A Quest for Good Female Writers

Activity Being Avoided: making lunch
Music In My HeadIcarus–The Staves and Keaton Henson.  It’s been in my head for three days now.  It shows no signs of leaving.
Tea Being Drunk: Barry’s Irish
Book Being ReadGalore–Michael Crummey

Assumptions that are safe to make:

  • I’m an unapologetic literary snob
  • I’m an unapologetic linguistic snob
  • I’m a bibliophile
  • I need a fix

Other relevant points:

  • I like masculine voices in art—preferring them, in fact, to feminine voices
  • I don’t care about gender, i.e. I don’t determine the artist’s gender before diving into their words
  • As some of you know, my holy literary trinity is Timothy Findley, Vikram Seth and Yann Martel; with the exception of one book each for the first two, these three are infallible. Jeanette Winterson is very close behind the trinity, with her more masculine books (Weight, in particular) being my favourites. Every deity, though, requires the occasional adversary in order to remain on the pedestal.

A year ago, I was looking at my bookshelves and noticing the gender discrepancy. I have early Margaret Atwood on my shelf, many Marie-Claire Blais, Emma Donoghue’s short stories, a whack of Jeanette Winterson and some Virginia Woolf; the rest of the books are written by men. ‘Round about the same time, someone on Meetup started a new women’s book club. When I joined the book club, I thought the problem was with me, that I just hadn’t managed to find the good female writers. According to a woman who has worked in various bookstores, the problem is not with me: there is, indeed, a scarcity of decent female authors.

I don’t get this. While categorising by gender can be a dangerous pastime, the female of the species is generally better at language than the male (once thought to be a biological attribute, but since proven to be more of a social consequence). Is it just that the good female writers aren’t being published? Are the publishers trapped in the girls-write-chick-lit mindset?

Can’t be. As Justin Trudeau said,

Some ten people in the book club should have been able to provide a decent reading list, yeah? Not really. It’s an acceptable reading list. Out of the eight books we’ve read, only one grabbed me by the literary balls and made me pay attention (Stone Butch Blues, which has a clunky, juvenile writing style that only serves to make the plot hit harder); five were middlin’-to-good, but nothing I couldn’t have discovered (or hadn’t already discovered) for myself; two were possibly detrimental to one’s health. Of course, these are just the books we read as a group: they have to be easily accessible, in the library, etc. The limitations might be part of my problem.

There’s also a list on the discussion board that has given me a little more to work with, notably those from Quebec.

Marie-Claire Blais—but I’ve read all of hers.

Someone recommended Nicole Brossard, who looked promising. I took the easy way out and looked for a translated copy, as my French is rather limited. In the library stacks, there was an appealing copy of Yesterday, at the Hotel Claredon from Coach House: quarto, hard cover, with thick paper and Granjon font, lots of white space—just the way I like it. The first few pages were beautifully done, so I checked it out and took it home. I even saved it until the next evening, as the day had been a busy one and I didn’t feel I could give the text my full attention.

It’s a mistake to get one’s expectations in such a state.

Yesterday was translated by Suzanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, who sees fit to include parenthetical stage instructions such as “(in Portuguese in the text)” and “(in Swedish in the text)”. It’s like finding hair in your food. Some fifty pages in, I put the book down.

Apparently, the only trustworthy translator is Sheila Fischman.

I’m now at that crossroads in the relationship—the relationship between myself and the stories. If I want the good ones, I need to fire up Google Translate and read the original French texts.

Clearly, if I’m going to demand exquisite writing style, I can’t be particular about the language. Flexibility is key to my general literary contentment.

As for the English writers… shall keep shuffling through the stacks.  They gotta be in there, somewhere.

2 responses to “A Quest for Good Female Writers

  1. Elisa de los rios

    My suggestions would be Maeve Binchy or Edith Wharton…I just gave my daughter Surfacing (Margaret Atwood), which I’m sure you’ve read and Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) which I haven’t read myself. My English professor tells me it’s great!


  2. Pingback: Holy Literary Quartet | The English Major's Blog

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