On the occasion of the Symposium Women* in Literature on 18 and 19 June 2022 and organised by EWC Member A*dS (Authors and Translators Switzerland) EWC President Nina George gave the opening speech: “Who is afraid of Writing Women”?
Brussels, 20 June 2022
On 18/19 June 2022, the symposium Women* in Literature FIL took place at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern (Switzerland). On Saturday, around 120 authors, organisers, experts and decision-makers from publishing houses, the media, the theatre, the academy and the promotion of literature took stock of the different areas of the business. On Sunday, concrete tools and a list of demands were developed to tackle the recognition gap. EWC President Nina George gave the opening speech on Sunday, 19 June 2022:
Who is afraid of writing women?
Dear colleagues, dear non-binary colleagues; dear authors-collektive RAUF and dear A*dS authors of Switzerland, dear Philine Ernie:
On 11 November 1987, I was 14, I told my grandmother two of my most intimate secrets: I falsified my diaries with made-up events. And: I want to be a writer! She replied in shock: “But, dear! A writer? You’ll never catch a husband that way!”
She told me which women writers had killed themselves: head in the gas oven (Sylvia Plath), stones in their pockets (Virginia Woolf), poisoning in the woods (Karin Boye). A dissolute, dangerous life lay ahead of me, because a woman who writes scares men away, cannot run a household and only visits the cooker to light a cigarette on the hot hob.
This prospect seemed deeply tempting to me.
Just imagine for a moment that a Walser, Grass or Mann would have had to listen to that. “Martin! Günter! Thomas! What do you want to be, an author? No way! You won’t find a wife like that, you’ll be an office clerk!”.
I got a job as a bartender at 16, bought a typewriter, and began to seriously worry my family.
Of course, I had no idea how to do it: become a writer. There were no writing courses in the early 90s, but the genius myth.
The muse preferably dripped inspiration into select male brains, who could be recognised by their raised index finger and a poet’s puffy jacket, and with flabby red wine cheeks. Female role models? Scarce, except for the extreme variants: Ingeborg Bachmann as the exception of the century, and Utta Danella, whom everyone read but no one took seriously.
Writing, as a woman? – that was presumption!
And that was only recently, in 1990. The older ones will remember that.
In 2013, some twenty non-fiction books, novels and a hundred short stories later, at the age of 39 and with a titanium disc (pink) in my neck, I landed my first international bestseller, The Little Paris Bookshop, now published in 37 languages. I had the dubious honour of being thrown in the bin on TV by the barrel-organ monkey Dennis Scheck, and the charming satisfaction of being praised to the skies by Oprah Winfrey. It took me twenty years to become famous overnight.
Twenty years in which it was always women who refined and sold my work; when I release a novel, it passes through an average of eight pairs of female hands and brains. Women are the invisible army behind all the books in the world. The book sector is female.
Since 1960, the proportion of women in the book industry has been 80 per cent, which in Germany is 62,000 out of 78,410 employees in figures, and as many women in the book sector as Rosenheim has inhabitants. Or Lugano.
Slightly more in the book trade (83 %), slightly less in publishing (65 %).
Upper management is still under-staffed by women; the figures vary between 7 to 17 %. The pay gap is larger than in other sectors; again it varies between 24% and 36%.
You can’t tell from the figures, but they are nevertheless the result of a revolution: barely 120 years ago, the gentlemen in the purely masculine-dominated book trade found it intolerable that they should be selling the fine intellectual material side by side with the, quote, “stupid wenches” who suddenly wanted to switch from porcelain painting to Nietzsche. The frightened booksellers argued in the Börsenblatt of the Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels, among other things, with the question of propriety: “Should respectable women be forced to present the latest piquancies to a young bon vivant?” – Oh dear, one wants to sigh, would that have prevented Fifty Shades of Grey?
In the Börsenblatt of 1895, there is a publisher who rejects women as booksellers because of their, quote, “intellectual deficits”, another complains that the female bookseller as such has too little, quote, “gracefulness”, and a third refuses to print women authors simply “out of principle”, and because women do not create and witness, but record and transfer. Men, yes, created literature, and women created … well … women’s books.
Women’s books. And: women’s fiction. Only topped by: Women’s literature.
To this day, these terms are used en masse as a euphemism for: “trivial, kitschy, neck-biting and doctor’s novels”, and this equation of “women’s book” with “guff/menstruation/lalala”, with the simultaneous absence of a disparaging synonym for “men’s book”, explains perfectly how things are with the reception of works by female authors: Mi-se-ra-bel.
Even my success as the most successful German-language author abroad did not in the least give me the right to appear in the feuilleton for it. I could take that personally, but I prefer to take it statistically:
Men review, depending on the genre, two to five times more often, longer and more favourably, as the pilot study we conducted in Germany with the Netzwerk Autorenrechte and the University of Rostock in the #frauenzählen project filtered out in 2018; female authors receive a maximum of 30 per cent of the available print lines and broadcast minutes, and only if they publish with high literature publishers. This “women’s third” coincides with counts in the Netherlands and the VIDA reports in England.
