Don’t Go Empty Handed

‘Don’t Go Empty Handed’: this was one of my English Grandma’s oft-repeated phrases when we would stay at her house as children. We would eat in the large sitting/dining room, where there was space to accommodate us all: Grandma, Grandad, Dad, Mum, my brother, and eventually my little sister, too.

MugsIt was a principle of ergonomic activity my Grandma was urging. We were eating in a different room from where the food was prepared, and then at the end of the meal we needed to transport dishes, leftovers and condiments, to be put away in cupboards and the fridge, and the washing up done. If any of us got up to fetch something from the kitchen – an extra knife, or a forgotten sauce – this would be the refrain. Take something on your way through. It was also a reminder of the labour of domestic work, the to-and-fro of daily meals.

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On (Re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale

fullsizerenderInspired by the sales spike of certain books in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I went over to my bookshelf. Not to pull off George Orwell’s 1984 (one of the books with a new urgency to it) but to find, nestled among piles of other Virago titles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s 1985 dystopian vision of the Republic of Gilead, in which women are forced to breed for the theocratic ruling class, has found new resonance as a US president who has openly and repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny takes office. Atwood’s book is shortly to be released as a TV mini-series, and was plugged (along with several other adverts which seemingly expressed values in opposition to Trump’s) during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Time, then, for me to re-read the book. I have an ulterior motive, too – the book I’ve been writing displays a perhaps not-too subtle influence from Atwood’s novel (my alternate world features cloaked women and constraints – including on reading and procreation – placed upon particular sectors of society). My mum, commenting on an early draft, recognised the influence immediately.

Before starting to reread, I thought back to when I read the book, in the 6th form at school. I remembered lending the copy to a friend, who returned it with an apology and a coffee stain. More precious about my books then than I am now (perhaps because I owned fewer of them), I was cross. I checked, and the stain is still there, running along the top edge of the pages.

fullsizerender-2I opened it up, and saw the teddy bear bookplate: ‘I can’t bear to be without my books’. This childish hangover marked that I’d got the book on my 18th birthday. I suspect I chose the book myself, though I can’t remember. By that time, I’d already read several other of Atwood’s books after being introduced to Surfacing by a forward-thinking A-level English Literature teacher. We’d made collages in class to represent the psychological landscape of the protagonist of Atwood’s second novel; its wild world of madness, nationalism and feminism. The same teacher also set us Tony Harrison’s V, a long poem written after the author had found graffiti on his parents’ Yorkshire gravestones. Its obscene language – ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘nigger’ – caused great controversy when it was televised in 1987 for Channel 4, and was still creating debate when recorded for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. Thinking back, I was lucky to have a teacher so keen to teach us very contemporary, and political, literature.

I’ve written elsewhere about traces of reading I’ve found in my Famous Five books. This copy of The Handmaid’s Tale revealed another history to me – the address of a young man, Laurie, who I’d met on the train home from an interview for a place at Oxford. He’d also been for an interview, and was heading back to Scarborough, I to Lincolnshire. I seem to remember I must have written to him, and we spoke on the phone after we had found out about our offers. In the age before mobile phones and social media, this was done self-consciously from the hallway of the family home.

I’d applied to one of the oldest and most traditional of colleges (mainly because I liked the buildings), and didn’t enjoy my interviews: one with an older tutor interrogated my understanding of a poem I was given to look at on the spot, and found baffling; and a second with two younger men who sat to either side of me so I couldn’t see them both at once. They’d asked me what I was reading outside of my set texts, so I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d been reading on the train on the way down. They also seemed keener on getting a particular response from me to the text (that Gilead is the former United States, and Canada an escape route) than hearing about my opinions about the book, which I anyway hadn’t yet finished. Dissuaded by these men and their desire for me to utter a pre-determined answer to their literary questions, I chose instead to go to university in York, where my female interviewer seemed happily to listen to my appreciative description of the weather in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and its objective correlative role in character creation.

Life turns on such decisions, but the heat of their moment lessens as time goes on. Physical copies of books sometimes retain that heat within their pages, unfolding a previous life as the pages are turned once more. It’s one of the reasons why bookish people like to surround themselves with shelves of books, even if we know, rationally, we’re unlikely to read a particular copy again.

And yet today, though, I’m starting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale:

I remember that yearning, of something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.





Judging Women

TSaltireBookshe writer Nicola Griffith has recently published the results of quantifying the success – or largely otherwise – of books by women and books about women in a number of major literary awards.

Predictably, this makes for depressing reading. Books by women are less likely to win than those by men, and books about women (whether by women or men) are also less likely recipients of awards than books about men. From such statistics it would seem that we do not value female writers as much as male, and female protagonists (or topics, whatever that might mean – commentary hovers around the ‘domestic’) as much as male.

This is an all-too familiar account, which the introduction of the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 sought to overcome, after a year in which no women were shortlisted at all for the Booker. Twenty years on, and we don’t seem to have moved that far forwards.

In my book Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, I wrote a set of case studies of bestselling, more or less literary novels. One of the books (or, in this example, series of books), was Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Booker in 1995. My analysis ran along the following lines: that Barker came to prominence – in both critical and commercial terms – after moving from the feminist press Virago to be published by Viking/Penguin. She had also switched her subject matter from ‘”gritty feminist sagas”‘ set in the north of England to a focus on the first world war, with a cast of predominantly male characters. This shift occasioned some interesting comment, including one from a (female) Booker judge of that year. The judge stated that she would never have guessed that Barker’s book was written by a woman. Her reasoning was based on stylistic grounds, rather than its subject matter (which, as it happened, had questions of gender and sexuality at its heart).

The publication of Griffiths’ data presents an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice, as a scholar who studies literary prizes, a literary prize judge, and a feminist. (I’m also currently writing a children’s book in which the female protagonist spends most of the plot dressed up as a boy, but that’s a different story…)

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