The season of the good old summer “fayre” is here and many UK readers will be heading off to eat tea and scones and take part in the tombola at their local village fete. There, it’s a good bet, they will hear of local people’s concerns that new housing developments foisted on them by the government will ruin the character of their idyllic rural community.
But the myth of tranquil village life was well and truly exploded in the Victorian age when many writers concluded that life in England’s small rural communities was not a simple idyll of tea, vicars and charitable works.
For many people, especially those who may not have visited the UK, the most accessible pictures of village life are those painted in novels: who can forget the timeless portrait of life in a sleepy Dorset community in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series, or EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, set in a fictional Sussex village? But fiction has also been highlighting the negatives of village living for more than a century.
The “greetings card” scenario of village life was established early. In her memoir Our Village (published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832), Mary Mitford – who lived at Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire – gives us a classic rendition of peaceful village life. There are quaint depictions of servants, chaste suitors, elderly brides and grooms, blacksmiths and gypsy fortune tellers.
Our Village contains all the myths of village life. Everyone is familiar: a village is a little world “where we know everyone, are known to everyone, interested in everyone, and authorised to hope that everyone feels an interest in us”. There are no newcomers, nobody is systematically excluded and nobody is living a secret or misunderstood life. Poverty is relegated to the margins – there’s only the occasional mention of the workhouse and, Mitford assures her readers, the village is a collection of cottages, not “fine mansions finely peopled”.
But even in the 1820s, such a village felt under threat from the railways, improved roads and the increasing size of the towns of the industrialised North. And no sooner did Mitford complete Our Village than other authors began to parody or correct her vision.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) is a gentle text still very positive about life in a confined locality. Although Cranford is a town outside “Drumble” – her stand-in for Manchester – it resembles Mitford’s village in that everyone knows each other and the narrative is focused on a limited set of characters. In the case of this novel – and so many others in the tradition – the main characters are women, and it is women’s unpaid labour that makes the community run smoothly. Yet Gaskell gently mocks her characters, Matty Jenkyns, Miss Pole, and Mrs Jamieson, for their conventionality, triviality and timidity.
The women follow strict social rules – an entire chapter revolves around whether these august personages should stoop to visit a former ladies’ maid who has set up a milliner’s shop and hence was “in trade”. In another chapter, the women grow fearful of outsiders when they hear of a cluster of burglaries in the neighbourhood, which proves to be founded on rumour.
Thomas Hardy’s villages such as Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) or Marlott in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) are idyllic in some ways, but not in others. Shepherds are close enough to nature to saunter out of their huts at night to tell the time by stars, and the slow pace of life allows for ample opportunity for community and flirtation. Yet sexual transgressions are treated to the full judgement of an unforgiving community, and questions of money and class interrupt any readers’ expectations of rural bliss.
American moral tales
These books sold well in the US, even though villages there were subject to dramatic population shifts westward and industrial development. Writers in the US sought to reinforce or contest Mitford’s vision.
After reading Mitford and migrating to a new village in Michigan, Caroline Kirkland wrote A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (1839), which mercilessly satirised her vulgar frontier neighbours and the wealthier eastern newcomers. When her neighbours read the novel, they ostracised her – and she never wrote anything as trenchant again.
Although the American regionalism that flourished in the latter quarter of the 19th century is known for romantic visions of village life, upon closer examination, key writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E Wilkins Freeman reveal many of village life’s negatives.
If Gaskell acknowledges in Cranford that her ladies’ kindness to the poor is “somewhat dictatorial”, Freeman’s A Mistaken Charity (1883) takes this point to its logical conclusion. Two elderly sisters living happily in their dilapidated cottage are visited by Mrs Simonds, a woman who is “a smart, energetic person, bent on doing good”. Mrs Simonds arranges to take Charlotte and Harriet to the poorhouse, where they are forced to wear lace caps and sit indoors. Charlotte and Harriet run away.
Revolt from the village
By the 1910s, there was a literary “revolt from the village”, and writers including Sherwood Anderson focused on the sexual repression of small town life. Although Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, is set in a town, it is a town of 1,800 people, far smaller than many British villages today. Meanwhile, Stella Gibbons parodied rural melodramas in Cold Comfort Farm (1932), in which, instead of graciously fitting in like the urban narrators of Jewett’s fiction, Flora Poste, a visitor from London, forces the members of a dysfunctional family to follow their individual desires rather than their family destiny.
