “read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not”. Naipaul was clear that part of this recognition was because writing by women is “unequal” to him and his writing. Key to this is that the subject matter of women’s writing is often perceived as frivolous and unimportant.
Separation and segregation
This separation or segregation of women’s writing should be understood as part of the patriarchal control of what and who matters – and, historically, women have not. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up in response to the Booker Prize of 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books were by women, despite 60% of the novels published that year by women writers.
Not all potential entrants welcomed the new prize. A.S. Byatt (winner of the 1990 Man Booker Prize) refused to have her fiction submitted for consideration for the new award, and trivialised the Women’s Prize for the assumption that there is something that might be grouped together as a “feminine subject matter”. But it is an indisputable fact that women have often been excluded from or dismissed by the literary establishment, by reviewers, and by the prize system.
This is not to say all women’s writing experiences are the same. There are challenges to the notion of awards for women’s writing – since they can still discriminate against different races, ages, types of education, classes, disability and trans women,among others. But what cannot be disputed is that all women (writers or not) are united by living in global and local societies that value, promulgate and prioritise the voice, identities and experiences of men over women.
The positions offered by Gisborne, Hawthorne and Naipaul are indicative of the expectations placed upon women in the literary marketplace and are very much tied to issues around the relationship between worth, taste and power. Who decides what text has “worth”, and how this worth has been arrived at, are questions that we might think are something for English literature students to grapple with at university.
But these are important questions for us all to consider. The humanities is broadly the study of what it is to be human and reading is a key marker of being human. We tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves, over and over again. We have entire industries built on reading, and on storytelling (whether books, films, games or more). We all need to think about who reads, and whose stories are told and re-told. The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one way of ensuring that women’s stories are among those that are told and re-told.
For as long as we have been able to stand upright and speak, we have told stories. They explained the mysteries of the world: birth, death, the seasons, day and night. They were the origins of human creativity, expressed in words but also in pictures, as evidenced by the cave paintings of Chauvet (France) and Maros (Indonesia). On the walls of these caves, the paintings, which date back to around 30-40,000 BC, tell us myths or sacred narratives of the spirits of the land, the fauna of the regions, and humankind’s relationship to them.
As humanity progressed, other types of stories developed. These were not concerned with the mysteries of the meaning of life but with everyday, domestic matters. While they were more mundane in the issues they explored, such tales were no less spectacular in their creativity and inclusion of the supernatural.
These smaller, everyday stories, combining the world of humans with fantastical creatures and seemingly impossible plots are now classified as fairy tales or folk tales. Such tales, originating in pre-literate societies and told by the folk (or the average person), capture the hopes and dreams of humanity. They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage.
Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong. Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete. Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo. When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed and Christian morality intervened, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.
Despite these changes, it is apparent that fairy tales are still needed today, even for grown-ups. In an uncanny, sometimes inexplicable way, we consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them, despite advances in logic, science and technology. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the tellers, we are the greedy consumers.
‘Fairy tale’ princesses and ‘wicked witches’
The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, has been cast – like her life – as a fairy tale. Throughout the year, she has been commemorated in articles with headings such as “a troubled fairy tale”, “beyond a fairy tale”, and “just another fairy tale”. While these articles have endeavoured to deconstruct the familiar narrative, they have not been entirely successful.
The notion of a fairy tale princess has also characterised the coverage of Princess Mary of Denmark and Duchess Catherine of Cambridge. Even after 13 years of marriage, our own “Aussie princess” is described as living a fairy tale, evident in 2017 media stories with titles such as “Princess Mary and Prince Frederik’s fairy tale royal romance”. Likewise, Kate, once a commoner, now a princess, has featured in articles titled “Prince William and Duchess Kate’s fairy-tale love story” and “Kate’s Most Royal Fairy Tale Gown (To Date)”. As the titles of some of these stories show, they also feature the mandatory prince charming (William), or the prince who is revealed to be not-so-charming after all (Charles). Others extend the fairy tale formula to include wicked stepmothers (Di’s real life stepmother) and wicked witches (Camilla).
Is such recourse to fairy tales merely a media stunt to sell stories packaged in an easily consumable, gossip-laden snack box? Or do these articles reflect that deep-seated compulsion of ours to tell and, in turn, to listen to stories? The answers are “yes” and “yes”. But let’s forget the media’s role and look at the more interesting latter point.
In this tale, the beautiful Psyche is visited at night by an invisible lover – hearing only a voice – whom she is led to believe is a monster. While recorded by the novelist, Apuleius, the story is almost certainly much older; perhaps having its origins in myth and ritual, and handed down by word of mouth.
