In the Media: 12th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The results of the VIDA count was announced on Monday. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have counted the number of female and male reviewers in the major literary publications. There are some improvements this year, but overall the picture remains grim. For the first time this year, VIDA published a separate count for Women of Colour, it’s as depressing as you might expect. Reaction came from Hannah Ellis Peterson in The Guardian, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds‘; Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph, ‘Men aren’t better writers than women. Literary mags need to close the book on gender bias‘ and on Bustle, Caroline Goldstein declared, ‘The Results of the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count Are Problematic‘.

VIDA also produced a handout: Things You Can Do Right Now to Advance Women’s Writing. Immediately after the results of the announcement, good things began to happen in Twitterland; Marisa Wikramamanayake created a ‘Women Who Review‘ database. If you’re a reviewer, you can add yourself to it; if you’re an editor at a literary magazine with a gender balance problem, you can have a look at all the women you could approach with review commissions. Judi Sutherland is getting a group of women reviewers together to send reviews to the TLS, contact her on Twitter if you want to get involved, and Amy Mason created Sister Act Theatre (@SisterTheatre): Support + recommendations of/for women working in UK theatre/performance. Worked with a great woman? Need work? Promoting your show? Tell us.

While all that’s been going on, Katy Derbyshire has been collating ‘Some more statistics on translated fiction‘ on Love German Books.

The other big news this week came from an American report that found the number of women choosing to be child-free has increased. The report coincided with the publication of the Meghan Daum edited essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids and the launch of the film While We’re Young. It’s triggered a number of articles: Emma Gray at the Huffington Post says, ‘A Record Percentage Of Women Don’t Have Kids. Here’s Why That Makes Sense‘; Jane Marie wrote, ‘Why I Stopped Trying to Be a Supermom and Started Being Myself Again‘ on Jezebel’; Hayley Webster wrote, ‘I had an abortion and didn’t talk about it…and I no longer want to live in shame‘ on her website; Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Why do we still have to justify the choice to be child-free?‘ in The Guardian; Jessica Valenti asked, ‘Why do we never worry about men’s childlessness and infertility?‘ also in The Guardian

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music and Television:

 

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

After Before – Jemma Wayne

After Before tells the stories of three women – Emily, Vera and Lynn. The novel begins with Emily signing up with a cleaning agency:

She said her name was Emily. It had always seemed easier for English people to pronounce than Emilienne, and she refused to offer this part of herself, also, for sacrifice.

“Okay, do you have any cleaning experience Emily?” asked the thick-necked, white woman behind the desk. She shuffled the forms in front of her, impatience spilling into Emily’s pause, but it wasn’t a simple question to answer. The woman said it so easily, rolling off her tongue as smooth as the flesh beneath the skin of a sweet potato, the same as most of the words Emily had thrown at her over the years: stupid, ungrateful, cockroach. Emily’s mind ran over the dirty floors of her flat that she hadn’t so much as threatened with a vacuum; then to the sparkling windows and door knobs in the house she’d cleaned and lived in once, belonging to Auntie; then tentatively to the dark puddles of blood she’d scrubbed from her father’s floor.

“Yes,” Emily decided upon. “I have experience.”

Emily lives in a tiny room in Golders Green. She likes being alone away from daylight. She has frequent flashbacks to her past, to the Rwandan genocide.

We meet Vera as she says ‘yes’ to Luke’s marriage proposal.

It is after all now 602 days since Vera last took cocaine, 433 since she’s smoked anything heavier than a regular Camel Light – though Luke believes she’s given those up too – and exactly 366 days since she’s had sex.

Luke’s a devout Christian and Vera’s been attending his church since she met him. She has a prayer/mantra she repeats frequently:

Dear God, help me to be better, to be worthy, make me clean.

She too has a past, a past that Luke’s unaware of.

Lynn is Luke’s mother. When Luke and Vera arrive to tell her of their engagement, she has news of her own: she’s dying of cancer. Vera decides that taking a sabbatical from work to care for Lynn is the right thing to do; Lynn’s not so keen though, she has her own reasons for disliking Vera.

“You’ve been asleep,” Luke said as he entered. “Mother, how are you?”

Rolling her eyes, Lynn sighed overtly back at him. Her son. One of only two accomplishments in her life. Not like women nowadays who could have it all. Like bright, career-driven, youthful Vera. Vera would live.

Lynn should have lived. She should have dared. The problem was she’d always liked to excel. Having taken on the role of wife, mother, it followed that she should strive to be the ideal version of that. No affairs, no complaints, no help, no excess; just church and family and rules and principles and propriety, and everything done properly from scratch. Doing what was right, what was expected. Not that suddenly losing one’s husband – and validation, and dreams, and future – was right, or proper, or expected.

A series of events lead to Emily becoming Lynn’s carer. Lynn decides that Emily needs to tell her story and forces it from her. Vera, meanwhile, confides in Charlie, her ex about past deeds and discovers it’s more complicated that she thought.

A lot happens in After Before; everyone has an issue, including minor characters. Many of the characters are cruel, Lynn and Charlie in particular. Lynn’s behaviour towards Emily, in which she places her in positions which force reminders of her treatment in the Rwandan genocide so she will tell her story are vile acts, regardless of Lynn’s belief that by making Emily confront her past, it will help her.

The transitions between Lynn and Emily in Lynn’s house and Rwanda are forced in the writing too. It’s a shame as the scenes in Rwanda are the best pieces in the book. Wayne’s clearly researched these sections but made them human by having the reader relate to one particular family. She shows how friends and neighbours turned against people and the extent of the violence inflicted.

The end of the novel for Luke, Emily and Lynn is a little too neatly tied up. Only Vera’s ending is more precarious, largely because Charlie’s behaviour is unpredictable after his actions changed radically in the middle of the book.

After Before has some interesting ideas and some interesting characters. Unfortunately though I found it uneven, both in terms of plot and character, and ultimately, unsatisfying.

 

Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

It’s here! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 is as follows:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

I’ve read and reviewed six of those already, if you hover over the titles, I’ve linked to my reviews.

Initial thoughts are I’m absolutely thrilled for Lissa Evans whose book I love and made my end of year list last year. Also very pleased for Sara Taylor whose debut I’ve read but not posted my review of yet (it’s published later this month), which is very good. I’ve got lots of reading to do but many of the books there are books I’ve had in my to be read pile for a while! (I also need to apologise to the person who commented on my wish list and mentioned Heather O’Neill’s book; I didn’t think it was eligible and clearly I was wrong. I’m pleased it comes highly recommended though.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest and discussing with the rest of the shadow panel. Please do join in and let us know what you think of the list and any of the books you read.