According to these writers, villages can be conformist, unimaginative, repressive, nepotistic. These fictions imply that villages will be harder to maintain now that women have other outlets for their energies. The negatives come from the same source as the positives in village life, and people who wish to defend villages, and the tradition of rural living, should remember this literary ambivalence and the fact that it has gone on for more than 100 years.
Women’s writing has long been a thorn in the side of the male literary establishment. From fears in the late 18th century that reading novels – particularly written by women – would be emotionally and physically dangerous for women, to the Brontë sisters publishing initially under male pseudonyms, to the dismissal of the genre of romance fiction as beyond the critical pale, there has been a dominant culture which finds the association of women and writing to be dangerous. It has long been something to be controlled, managed and dismissed.
One of the ways that publishers, booksellers and critics use to “manage” literature is through the notion of genre: labelling a book as “detective fiction” becomes an easy way to identify particular tropes in a novel. These genre designations are particularly helpful for publishers and booksellers, with the logic running something like this: a reader can walk into any bookstore, anywhere, and go to the detective fiction section and find a book to read, because s/he has read detective fiction before and enjoyed it.
What complicates this is who makes the decision of which genres are deemed to be appropriate, and which books are put into which category. Genre is also complicated by the idea of women’s writing. Can we have a genre that is designated solely by the sex of the author? What if we turned this around, and rather than a genre, women’s writing was a term we used to simply celebrate writing about women?
Here are five novels by women – and about women – from across the 20th century. These novels all grapple, in very different ways, with women and independence.
Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anna Beddingfeld, a self-mocking heroine, who is very aware of the conventions of gender and genre, impulsively buys a ticket to South Africa because the boat fare is the exact amount she has left in the world. She ends up taking down an international crime syndicate with aplomb and panache.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle (1926)
Doss is the expendable unmarried older woman in a Victorian novel. But in this story, she walks out on her largely uninterested family to move into a cabin on an island with a man she has met only briefly. A fantasy of the Canadian wilderness, the novel was one of Montgomery’s few novels for adults.
Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)
A rewriting of Jane Eyre, the novel contains all the tropes of the Gothic romance – a castle, a family secret, murder – but these are challenged by one of Stewart’s finest protagonists, Linda Martin. Martin is employed as a governess by an aristocratic family, but rejects the trappings of romance to protect her charge, and her own integrity.
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Edana Franklin wakes up in hospital with her arm amputated and the police questioning her husband. It is revealed that she has been travelling back to 1815, where she comes into repeated contact and conflict with Rufus, one of her slave-owning ancestors. A novel that raises important questions about masculinity, power and violence.
Shirley Jackson, Patchwork Girl (1995)
One of the earliest pieces of electronic fiction, this retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Baum’s The Patchwork Girl (1913) places the narrative in the hands of the reader, who pieces together the story through illustrations of parts of a female body.
Often popular novels by women have a narrative arc that is visible from the outset: the protagonists will find a romantic partner in the end. In some of the above books, some of the women do, and some of them don’t, find a romantic partner. For those who do, the romance is secondary to the work they do, and the choices that they make about their own lives.
What unites the novels is an exploration of the choices that some women have to make as a result of their sexed and gendered embodiment, whether travelling to South Africa on a whim, being jolted unwillingly back onto a slave plantation, or making an explicit call to the (woman) reader to make choices about how the electronic story develops.
Writing about women (and often by women) gives us some examples of how to challenge the status quo, if only for a little while. Each challenge, however, provides another example of how to effect change in a patriarchal culture. Here’s to the writers about women who have done this – from Jane Austen to Shirley Jackson, from Frances Burney to Josephine Tey, and from Angela Carter to Val McDermid.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.
Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.
Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.
Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.
Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.
Different gender-specific initiatives attempt to address this problem, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and organisations like VIDA, working to highlight the gender imbalance in publishing. But there’s still a great wealth of literature out there that is still consistently being overlooked: that of non-English women writers.
So what’s the problem? To begin with, very few books are being translated into English from other languages. In Britain, translated literature makes up only 3.5% of the market, but 7% of book sales.
To challenge this, ongoing work carried about by English PEN – more specifically PEN Translate, a network promoting translations into English of outstanding works in foreign languages – and other organisations such as Literary across Frontiers – a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate based in Wales, aimed at developing intercultural dialogue through translation – is undoubtedly crucial. However, still more must be done.
