Monday, January 30, 2012

More thoughts on writing, gender and statistics

Here's a thing I've just noticed about this week's copy for the column of short book reviews I'm currently writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (what I'm writing, this week, I mean -- won't be published till early Feb).

It's something I think to check from time to time and I'm glad to say that even when I'm not doing it consciously I usually manage, over the course of four book reviews, to mix up genre, gender and nationality pretty evenly. The literary editor does the first cull of the books that come in for review and sends me more than I need, and then I choose from them.

(I'm always startled to realise how many people think reviewers choose their own books, at least for hard-copy publications. Books for review, and reviewers for them, are chosen by the literary editor, though reviewers will often make a pitch to review this or that book.)

Mostly when people are counting statistics about whether men or women are getting more coverage, they don't look any further than the numbers. This week's copy features three women writers and one man. With four books to review per week, the most frequent gender ratio in my own columns (as I say, not often deliberately: frankly I'm proud of having internalised this to the point where I usually don't even think about it) is 2:2. Sometimes, as this week, it's 3:1, one way or the other. Very rarely is it 4:0 but when it is, again, the all-male and all-female weeks are pretty equal in terms of numbers.

Recently I compared stats with a fellow writer of multiple short reviews per week, over a period of months, and was astounded to see that of 88 books I'd reviewed in that time, 45 were by women and 43 by men. Not chosen deliberately; the cards just fell that way.


Part of my job is to select a Pick of the Week, which gets twice as long a review as the others. It's usually pretty easy to do, especially in a weak week. Sometimes a book just leaps out at you; other times it's a tossup between two, or even more. Usually I pick the one that has the largest number of positive things to be said about it, which would seem to guarantee that the largest number of people won't feel as though they have been misled if they ever get round to reading the book.

This week, I happened to notice that the Pick of the Week is the only book out of the four that was written by a man. It's a clear winner, though the others are fine and none of them is downright bad -- although this isn't always the case. I have no problems with this choice at all.

But if I looked at my column for, say, four weeks in a row, or over a period of six months, and noticed that I had reviewed more women writers than men but that the men's books were consistently being featured as Pick of the Week, I would. I would have a problem with it, and with myself. There'd be some ferocious self-interrogation going on. But it's not a thing that the raw stats would pick up.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


To the best of my knowledge, the technology doesn't yet exist for blogging smells. So you'll just have to infer the scent of this lovely stuff from the photo, and more specifically from the words Rose sauvage beurre nourrissant pour les mains.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ten more legendary bad girls of literature

One knows, of course, that sequels never play like the original any more than backlash does, but the original Bad Girls of Literature post here last week seems to have had such a positive and widespread response here and elsewhere that I thought I'd post another ten.

Please note that these are in no way the B team. The original post was in response to a 'Ten Bad Boys' article and I was simply riffing off that, writing down names as I happened to think of them. Same with these. Like the first ten, they are names that came to mind readily without having to be thought about. I have, however, been offered a couple of inspired suggestions that chimed with my own taste (Carter, Clift, Wollstonecraft) and I've added them here AS YOU WILL SEE ...  

Simone de Beauvoir

'The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.' 

Angela Carter

'Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives woman emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.'

Charmian Clift

'At night, the water slides over your body warm and silky, a mysterious element, unresistant, flowing, yet incredibly buoyant. In the dark you slip through it, unquestionably accepting the night's mood of grace and silence, a little drugged with wine, a little spellbound with the night, your body mysterious and pale and silent in the mysterious water, and at your slowly moving feet and hands streaming trails of phosphorescence, like streaming trails of stars. Still streaming stars you climb the dark ladder to the dark rock, shaking showers of stars from your very fingertips, most marvellously and mysteriously renewed and whole again.'

Sylvia Plath

'And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.'

Dorothy Parker

'There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind ... There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.'

Dorothy Porter

'Brooding from the reflective fastness of middle age, I wonder if some of the most deeply passionate experiences of my life have happened between the covers of a book.'

