There are no Irish Women Playwrights..?

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:

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 –

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.


Man Booker Prize 2013 Predictions

So this evening the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize will be announced. I thought I’d take a detour from the theatre-related posts to speculate about who might win. We’ll know tomorrow whether I should stick with writing about Irish drama…

It’s a very strong shortlist this year – I’ve read five of the six books and think any of them could potentially win – and any of them would be a deserving winner too.

The only one I haven’t read yet is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. There’s no significant reason for the omission – it’s been difficult to find a copy in an Irish bookstore, and the kindle edition is relatively expensive – so I just haven’t got round to it yet.

The main Irish interest is in Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary, which was first produced as a play called Testament for Landmark, directed by Garry Hynes and starring Marie Mullen (whose photo from the production I’m pasting below). I admired the performance by Mullen in that production, but came out of the Project thinking that it wasn’t a play – an opinion shared by many who saw it on Broadway when Fiona Shaw took on the role.

Marie Mullen in TESTAMENT by Colm Tóibín, a co-production between Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and Landmark Productions

The book was far more satisfying. Toibin has created a voice for Mary, the mother of Jesus – and that voice is essentially of one tone throughout the entire novel: she is a woman recounting with horror, despair and rage the death of her son. That tone builds in intensity as the novel progresses but on stage it was a bit, well, monotonous: it offers performers nowhere to come from or go to in delivery. As a novel it is tightly packed, written with discipline and economy, and utterly persuasive. It may be difficult to love it, but it’s certainly difficult to fault it too.


I think Toibin could win in much the same way that Julian Barnes won for Sense of an Ending (when he should have won for Arthur and George) or in the way that Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam (when he should have won for Enduring Love) – there is a sense that he’s such a major author that a Booker is now overdue, and could certainly have been justified for The Master and Brooklyn. I don’t mean that to disparage The Testament of Mary in making that statement, but instead am just suggesting that Toibin’s track record may come into play when the judges deliberate.

And the favourite for the prize is Jim Crace’s Harvest, which is similar in some ways to Toibin’s book, in that it’s a first-person narrative from someone who’s recounting horrible events that he witnessed in the past. And it’s also similar in the sense that it’s written by someone who could be awarded a Booker not only on the merits of this novel but also for his career to date.

Harvest reads like a historical novel but could just as easily be set in some sort of dystopian future, exploring what happens when a family of three strangers arrive at a country village at a time when the community’s lifestyle is about to be altered irretrievably. It’s paced like a thriller, but has a sense of inevitability that is also quite tragic. The perspective is decidedly contemporary – it reminded me somewhat of Ronan Bennett’s Havoc In Its Third Year. This is a very good book, but I wonder how the judges will respond to the fact that it’s told only from one perspective – which means that most characters are described only superficially. I thought this added to the sense of looming disaster, but when compared with the other novels, Crace’s can seem slightly more limited in its characterisation.

This is most obviously the case when Harvest is compared with  Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s a very long novel about the New Zealand gold-rush – and again it’s paced quite like a thriller, with a series of mysteries about a murder, an inheritance, a case of fraudulent identities and so on. It reminded me a little of Wilkie Collins, in that it has the tightly-plotted quality of a triple-decker Victorian novel – but it also has an uncanny tone that seems closer to the twentieth century. That said, fans of the TV show Deadwood will also find much here that they enjoy (aside from the bad language, which is absent here). Whereas Crace and Toibin’s novels give us only one perspective, Catton moves through several distinctive characters.  I thought the novel suffered slightly from using a structure based on signs of the zodiac – at times, it felt as though the storytelling was serving the structure rather than the other way around. But it’s a very entertaining book, and would become a popular winner, I think.

I didn’t much enjoy  Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being. It offers a split narrative, with one part of the story told by a Japanese teenager being bullied in school, and the other about a novelist called Ruth who finds the Japanese teenager’s diary and tries to understand what happened to her. The main story about the teenager is very compelling and it’s written in an appealing, mildly Holden Caulfield-esque tone. But I thought the book was trying a bit too hard to be self-consciously postmodern: we have the fact that Ozeki gives the protagonist her own name, inviting questions about whether the story is true or not – and we also have the fact that the authenticity of the main narrative is always uncertain. There is some interesting material in there about the relationship between Buddhism and postmodernism, both of which are seen as involving the embracing of uncertainty. There is also a nice image of a story being written on blank pages within the cover of one of Proust’s novels. And if you like Murakami, you will probably enjoy this too. But  I was disappointed by it: when I get to the end of a novel I like to feel that the investment was worth something – so if there is to be uncertainty or indeterminacy, that feeling of not knowing needs to matched by a sense that I’ve learned or gained something. Instead I felt slightly like my time had been wasted.

The last book I’ve read is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. The blurb on the back says this is about two brothers, but that’s only accurate about the first part of the novel. We’re set up with a story of two twins, whose paths diverge – one moves to America for an academic career, and the other becomes involved in radical politics in India. In the second half of the novel, a similar duality is established between a mother and daughter, both living in America and both taking contrasting paths. So that means the book overall is split between two males and two females. Where I would be critical of the structure of The Luminaries and A Tale for the Time Being, I thought this was very finely balanced. Like the Toibin novel, it’s also written with great care and precision, and like the Crace and Catton it’s also a very well paced story.

As I write above, Crace is the favourite for the prize, but I am going to suggest that Lahiri will be the winner. Mainly this is because I think it’s the best novel on the shortlist – it has everything that the other novels have, but is able to make those achievements come together. So I think it should win.

Another context, however, is that the Booker will be open to American authors from now on. Some might see that as a reason to think that Crace will win – since this is the last time there will be no Americans on the list, there might be an impulse to give the award to a Briton. Well, Crace would be a deserving winner, but I think the fact that Lahiri was put on the shortlist in the first place shows that the judges aren’t really thinking too much about nationality (up to now, she’s mainly been seen as an American author).

Overall though the most important thing is that the shortlist is good and that it’s bringing to the public’s attention a number of novelists who are relatively early in their careers. I worry slightly about whether that will continue to happen when the prize is open to American authors –  one of the things I’ve always liked about the Booker is that it gives exposure to authors who might not otherwise have received it. From an Irish point of view, the Booker has had a major impact on the careers of Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright too, and it’s difficult to see whether such successes will continue.

But that’s an argument for next year.