The thing is, within that small number of translated works, women writer’s books are consistently undervalued. But women read and women write. Even if it has been traditionally difficult for women writers to have their works published – with many resorting to male pen names to combat sexism – and even if the current publishing market still shows a clear gender bias, globally more fiction than ever before is being authored by women.
Yet, even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies, as shown in recent examples from Galician literature.
The tendency is even worse if we think about outstanding women authors from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts. There are so many examples of Polish, Italian, Latin American, Czech, Arab, Balkan and Japanese women writers that aren’t translated into English.
Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide and yet there are barely any translations of women authored-literature into English. And that accounts for not only those coming from Portugal or Brazil, but also Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau or East Timor.
The fact that these women are being silenced in translation is not something trivial: in the age of transnational feminism, in which we want to promote truly cross-cultural understandings, we should be facilitating dialogues among women across the globe. And translation can certainly help us do that.
In an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s. But in our still patriarchal world – in which, for example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been awarded twice out of 21 times to women writers – corrective and positive action measures are indeed very much a necessity.
Supporting the translation of female writers, literary network The English Pen has recently announced a record number of women authors and translators won its annual translation awards. More than half of the 18 award winners were women, with books translated from 14 languages and 16 countries among those honoured. This is indeed a move in the right direction. As was this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched on International Women’s Day to promote foreign writers in English translation.
The future of feminism is in the transnational, and transnational links can only be made through translation. Women writers the world over should be given a voice, no matter what language they speak and what cultural background they come from. Surely, we all can benefit from this: to carry on denying British readers access to great literature simply because it is authored by women is beyond belief.
It started when an American academic noticed how frequently the acknowledgements sections of weighty academic tomes featured a male author thanking his nameless wife for typing.
The academic, Bruce Holsigner, began sharing the screenshots on Twitter under the hashtag #ThanksforTyping.
And the response was stupendous. As the screenshots flooded in, a veritable army of unpaid women suddenly became visible. Not only were they typing, and retyping, but translating and editing and – um – doing the actual research.
Of course #ThanksForTyping is not a practice that’s confined to academics. A considerable portion of the western canon is built on the unpaid labour of women.
So here’s my top ten list of the male writers who thanked – or failed to thank – their long-suffering wives.
1) Leo Tolstoy
Sophia Tolstaya not only gave birth to Leo’s 13 children, she also published his books and took care of the family’s financial interests. She acted as her husband’s secretary, famously copying out War and Peace – including multiple revisions – seven times. In the age before the typewriter, the writing was all done by hand. Leo, as scholars have established, was a lot less than grateful. At age 82, following the legendary act of renunciation in which Leo gave away significant amounts of the couple’s property to roam the country with a begging bowl, his family was left impoverished.
Stenography, or writing in shorthand, was a popular occupation for writer’s wives. In 1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky employed a stenographer named Anna Grigoryevna to help him finish his novel The Gambler, for which he had signed a risky contract. If he did not deliver by November his publisher F. T. Stellovsky would acquire the right to publish Dostoyevsky’s works for a further nine years without any compensation. Fyodor dictated The Gambler, and Anna wrote it down in shorthand, then copied it out neatly. Fyodor proposed to Anna within eight weeks, and married her two months later. Anna took over her husband’s financial affairs, made Fyodor give up gambling, and stopped him from signing further dodgy contracts.
3) T.S. Eliot
As well as being the most influential poet of his time, T.S. Eliot was a director of Faber & Faber, in which capacity he employed a typist named Esme Valerie Fletcher as his assistant. Towards the end of 1956, the 68-year-old poet proposed marriage. He wrote the poem A Dedication to My Wife, which is filled with lines like “To whom I owe the leaping delight” and other adoring phrases which are almost un-Eliot-like in their warmth and sentimentality. After his death, Valerie became the editor and annotator of Eliot’s works.
4) Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s wife, Vera, was her husband’s sternest critic and biggest fan. Vera acted as his typist, editor and literary agent, and did all the driving. Vera was vigilant in making Vladimir rewrite his fastidious prose if it wasn’t up to scratch. There’s also a story that she saved Lolita from the flames, when the manuscript was abandoned in a bout of frustrated rage.
5) William Wordsworth
Not only did William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy produce the fair copies of her brother’s work, but his wife and sister-in-law also helped out with the transcribing. Rumour has it that Dorothy did far more than simply transcribe: she also acted as his literary executor after his death, and edited his unpublished works.