Jean Rhys

' of those long, romantic novels, six hundred and fifty pages of small print, translated from French or German or Hungarian or something -- because few of the English ones have the exact feeling I mean. And you read one page of it or even one phrase of it, and then you gobble up all the rest and go about in a dream for weeks afterwards, for months afterwards -- perhaps all your life, who knows? -- surrounded by those six hundred and fifty pages, the houses, the streets, the snow, the river, the roses, the girls, the sun, the ladies' dresses and the gentlemen's voices, the old, wicked, hard-hearted women and the old, sad women, the waltz music -- everything. What is not there you put in afterwards, for it is alive, this book, and it grows in your head. "The house I was living in when I read that book," you think, or "This colour reminds me of that book."'

Marguerite Duras

'Before they're plumbers or writers or taxi drivers or unemployed or journalists, before everything else, men are men. Whether heterosexual or homosexual. The only difference is that some of them remind you of it as soon as you meet them, and others wait for a little while.'

 Anaïs Nin

'I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.'

Mary Wollstonecraft


  'Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.'

And another flash mob

This is the classiest one I've ever seen. I love the bewildered-looking woman at the end, who seems to think she has been bewitched and wonders where all the fairies have suddenly gone. And I wonder how many people missed their trains, and didn't care.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Beit Shemesh Flash Mob

Beit Shemesh Flash Mob

Imagine what would happen to these girls and women, most of whom are identifiable in the video (and no doubt from countless other recordings), under an Israeli government dominated by the ultra-Orthodox who have so much power and influence there already, and who are, in their attitude to women, barely distinguishable from the Taliban.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ten legendary bad girls of literature

Publishers Random House have just posted to Facebook a link to an article called '10 Legendary Bad Boys of Literature', which features such little charmers as Amis père et fils, the oddly unattractive Michel Houellebecq, and a stomach-churning shot of Norman Mailer in his favourite legs-spread pose, which would have obviated the need for his tailor ever to ask which side he dressed.

Personally I think the Bad Girls of Literature were infinitely more charming without being in any way less talented or less Bad. I'm sure there were more, especially in other cultures and literatures, but here's a list for starters.

Germaine Greer

'I have always been principally interested in men for sex. I've always thought any sane woman would be a lover of women because loving men is such a mess. I have always wished I'd fall in love with a woman. Damn.'

George Sand

'The trade of authorship is a violent and indestructible obsession.'

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

'Nature has not placed us in an inferior rank to men, no more than the females of other animals, where we see no distinction of capacity, though I am persuaded if there was a commonwealth of rational horses... it would be an established maxim amongst them that a mare could not be taught to pace.'

Aphra Behn

'Fantastic fortune, thou deceitful light,
That cheats the weary traveller by night,
Though on a precipice each step you tread,
I am resolved to follow where you lead.'

Rebecca West

'I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.'

Katherine Mansfield

 'Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.'

Jane Bowles

'I am so wily and feminine that I could live by your side for a lifetime and deceive you afresh each day.'

Gertrude Stein

'When I go around and speak on campuses, I still don't get young men standing up and saying, How can I combine career and family?'

Emily Bronte

'I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.'


'When she raises her eyelids it's as if she were taking off all her clothes.'

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Of research and vaudeville

The item on top of the work pile at the moment is a now very battered advance proof copy of a novel called The Little Shadows by the Canadian writer Marina Endicott, published in Canada last year and due for release in Australia in February. It's about a family in vaudeville, working the circuits along the border of the US and Canada; set from 1912-1917, it shows how their lives are affected by the forces of history.

With my curiosity piqued about vaudeville and its history in Australia -- obviously such an 'American' thing was going to make its way to Canada, but did it have a substantial history here? -- I went looking in the astounding new(ish) resource provided by the National Library, Trove, which -- well, go over there and have a look.

I spent many happy hours on this site last year and the year before when I was researching Adelaide and found, among other things, a great deal of family history buried among Family Notices and roundups from 'The Country', where the ferocious rivalry between my Scottish grandma and her bossy sister-in-law regarding the organisation of fund-raisers for the War Effort in Curramulka can be seen between the lines of often profoundly corrupted text.

