I was reading a blog post recently from Joanne Harris, who writes about the problems with the category of “woman’s fiction”, especially as used by booksellers. “We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,” she writes. “Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.” She then continues:
It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.
It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)
It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population. […]
Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions. The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.
Harris makes a number of suggestions about what should happen:
Please, everyone, say after me:
Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.
Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.
Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.
The full blog post is here: http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/post/84707533631/capitalize-this
Alison Flood wrote a follow-up blog post on the Guardian about this -
what really caught my attention was [Harris’s} claim that “‘Women’s fiction’ is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note)”. I knew it was – or had been – on Wikipedia. There was a controversy about that last year. But Amazon? Really? I checked it out; she’s right. There’s a category for “Women writers and fiction” on the site, and within that for “Women’s literary fiction” – hi Rachel Joyce, Charlotte Mendelson, Maeve Binchy, Kate Morton and Virginia Woolf – and “Women’s popular fiction“. I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.
Flood’s post develops Harris’s in some telling ways. Harris is careful to distinguish between women authors and the genre of “women’s fiction”, as it’s defined by the industry. Yet Flood shows that, at least on Amazon, the two terms mean the same thing: women’s fiction is fiction written by women – Joanne Harris features with Maeve Binchey and Anne Rice and Donna Tart and Eleanor Catton, despite the fact that all write in distinctive genres and for very different audiences.
This debate seemed pertinent given that it coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange prize. The rules of that prize are as follows:
The Prize is open to any full length novel, written in English by a woman of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in print form the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the Prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the Prize is awarded. We encourage publishers to submit books from all genres.
In other words, the main shortlisting criterion is gender, followed by the book’s being written in English. And of course the books must be “good”, however that word is interpreted.
That prize has often come in for criticism. Most famously, AS Byatt described it as sexist, and has forbidden her publishers to submit her novels for consideration:
“You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”
Yet the defenders of the prize claim that it gives visibility to books that might otherwise struggle to get an audience.
And to be fair, this year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, certainly merits the high profile it’s received as a result of the win (I think it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in many years). And the other books on the shortlist also deserve to be better known, especially Americanah and The Lowland. I’ve read four of the six (have not read Audrey Magee or Donna Tart’s books yet), and think that, contrary to Byatt, they are not unified by any kind of reductive “feminine subject matter” though all articulate in different ways a feminist perspective on such matters as sexual agency (stunningly so in McBride), political power, race, and the link between work and identity.
But aesthetically they are very different from each other: McBride’s inventiveness with language is very different from Adichie’s incisively politicized prose, which in turn is very different from the formal elegance of Lahiri’s writing. I don’t know if I could say that any of these books is “better” than any of the others because they are all so different from each other. Nevertheless, I am glad that many people who might not have read those works will now do so.
ANYWAY. What I’ve been wondering is how the debate initiated by Harris – and focused by the Bailey’s prize – might apply to Irish drama.
Back in the early 1990s, a festival was organized by Glasshouse Productions called “There are no Irish women playwrights”. I’ve heard two different stories about where the Festival got its name – perhaps someone involved can tell us which, if either, is true. The first is that an American academic was in an Irish bookstore and asked to be directed to the section for Irish women playwrights. The academic was told that such a section did not exist because: “there are no Irish women playwrights” (most Irish bookstores place Irish drama on the bottom shelves of their poetry sections, so our playwrights generally don’t fare well even now). The second story is that a question was put to a director in a post-show discussion about why there are so few plays by Irish women on Ireland’s stages. And again the same answer came back.
Either story is perfectly credible, of course, and different variations of these comments are made all the time. But the response of Glasshouse was to organize the There are No Irish Women Playwrights festival, which consisted of a reading of extracts from the works of 12 Irish women writers at the City Arts Centre, and which was (I believe, but am open to correction) followed by performances at the Irish Writers Centre.