I recognize a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.
“Willy” was the pen name of the once famous but now forgotten writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, a tremendously successful self-promoter and author of 50 novels penned by a stable of ghostwriters, including his wife. The apocryphal story goes that Henry would go so far as to lock his wife in a room until she had produced the desired quantity of prose. One day his wife, deciding she had finally had enough, left. She published the rest of her work under a surname you might recognise: Colette.
8) Peter Carey
Alison Summers was Peter Carey’s wife and editor for 20 years. She’s been thanked for a lot more than typing in all of Carey’s best known books, such as The True History of the Kelly Gang, where he thanks Summers for her “clear literary intelligence and flawless dramatic instinct”. This all changed following their famously acrimonious divorce, after which Summers claimed she had been transformed into a minor character – described as the “Alimony Whore” – in Theft: A Love Story. Carey denied the link.
9) Mark Twain
On a happier note, Samuel Clemens – better known as Mark Twain – met Olivia Langdon in 1867, and took her to a reading by Charles Dickens. They married, and Olivia almost inevitably became her husband’s editor, assisting him with his books, and also with his journalism, until her death in 1904.
10) John Stuart Mill
Of course, if you want to thank your wife, and do the job properly, there’s no better example than John Stuart Mill. His effusive thanks to his wife Harriet is exemplary. Mill wrote, in the dedication to On Liberty, that Harriet had been responsible for all of the “great thoughts” he ever had. More than a few churlish critics have taken issue with Mill’s claim, arguing that more than a few of these thoughts got published before John and Harriet even met.
Of course, there have been times when the hard work has also run in the other direction. George Eliot’s portrait of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, slaving away as an assistant for her strikingly untalented husband, Edward Casaubon, writing his unfinished book Key to All Mythologies, is not a portrait of her own relationship. Her soulmate George Henry Lewes never faltered in his admiration for his far more famous partner, and even, legend has it, went to fetch her library books.
Leonard Woolf, husband to Virginia, the author of A Room of One’s Own – perhaps the most famous argument for a space for women writers in a male dominated tradition – also gave up much to comfort his finally inconsolable wife. He took her on trips to Harley Street, and long cures in the country. As Virginia wrote in her fateful suicide note of 1941,
You have been entirely patient with me, and incredibly good … I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, faced calls to resign over the “RHI scandal”, a renewable energy incentive scheme which failed. Allegations of mismanagement cost the public purse almost £500m. Foster labelled the pressure for her resignation “misogynistic” and suggested that a man in a similar position might not face such opprobrium.
Doubtless, much of the language aimed at female politicians has a deeply sexist dimension, but writers were quick to point out in the New Statesman, The Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News that Foster’s own Democratic Unionist Party has an ingrained culture that fosters inequality.
There is an acute lack of female voices in Northern Irish politics, undoubtedly a legacy of decades of militarised conflict, that has left the region with the lowest amount of women of the devolved parliaments. Of the 18 MPs for the region, only two are female. But the recent appointments of Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) and Naomi Long (Alliance) to lead their respective parties suggest things might be slowly, gradually beginning to change.
Short stories new and old
This lack of political representation is mirrored in the arts where, for years, women were anthologised and written about as exceptional cases in a literature that was overwhelmingly concerned with literary responses to violent events. In her pivotal work, The Living Stream (1994), Edna Longley detailed the distinctly male atmosphere that hangs over Irish literary coteries. But, as with the political changes noted, women’s voices are increasingly being heard in this sphere, too.
Generations of female novelists have written about Northern Ireland since its inception but have been largely ignored. This writing spans genres and all shades of political opinion since the 1920s, and has offered glimpses into lives that rarely make the evening news. Janet McNeill wrote a number of significant novels in the 1960s which capture this “in-between” period with a sharp, sympathetic eye for the dissatisfaction of some women with home and hearth. The reissuing of her novels The Small Widow, As Strangers Here and The Maiden Dinosaur show a continue appetite for and relevance of her novels.
But despite this history, 2016 was a landmark year for Northern Irish women’s fiction – short fiction, in particular. It saw the digital reissue of the vital anthology The Female Line (1985) and the publication of Sinéad Gleeson’s award-winning collection The Glass Shore, which features both classic stories and newly commissioned work from some of the north’s most vital writers. 2016 also saw new collections of stories from Lucy Caldwell (Multitudes), Jan Carson (Children’s Children) and Roisin O’Donnell (Wild Quiet).