The research of Dr Jamie Tehrani has unearthed an early date for Red Riding Hood, which he has traced back to at least 2,000 years; not originating in Asia, as once believed, but most likely in Europe. Other tales studied by Tehrani have been dated to as early as 6,000 years ago.
Fairy tales are excellent narratives with which to think through a range of human experiences: joy, disbelief, disappointment, fear, envy, disaster, greed, devastation, lust, and grief (just to name a few). They provide forms of expression to shed light not only on our own lives but on the lives beyond our own. And, contrary to the impression that fairy tales always end happily ever after, this is not the case – therein lies much of their power.
They helped our ancestors make sense of the unpredictability or randomness of life. They repeated familiar experiences of unfairness, misfortune, bad luck, and ill-treatment and sometimes showed us how courage, determination and ingenuity could be employed even by the most disempowered to change the course of events.
Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, tells how a chance encounter with a stranger (an old man who provides magic beans) can bring about terrible danger (meeting a giant) but also terrific good fortune (acquiring a hen that lays golden eggs). The tale also celebrates how a poor boy can make the most of an arbitrarily dangerous situation that could have gone either way – being eaten or becoming rich – through his bravery and his intellect.
Fairytales also celebrated unexpected good fortune and acts of kindness and heroism, thereby reinforcing – even restoring – our faith in humanity. As tales of the folk, they not only entertained, but reflected the turmoils and triumphs of the lower classes, and enabled them to fantasise about how the “other half” lived.
Cinderalla and social criticism
But tales of kings, queens, princes and princesses – of which there are many – are not only a means of mental escape for the poor. They are also a means of social criticism.
In Cinderella, as recorded by Charles Perrault, the two stepsisters may have every material possession imaginable, but their cruelty renders them grotesque. And, of course, the lowly Cinderella triumphs. In the German version, Aschenputtel, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, the fate of the stepsisters is very different. Whereas Perrault’s version has the kindly Cinderella forgive them, the Grimms – clearly working from another tradition – describe how they have their eyes plucked out by pigeons!
Such stories of fantasising about a royal life and simultaneously despising it may have functioned as an emotional release similar to the ancient Greek experience of catharsis (the shedding of anxieties through watching outrageous tragedies and obscene comedies).
Taking the fascination with Diana’s life as a fairy tale, for example, we still employ the cathartic release of the genre to interrogate her and, for those of us so inclined, to find some meaning in the Di phenomenon. From the romantic courtship, to the wedding of the century and that dress, to motherhood, glamour, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, alienation and a new love cut short by an early death.
Some, of course, have criticised the warm, fuzzy emotionalism that has sprung from the fairy tale of Di’s life. If it is not to your liking, there are more robust tales with powerful messages of resistance and resilience. In tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Donkeyskin, the young protagonists are persecuted and abused by predators.
There is much to complain about in these tales from a politically correct or feminist perspective. They are violent and subversive: Gretel pushes a witch into an oven and in Perrault’s version of Donkeyskin, a king wishes to marry his daughter following the death of his wife. But they are more than narratives of abuse. They are also about courage and ingenuity on the part of the young survivors.
Donkeyskin, variants of which are extant in English (Catskin) and German (All-Kinds-Of-Fur), champions the bravery and inherent goodness of the young heroine who dresses in the skin of a donkey and leaves the palace in order to escape her father’s desires. Her subsequent life as a servant, filthy, humiliated, reviled and renamed “Donkeyskin” by her fellow servants, never crushes her soul.
Within the fantasy and the convenient appearance of supernatural assistants or a romantic ending, both of which feature in Donkeyskin, these stories are powerful reminders that evil exists in the world in the form of human beings – but it is not definitive or unconquerable.
More dissident responses have included the photographs of Dina Goldstein, whose Fallen Princesses series (2007-2009) is an astute response to the Disney princess phenomenon of unattainable, debilitating images of femininity and romance in bowdlerised versions of the original tales. Here, Goldstein critiques the superficiality of the princess stereotype, reminding us that it is as facile for children as the Diana fairy tale dream is for adults.
Before Goldstein, photographer Sarah Moon also challenged the dilution of fairy tales in the modern west through her provocative (sometimes banned) interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. In this powerful rendition, Moon takes her child reader back to the original and raw meanings embedded in the tale through her exploration of the theme of the human predator in the symbolic guise of the wolf.
Moon’s decision to return to the terror and drama of the Grimms’ version is testimony to the need to challenge the dilution and contamination of the tales. Even the Grimms were guilty of adding and subtracting to the material, particularly when it came to the insertion of overt Christian morality. Equally if not more so, the Disneyfication of fairy tales has stripped them of the power and the pain to which Moon returns.
Writers and poets have also responded to the tales and, like Moon, have regularly sought to return them to their once formidable status. Women authors in particular have created powerful, sometimes heartbreaking – but always real and truthful – new versions.