Again, there were questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. In a Theatre Ireland report on the event, Caroline Williams refers to a Sunday Tribune review that criticized the plays for focusing on “alcoholism, wife-battering, babies and war”. “Surely,” moaned the reviewer, “the human condition as experienced by Irish women playwrights encompasses other sensibilities?” The reviewer’s suggestion is evidence of a common prejudice: one of the most frequent criticisms of women’s plays by (usually male) reviewers is that the topics are not sufficiently “universal” (we men tend to assume that what is normal to us is “universal”).
That same year, Theatre Ireland ran a special issue about women in Irish drama – one of that journal’s last ever issues, if I remember correctly. In addition to the article mentioned above by Caroline Williams, it also featured important contributions from Helen Meany and Victoria White, among many others. There’s also an interesting interview with Katie Mitchell, then at the start of her career, who had been asked by Garry Hynes to direct at the Peacock. While writing this blog post I had a quick glance at some of these articles, and what is particularly noticeable is that, aside from some superficial topical references, most could just as easily have been written today.
Since then, there have been other important interventions. Cathy Leeney produced Seen and Heard, an anthology of plays by Irish women, in the late 1990s. Melissa Sihra’s edited collection of essays Women in Irish Drama is useful in many ways, especially for its inclusion of a list of plays by Irish women – which runs to several pages and which will contain numerous surprises for any reader. And Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick are about to publish a new anthology of plays by Irish women with Syracuse University Press – http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2014/irish-women-dramatists.html
Yet the problems identified by Joanne Harris persist in Irish drama. As I’ve written on this blog before, roughly one in four Irish plays produced since 1990 has been by a woman (this figure has increased to about one in three in the last five years). Yet plays by women have shorter runs, appear in smaller venues, are less frequently reviewed, are less frequently published – and thus are less frequently revived, and less frequently written about by academics, which in turn means that emerging playwrights in our universities tend to read fewer plays by Irish women. And in the recent consultation for the revised Junior Cert English curriculum, there were very few plays by women (let alone Irish women). So “the canon” remains male-dominated, which in turn has an impact on how young Irish dramatists, both male and female, conceive of their own writing, their own place within the literary tradition.
Women writers are also more likely to write (or to be commissioned to write) plays that are less valued than the “conventional” play – they write proportionately more plays for children, for community groups, and for outreach purposes; and they are also more likely (in general) to write as part of a collective (which is why it took so long for the plays of Charabanc to appear in print – issues of copyright and “ownership” proved difficult to unravel, I’m told).
Furthermore many plays by Irish women are marketed specifically as “women’s plays”: as a great night out for “the girls” (this despite the fact that the theatre audience in Ireland is predominantly female anyway). This was explicitly the case for, say, Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT but a lot of this is much more subtle. For example, we’ve also seen – since the nineteenth century really, and not just in Ireland – that when plays are perceived as being “for women” they are much more likely to be linked with advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, “pampering” (I’m quoting in using that word), and the leisure industries generally.
Yet when the theatre industry here attempts to challenge this problem, they are accused of sexism, rather as Byatt accused the (then) Orange prize. For example, when about five years ago the Abbey staged a series of readings of short plays by women called The Fairer Sex, they were accused variously of ghettoizing and patronizing the writers whose works they were trying to promote.
There have been some improvements since 1993, but it might still be possible to host a festival in Ireland called There Are No Irish Women Playwrights – not because this statement is literally true (just as it was untrue in 1993) but because so many of our women writers have been rendered invisible – or more difficult to see, despite some important work by, among others, Fishamble, Rough Magic, Tinderbox, and (in more recent years) the Abbey.
One of the most prolific, challenging and politically-orientated Irish dramatists around at present is Stella Feehily, for example. One of her short plays appeared in Fishamble’s Shorts about ten years ago; Duck premiered at the Peacock shortly afterwards. And her excellent O Go My Man toured briefly to Cork. But we haven’t seen any of her subsequent plays in Ireland, and I don’t think I have ever heard a conference paper about her work or read an academic article about her either. In part, this is because her plays have mostly been produced by one company during this period (the UK-based Out of Joint). But it’s astonishing that she’s not more celebrated here.