Northern Irish fiction has often been criticised for relying on realism and not being as formally experimental as its United Kingdom or US counterparts. But recently, women have been leading the way in offering depictions of Northern Ireland that are ripe for critical speculation.
The work of Jan Carson, in particular, is marked by a playful, experimental sensibility as her writing plays with the possibilities of the short story genre. Her strange, deft prose is a much-needed counterpoint to the wealth of weighty Troubles tones. An equal tonic is Roisin O’Donnell’s magical work, which spans continents and species to continually surprise and delight. Bernie McGill’s sensual, visceral writing brings the body back into Northern Irish writing in her painful, beautiful writing.
And Lucy Caldwell has never been afraid to write about complicated topics, such as the Troubles and mental health (Where They Were Missed, 2006), missionary work and sexuality in the Middle East (The Meeting Point, 2011) and double lives (All the Beggars Riding, 2013). Her recent short fiction has seen this impulse continue, as she directly confronts the taboos of “post”-conflict Northern Irish society, such as racism, abortion and homosexuality.
Northern Irish women’s voices have been largely overlooked by critics and readers in favour of novels and short stories which centred male experiences of being perpetrators and victims of violence. But the new political moment has cleared space for new fictional representations.
Looking to the future, there are several exciting works for 2017. Following her heart-wrenching debut, Ghost Moth (2013), Michele Forbes will publish Edith and Oliver in March 2017. And the scapel-like wit of June Caldwell can be revisited in Room Little Darker, published later this year. We await new work from the women featured in The Glass Shore across genres and forms.
If all you know of Northern Ireland is the turmoil of political institutions, you could do worse than to pick up some of this fiction. For decades, Northern Irish women have been writing about their lives with bravery and skill but they have also been imagining different worlds and stretching their imaginations in the most trying of circumstances. To see these generations of women continue to resist established ways of writing and thinking has been galvanising as we seek to find stories outside of the standard narratives of truth and recovery.
This writing does not simply conform to the Troubles narrative so often replicated in fiction and film. Rather, it challenges it, sometimes directly, but often in subtle, wry acts of fictional insubordination.
Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.
However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map. That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.
The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.
Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that “publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.
A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.
This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.
But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.
A male dominated genre
In recent years, the bestselling female-authored Divergent and Hunger Games series have been made into multi-million dollar movie adaptations. But women’s contribution to science fiction has historically gone unnoticed – as a look at any compilation list of the “best” science fiction books will attest.
Seventy five per cent of science fiction writers are men. Consequently, there are not a great number of realistic or relatable female characters. No wonder fewer female than male readers have traditionally found it a rewarding genre. Indeed feminist science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ has famously stated that there are “no real women” in science fiction, only images of them, since so many women characters are based purely on male fantasy.
Last year, science fiction and fantasy reader Liz Lutgendorff published an article in the New Statesman after reading the National Public Radio’s list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books – voted on by 60,000 readers. Lutgendorff found the “continued and pervasive sexism” within these books to be “mysogynistic” and “shockingly offensive”.
Speculative fiction writer and critic Sarah Gailey, meanwhile, recently noticed that, of the 31 genre books featuring female protagonists she had recently read, two-thirds included scenes of sexual violence. Writing on the Tor website, she called for genre writers to “do better” when it comes to imagining alternative realities for women:
… we can’t suspend our disbelief enough to erase casual misogyny from the worlds we build. We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.
Gailey mentions this year’s Hugo-winning NK Jemisin as one of the rare writers whose “imaginations are strong enough to let their female characters have stories that don’t include sexual violence”.
Still, this objectification of women in science fiction sadly extends beyond the page. Hugo award-winning fan writer Jim C Hines reminds us that science fiction superstar Isaac Asimov was notorious for harassing women at conventions. Hines recently urged the science fiction, fantasy and comics community to stop “looking away” from the problem of sexual harassment in the industry.
Hard science in science fiction
An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here.
Robert A Heinlein – considered the “dean” of science fiction writers and counted alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the three key figures of the genre – has defined science fiction as:
realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.
Soft science fiction is not so concerned with exploring the finer details of technology and physics. Although its stories are generally set in the future, it is more interested in psychological and social aspects of the narrative (think of works such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)).
Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.
In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.