“Women have to write, but they cannot write if they are not allowed to forget their gender,” says Corina Koolen. The Dutch literary researcher, who analysed individual and media-professional reviews of works written by women with text and data mining in “This is not a woman’s book”, proved: Women are assigned the label women’s literature – books by male authors are always discussed in literary terms.
Do men write better?
Marcel Rein-Ranicki answered this question in the FAZ: “Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Horace, Ovid, Vergil, Dante, Petrarch, Molière, Corneille, Racine, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Calderón, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Brecht. They were all men. Is that enough of an answer? ” By the way, that was in 2009, not 1509.
I would love to belt back: “Abonji, Sontag, Sachs, Woolf, de Beauvoir, Sagan, Lessing, Lindgren, Shalev, Jenny, Spyri, Allende, Berg, Evaristo, Colette, Austen, Sand, Dangaremba, von Bingen, de Pizan, Zeh, Franck, Hermann, Hustvedt, Munro, Kennedy, Ulitzkaya, Tocarzuk -” but even then it would resound muffled back: “Frrrrauenliteratur!” („Women’sbooks!“)
Consequently, I would like to echo the Flemish writer Kristien Hemmerechts; she asks in her work “The Man, His Penis and the Knife”: “How is it possible that people continue to hold male writers in greater esteem while there is no demonstrable difference in quality?”
Yes, why? Perhaps due to habituation: the male writer is preferred throughout Europe in the recommendations of school and university readings; for every nine works by men, on average one work by a woman is recommended in the educational canon. When someone explains the world to children and students, it is rarely someone with a vagina.
The oh-so-free internet doesn’t really help much either: if you look at Wikipedia, the online pseudo-encyclopedia filled to 90 per cent by men, and see what comes up with the term “porn actress” compared to “poetess”, you’ll find 621 entries in the horizontal category, including a careful filmography of her work and oeuvre, and 143 names among the female poets. I think the priorities of public-male relevance are clear.
Although most European markets have the same number of male and female writers, in the Netherlands men have a 75% higher chance of winning a literary prize. In Spain and Slovenia, the rate is 86% for men, surpassed only by the Nobel Prize at 92%. In many places, such disproportions have led to the explicit awarding of prizes to female authors. In The Netherlands, however, the tendency is to abolish prizes for women authors; they have decided that emancipation has succeeded. Now only the magazine OPZIJ awards a literary prize for women. One of the prize winners found the award counterproductive, quoting: “I don’t write with my breasts“.
Speaking of breasts: As the now president of the European Writers’ Council, I sometimes encounter lobbyists who want to bend copyright law until it slides down their knees, pointing fingers at me in their verbal contributions, on Twitter or in political debates, because I deal with breasts, sexuality and Eros in my non-fiction books under a pseudonym in an exceedingly joyful way. The fear of women writing has many faces.
Maybe we should change the way we look at ourselves – and all become elks. Yes, elks. Our work, our manuscripts – which Margret Atwood said resembled a dead moose – are the source of two dozen other forms of life. Agents, publishers, editors, booksellers, but also those critics and reviewers; translators and Ikea’s billy shelf builders live off us. Or reading café operators. Or librarians. And Jeff Bezos, alas. But very few women writers find their way to the self-image of being the first employer in a billion-dollar business chain; too often we are still overwhelmed by the slightly insane gratitude of being printed at all. The authority gap, the recognition gap into which texts from a female perspective plop in the perception, in the canon, in school book reading lists or at awards ceremonies, is also often difficult to jump over emotionally and mentally.
But let this day of the Congress also serve to take a run-up together – and to jump.
For this, I would like to suggest the following:
- Close the data gap. Count women on panels, on juries, in scholarships, in reviews, as interviewed experts in newspapers, in the canon of textbook reading, as actors in text or film works, also count how much money women receive for the same performance (reading, panel participation, moderation etc.) compared to men, etc.. So that no one can accuse you of criticising the attention gap out of vanity.
- Form gangs! Networking across Europe, for example also via the European Writers’ Council, is possible at the drop of a hat in order to learn from each other and act together: Nordic countries, for example, are formulating self-commitments for appointments to committees and juries; Spain and Portugal are currently establishing a new canon of female literature; Germany wants to dedicate itself to textbook recommendations and also enable residency scholarships with either childcare; in the Netherlands, artificial intelligence tools are being used to examine texts for character representation and gender, etc.
- Don’t shy away from quotas – whenever public funds are being handled, a quota for jury appointments and the distribution of funds, here especially grants, scholarships etc., is adequate according to the Basic Law of Equality.
And, above all: be proud of yourself!
Women are often taught, even in childhood and adolescence, that they should not celebrate their achievements in order not to disgrace others or become the centre of attention in an insubordinate way. Put that aside. It is much more fun to be proud of your abilities and achievements.
– Thank you.