Among the thousands of old tales in new clothes is the literature of second wave feminists, including the suite entitled Transformations (1971) by renegade poet Anne Sexton, who takes the domesticity of the original tales and mocks, ridicules, cherishes and – literally – transforms them. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a magnificent collection of retellings of famous fairy tales, is full of female empowerment, sensuality and violence in a tour de force that both reinstates the potency of the stories and re-imagines them.
Novelist, poet and essayist, Margaret Atwood also transforms the originals. Her response to The Girl Without Hands, which tells the story of a young woman who agrees to sacrifice her hands in order to save her father from the devil, in a poem of the same name is a profound meditation on the continuation of both abuse and survival.
The fairy tales first preserved by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm – retold, bastardised, edited, annotated, banned and reclaimed – belong ultimately to the folk who first told them. And the folk continue to tell and retell them. Closer to home than the Black Forest, a new show at the The Ian Potter Museum of Art contains work by international and Australian artists, including Tracy Moffatt and Sally Smart. The show returns – once again – to fairy tales to express social concerns and anxieties surrounding issues such as the abuse of power, injustice and exploitation.
Fairy tales are, indeed, good to think with, and their retellings shed light on cultural, societal and artistic movements. Both children and adults should read more fairy tales – both the original and the transformed versions, for they are one of our cultural touchstones.
As students prepare to go back to school, it’s estimated that between 10% to 16% of those aged from five to 16 years will have reading difficulties such as dyslexia and inadequate comprehension skills.
All teaching makes particular assumptions about how students tend to learn. For these students, regular literacy teaching will be insufficient. They need alternative teaching pathways.
The problem is not a lack of research about what works. It is more the lack of guidance for teachers and schools in how to use this knowledge in teaching.
School leaders are responsible for making definitive decisions about educational provision in their schools. They need clear and explicit guidelines on how to choose effective literacy interventions that will work for these students.
Why do some students struggle with reading?
Reading comprehension is a complex process. Students have difficulty comprehending text for several reasons:
Some don’t know the sounds that make up spoken words (phonological and phonemic skills) or have difficulty saying letter patterns accurately (phonic skills). These lead to word reading and spelling difficulties, or dyslexia.
Some lack the vocabulary and other oral language knowledge that scaffolds reading comprehension.
Others have a relatively poor self-concept as a reader. They believe they can’t learn to read and disengage from literacy.
Some students don’t transfer what they learn about reading some texts to other texts.
Any interventions, then, need to cater for this range of differences.
Developed from a large research analysis of the causes of early reading difficulties in the early 2000s, it has been used in grade 1-5 in Catholic primary schools in Victoria.
Students are allocated to one of three parallel intervention pathways depending on their reading difficulty profile; a phonological pathway, an orthographic pathway for students who have phonological skills and difficulty reading letter clusters, and an oral language pathway. Students can move between pathways.
A recent evaluation, available for Catholic Education Melbourne, showed that the three intervention pathways are very effective in improving the reading outcomes of students who underachieve or are at risk of future reading and writing difficulties.
Effect sizes were calculated for eight reading profiles, based on whether the students began with difficulties in one or more of reading comprehension, accuracy or rate. Students with difficulties in two or more areas improved in excess of two years in comprehension and in accuracy. The intervention usually lasted between one and two terms.
Younger students benefited more from the phonological and orthographic interventions while their older peers benefited more from the oral language intervention.
Findings such as these have implications for schools.
How to select the right program for your school
When a school leader is selecting a program to help improve students’ literacy outcomes they first need to ask:
Does it match the range of ways in which my students underachieve? Students need a program that accommodates their reason for underachievement.
Does it have multiple parallel literacy learning pathways, and doesn’t assume that one size fits all?
Does it have explicit teaching procedures for each pathway? How comprehensive and systematic are they?
Does it provide a means for identifying each student’s literacy learning profile and for deciding the pathway for optimal progress for that student? Or does it assume that all students will best progress by following the same pathway?
What research supports the effectiveness of the intervention? Does it provide data that show that students of different reading profiles make progress using it?
Is it based explicitly on an accepted research theory of how students learn to read? Many programs are not based on a rigorously and extensively researched theory.
These are key issues that any school leader who is thoughtfully and responsibly selecting a literacy intervention program in 2016 needs to answer.
Many know their current interventions do not work for all underachieving students. Decisions they make will live with their most academically vulnerable students for years to come. Education providers need to develop clear guidelines to ensure teachers are making appropriate decisions.
‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.
The introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.
Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).
I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.
The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.
The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.
Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.
The link below is to an article about the need for traditional books, especially in the area of theology and I guess other areas of research also would be relevant. The interest in this article may well be the comments made following it.