A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Archive for July 2011

Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman

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Much like Room, this was a book that stalked me. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to avoid it. I was sure it would be nothing more than a cynical moneyspinner, trading on jokes about periods and dildos with very little of substance to say. Caitlin Moran’s face stared out at me from the posters with a sort of sturdy insolence, and I would duck my gaze and stare resolutely into my Obreht, feeling literary and virtuous.

But being the suggestible soul that I am, it was only a matter of time before curiosity and the marketing campaign wore me down. A moment of weakness on the morning commute and, before you could say ‘Germaine Greer’, I had downloaded the text and was plunging in.

And I’m happy to report that I was wrong. For all the slickness of its publicity machine, How to be a Woman is certainly no mere moneyspinner: UK journalist Caitlin Moran holds many passionate views about the female condition and expresses them with fervour and humour — whether they’re justified or not.

As you might expect from a seasoned columnist for The Times, Moran has the knack of encapsulating tricky concepts in accessible images. Her use of the Broken Windows Theory (that if you don’t fix smashed windows on empty buildings they attract more vandalism) to explain the slow creep of anti-women ideas into society is a great metaphor for the dangers of complacency. Similarly, the observation that teenage bulimics, anorexics and self-harmers are essentially ‘waging war on their pituitaries’ is a powerful, personal insight.

Much of this is helped by humour and, when she does it well, Moran can have you glancing guiltily around the tube carriage in case her outrageous references to ‘My Dickens of fucking’ and microscopic knickers are causing offence… before you remember that you’re only reading a book. But it isn’t always done well: at times the perpetually hyperbolic registers grate and the whole thing feels like waking up the morning after a house party to find the overexcited friend of a friend who no-one invited still mixing vodka cocktails in your living room and insisting on accompanying you on your journey to work.

Part of the problem is that Moran has decided that humour is one of the badges of the liberated woman that she must defend. She takes up her cudgels on the mistaken premise that, apart from Dorothy Parker in the 1920s, ‘no other women are funny until French & Saunders and Victoria Wood’. In light of Aphra Behn, Stella Gibbons, Richmal Crompton, Barbara Pym and the army of bawdy performers who delighted music hall goers throughout the 19th century — to name but a few laugh-out-loud-funny women — it seems odd that Moran should seize on this. Her lengthy and repeated assertions that women are chronically under-represented in all fields of achievement throughout history because of the mental barriers that hem them in would suggest that successful comediennes are no thinner on the ground than, say, female nuclear physicists, female conductors, or female tycoons.

This isn’t the only inconsistency. Throughout the book, Moran’s railing against the Patriarchy (she even jokes that she has taught her daughters to say ‘Damn the Patriarchy’ when they fall over)  jostles uncomfortably with her ‘the Guys’ philosophy — that we human beings should forget gender distinctions and think of ourselves as being all in this together.

Leaving aside the linguistic problem of a gender-neutral group of ‘Guys’, there’s an awkward ‘them and us’ mentality attached to the constant harping on the Patriarchy, which makes gender-blind equality seem impossible. You can’t help feeling that there are more fundamental changes needed than Moran has conceived of, and that, if she had taken a little longer than the ‘five-month blur’ she says she spent writing the book in the acknowledgements, she might have hit on something a bit more substantial.

Nonetheless, the book is a good read, full of amusing anecdotes and brave confessions. Its accessibility may prompt some  of those who haven’t grappled much with the ‘f’ word before to give it more thought. And that’s got to be worth something.

Picture by Maga Soto

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Written by Ann Morgan

July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife

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I really wanted to like this book. When I heard that its 25-year-old author had scooped the Orange Prize, I found my inevitable flash of envy quickly extinguished by a tsunami of admiration for a brave decision on the part of the jury and hope that here at last was an indication that the great and the good of the literary world might be budging up to make room for some new talent. Please be good, please be good, I willed the coiling circle as I watched  it spiral the text down out of the ether on to my Kindle. Please let me enjoy it!

I got part of my wish: The Tiger’s Wife was good. It was very well done. But did I enjoy it? Did I, hell.

The reason for this boils down to two words: ‘magical realism’ (or ‘fabulism’, if you prefer). Call it what you will, I can’t stand the stuff. In fact, it’s been the thorn in the side of my reading career ever since I fumbled Nights at the Circus down off the bookshop shelf aged 12 or thereabouts. Give me any book that trades off blending elements of the enchanted with the ‘real’ world and it’s as though some sort of reverse magic is in play as far as I’m concerned, transforming books that are hailed as masterpieces into dull exercises in creating something out of very little before my very eyes.

At the touch of my bewitched fingers, the greatest works in the fabulist canon wither into tedium. Midnight’s Children? Abracadabra: four hundred and fifty pages about a man with a blocked nose.  One hundred years of solitude? Loved the image of the galleon encrusted with orchids, but — Kaboom! — as far as the rest went, about six months of solitude would have covered it for me (the same doesn’t go for Marquez’s extraordinary autobiography, Living to tell the tale, by the way, which I will love until I die).

What makes it worse is that it’s not even as though I can have the satisfaction of thinking that the writing is bad. I can see that it isn’t. I can recognise Marquez’s masterful lyricism, Carter’s eye for the fantastic and Winterson’s way with the grotesque. In the case of The Tiger’s Wife, which (just in case you thought this post might give you some idea of what the book is actually about) follows a young female doctor as she pieces together the strange myths surrounding her grandfather’s life and death in some unspecified Slavic country, I can admire the neat plotting and the way the threads cross and complement each other. I can even — and here’s the real curveball — salute the way Obreht strikes up suspense and tension, reeling the reader on, without feeling the slightest desire to turn the page.

I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with me though. And I’m game to be converted, so if you know of some magical realist gems that might break the spell (preferably stories by girls if you want me to look at them before 2012), I’d be delighted to hear about them.

As far as The Tiger’s Wife goes, though, if you like magical realism, go knock yourself out with it. If you don’t, I doubt Obreht will change your mind.

Picture by WGyuri

Written by Ann Morgan

July 6, 2011 at 9:23 am