Likewise there’s the case of Nancy Harris, a writer whose debut No Romance was praised almost universally for its inventiveness and originality when it appeared at the Peacock. Her short play Love in a Glass Jar appeared very briefly at the Peacock but her other plays have been staged in London, and her recent play Our New Girl got glowing reviews when it appeared in London and has just been staged in the Atlantic in New York – check out this New York Times review . By going to the Atlantic, Harris is following a pathway taken by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. And we heard a lot about the success of those writers at the Atlantic. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a tweet about Harris’s success there, despite Isherwood’s review having appeared two days ago.
What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that we hear less about the successes of Irish women dramatists than we do about, say, McPherson or Walsh or McCafferty. Why is that?
There are other problems.
There are many more Irish women writers who are far better known in Britain than they are in Ireland. Ailis Ni Riain, Nicola McCartney and Ursula Rani Sarma spring immediately to mind, but there are others.
Also notable is the critical indifference and hostility that has greeted Marina Carr’s more recent plays: she was praised when working within conventional (some would say “patriarchal”) forms such as tragedy (even if she aimed to problematize and rewrite those forms from a feminist viewpoint), but her more experimental output since 2008 has been met with bafflement.
I’m also thinking of the fact that Christina Reid ha spoken publicly about the difficulty she has had in having her plays produced since the mid-1990s: the end of the Troubles meant that her works were no longer seen as politically relevant, and thus theatres lots interest in her as an artist. Why did this happen to Reid but not to Friel’s Translations or Freedom of the City or Parker’s Pentecost?
Some of this, of course, is a result of the problem of “the new play in Ireland” at present, something that we heard a lot about from Irish writers at last year’s Synge Summer School. There are so few venues for Irish writers to produce new work that there is an expectation that every new play must be fully realized, must succeed with critics and audiences and everyone else. This removes space for innovation and risk-taking: playwrights need to be free to fail occasionally – as shown in the example of Carr, who has spoken about how the failure of Ulaloo (pulled from the Peacock stage after only a handful of performances) forced the reinvention that led to The Mai. Every Irish playwright has written something that was considered at the time of its premiere to be a false turn or a failure – Friel’s Faith Healer being a prime example. And while many Irish plays do still fail, there is less acceptance of such failure as being normal and even necessary. Theatres can’t afford it, aside from anything else. And more simply the problem is that we don’t have the kind of venues that can allow new plays to be produced in a way that will allow writers to make some sort of a living..
Yet despite the fact that there has been so much talk of the Irish play being in crisis, there have been a great many successful Irish plays by women in recent years, from such writers as Morna Regan, Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Marie Jones, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacy Gregg, and many more, including those mentioned throughout this post. (And if you think I have omitted anyone, please use the comment box below to add details).
The phrase there are no Irish women playwrights is thus both a challenge and an aspiration. We need to do more to draw attention to plays by women, simply because so much of this work is unjustly neglected – and so much of it has to fight for the attention and respect that many male authors are able to take for granted. We need to ignore those who ask the trivializing questions that accompany all of the innovations mentioned above (“when are we going to get a festival of new plays by men/a special issue of Theatre Ireland about men/ a collection of academic essays about male authors?”). We need to praise those who take small steps rather than critising them for not doing more: a season of readings is better than nothing, even if full productions should be the norm (though of course we must also be critical of token gestures and lip service). And, following on from Joanne Harris, we need to aspire to a situation where calling someone a woman playwright is merely a descriptive statement rather than a political or aesthetic judgement.
It’s now 21 years since the There are no Irish Women Playwrights festival was staged. Things have improved, somewhat, but there’s still much more to be done. As a community – of theatre-makers, writers, producers, scholars, audience-members – we need to get our act together on this one, I think.