In 2015, the Sad Puppies successfully placed dozens of books on the final ballot. They then released a tongue-in-cheek Terms of Surrender to their culture war with the Hugo Awards declaring:
… only those works embodying the highest principles of Robert A. Heinlein shall be permitted. Girls who read Twilight and books like it shall be expelled from the genre. We will recognize The Hunger Games as a proper SF novel, but the sequels are right out.
These jibes reveal sexist undertones, intolerance for diversity and disdain for the kind of speculative fiction that is written by women and read by girls.
The lessons of Frankenstein
This hierarchy of “hardness” in science fiction, as well as being a dubious way of judging merit, puts women at a distinct disadvantage, because there’s a serious shortage of women working in science. Only 28% of the world’s scientific researchers are women.
If women aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in scientific fields, it’s unlikely they’re going to have the confidence to write in a genre that uses science as a launch pad for fiction.
And yet, the first example of science fiction is often said to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s gothic horror Frankenstein: the tale of a man who, through scientific experimentation, discovers a way to imbue inanimate matter with life. The novel was first published anonymously in 1818.
Overall, it was popular and well received. But when critics discovered Anonymous was a young woman, the author’s gender caused such offence as to render the writing irrelevant. The British Critic famously concluded its scathing review thus:
The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.
Discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t surprising for the time, but what is surprising is how little has changed for women’s writing over these past two centuries.
Women may not be likely to publish anonymously these days, but they may still erase their female identities to appease male readership. Many women are encouraged to publish under their initials, to choose a gender neutral name, or even to take a male pseudonym.
Science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, winner of two Hugos and three Nebula Awards under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr, passed her writing off as male for around a decade between 1967–77 before she was exposed as a woman.
Not only did she enjoy more success as a male writer, she was also in a better position to advocate for female writers. She even found that her female pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon was more likely to be included in anthologies if her submission was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from Tiptree.
Today, the fact remains that most female writers would still be better off using a male name. In 2015, emerging novelist Catherine Nicholls found that when she sent her manuscript out under the name of “George”, she was eight times as successful as when she sent it out as “Catherine”.
More than half of the human race is female, yet three-quarters of the voices heard in science fiction are male; and the rest are under consistent commercial pressure to sound male too. Of the 30 science fiction writers named the industry’s highest honour of “Grand Master”, only five are female (16%).
A study of the habits of readers in 2014 found that men “tend to gravitate to reading more male authors“. During the first year of publication, it found a female author’s audience will be around 80% female. A male author’s work will be read by a 50% split of men and women.
But trying to tackle this problem by using a pseudonym or an author’s initials perpetuates the invisibility of women on bookshelves, denying other women role models. It’s vitally important to have more women writing science fiction – using their real names, being reviewed, being read and winning awards.
By the numbers
Both the Puppies groups stand against affirmative action as a way of redressing the imbalance between the sexes in science fiction. However, there are many reasons why affirmative action by publishers and reviewers is needed in a genre suffering from entrenched sexism.
The latest SF Count – the speculative fiction community’s own mini version of the VIDA count of women in literary arts – was announced in May this year. The SF Count tracks the gender and race balance of both books reviewed and their reviewers.
It concludes that six out of every ten books reviewed were written by men. But that’s an average of results across all publications, and there is wide variation within the sample. The lowest percentage of reviews of books by women was 17% from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The highest was 80% from Cascadia Subduction Zone, a publication that specifically aims to represent women writers.
The gender balance of book reviewers averaged across these five titles is similarly low, with just 18% of them women. What’s particularly shocking is that arguably the two most famous and prestigious science fiction publications – Analog and Asimov’s – both averaged 0% female reviewers. The fact that the two most celebrated publications in science fiction asked next to no women to review books is clearly unacceptable.
And yes, reviewers can cry the impossibility of reviewing what isn’t published, just as publishers can claim the impossibility of publishing more women’s writing when it isn’t submitted, and judging panels can lament the impossibility of considering more women’s books for awards when so few are entered.
But it would be far better for the science fiction industry to recognise it has an ethical responsibility to work to correct the imbalance it has perpetuated for far too long, and get started.
It is, as publishing veteran Danielle Pafunda points out, an important part of the position of editor to actively seek out new work and to shape the direction of a publication or publishing house.
We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Until gender equality is achieved, science fiction remains only a fraction of what it could be. Affirmative action for women in science fiction is not only warranted; it’s essential for the growth of the genre.