Apropos of which, I decided early on that since this magical resource had been provided to me then the very least I could do was take an active part in the way it works: crowdsourcing to correct the scanned text, since obviously the resources don't exist for it to be done professionally. I decided that I would correct every article I used. There's no measuring this, but my guess is that, as with Wikipedia, the longer it goes on the more accurate it will be, as more and more people use it and contribute.

Anyway, vaudeville. Oh yes indeed. There's a thesis in this topic alone: 'Racism in the content and language of journalistic reportage of vaudeville in Adelaide, 1920-1940.' Here, for example, is a paragraph from The Advertiser of September 30, 1926:

Special interest is attached to the Southern Revue Company, which will be appearing for the first time in Adelaide at the Theatre Royal next Saturday, under the J. C. Williamson management. Many of the members of Joe Sheftell's revue are even blacker than negroes are usually painted, but this is not true about the chorus girls, who are much fairer than their men folk. One of the members of the company remarked while in Sydney "how mighty good every one has been to us." This is the first impression gained of Australia by one of the darkest of the members. He also explained that in the Land of Liberty "culled" folk have to travel in their own special "Jim Crow" railway carriages, and are segregated in special hotels and restaurants. This company includes many talented performers, who have been a great success in both Melbourne and Sydney — Minta Cato, the colored soprano; Joe Sheftell, the producer; Bob Williams, the comedian; McConn, Saunders, and Williams, the nifty steppers, and the chorus girls.
Did you blanch over that word 'culled'? Language is a wonderful thing when it come to the return of the repressed. It took me a few seconds to work out that it was merely an attempt at phonetic approximation of the accent of the unnamed  'dark member' (oh dear, it just gets worse and worse) and his pronunciation of the word 'colored' (interesting that the Advertiser was using American spelling in 1926).  I also enjoyed the snide reference to the Land of Liberty, implying that we in Australia have no such unenlightened attitudes, oh my wordy lordy no.

And as for the forces of history, I couldn't help noticing the tour dates on this one, from The Advertiser of September 21, 1929:

Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher, announces that the annual concert to be given by her students will be held in the Thebarton Town Hall on October 22. The programme will contain several spectacular ballets, solo dances, and vaudeville acts.
(And for anyone looking for ideas for fiction, there's a whole novel for you right there in the phrase 'Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher.') Unbeknownst to either the journalist or Miss Trixie, the 1929 Wall Street Crash was imminent: Black Thursday was October 24th, two days after the concert.

Vaudeville was a notoriously unstable and insecure profession even at the best of times, as Endicott's book makes clear, with acts being sacked and theatres closing down and impresarios going broke left and right. I wonder what happened to everyone in the wake of Black Thursday: to Miss Trixie, whose pupils' parents must have hurriedly reassessed whether the budget could stand ballet lessons? To those 'culled' troupers from three years before? To all vaudeville everywhere: the performers, the backers, the managers, the theatre owners, and the audiences, many of whom may have abruptly decided that going to the vaudeville was a luxury they could definitely do without? What happened to the nifty steppers, the Men of Mirth, the chorus girls, the acrobatic violinists and the 'Gypsy' dancers, in the wake of October 24th, 1929? Whatever did they do? Wherever did they go?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The everlasting strangeness of others

Overheard today in the shopping-centre carpark, a fragment of an exchange between the youngish parents of two little girls:

HIM: ... but why do you have to bring everybody else down with you?
HER: Why not? If I'm down, why shouldn't everybody else be down too?

He had no answer to this. He merely looked hang-dog and got on with wheeling the trolley. The power she had over him was not pretty-girl power, for she was not a pretty girl, but you could see it was one of those relationships in which, for some mad reason, the bloke somehow courts and welcomes being emotionally controlled by some soi-disant princess and her bitch-from-hell ways. Think Brett in Kath and Kim. There's a profound psychological truth to that marriage.

In the supermarket, on a whim, I had bought some trash mags, entertained as I perennially am by the letters to 'psychics'. ("My mother died in 1976. Is she all right?") One of this week's letters begins like this:

'My eldest daughter is driving me crazy. She will be 18 soon and we fight all the time about her career choice.'

You do say what? Just exactly who is driving whom crazy in this scenario? Back off, mama. Back off and mind your beeswax.