What a week! Having done pretty much nothing for two months other than eat too much ice cream, returning to work – to a job where one must STAND FOR NINE HOURS while being significantly heavier and rather more off-balance than one used to be – was unbelievably exhausting. It was of course a joy to see the regular bookshop customers happily surprised by the now very visible bump, and to talk books with bookshop co-conspirators (one of whom had even baked delicious celebratory banana bread), but by the end of each day I was a goner. Which was unfortunate, because the evenings were of course filled with seeing friends and family, and then there was moving back into our flat …
Well, perhaps you understand why my brain now feels like it’s gone through a tumble dryer and I have been left in a peculiar, semi-catatonic state of vague pain and bewilderment. All I know is that I must locate a sturdy stool for some of next week’s bookshop stint, and that all inessential evening plans must be cancelled. So my apologies if this post is not quite up to form; as soon as it has been written I shall retreat back to bed.
It was, however, a great pleasure to be reunited with the Walking Book Club in one of its most populous incarnations yesterday for rather a slow stagger around Hampstead Heath discussing Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.
The Wife is told from the point of view of Joan, the wife of great Jewish American writer Joe Castleman. It begins when they are on a plane heading for Helsinki, where Joe is to receive a prestigious prize:
The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquillity. Just like our marriage …
Over the course of their Helsinki visit, Joan tells the story of their relationship. It began when she was a college student and he her creative writing professor, married with a new baby. His wife soon discovers the affair and confronts Joan by hurling a walnut at her head. It is a special walnut, a gift from Joe to Joan, on which he has painted ‘To J. In awe. J.’ It is all the more significant as his wife has been given a very similar walnut. Joan and Joe run off to New York together. Though Joan has shown great promise as a writer, whereas the only story of Joe’s that she’s read is terrible, it is his writing career that is pursued, a decision which is reinforced when his first, very autobiographical, novel – The Walnut – is a hit.
The Wife is hard to write about as there is a huge twist right at the end, which affects everything that comes beforehand and it would be terrible for you to discover the twist here. So, in order not to be a spoiler, I will try to continue as though I too don’t know anything about the twist…
The big question that looms through the text is why does Joan let Joe become the writer while she becomes the wife? It is evidently not a question of talent. Joan, after all, is narrating this book in her brilliantly dry, witty voice. Is it Joe’s ‘powers of persuasion’, as her mother says? Or is just a mistake of youth and inexperience?
No doubt it has a great deal to do with Joan’s encounter with Elaine Mozell, a woman novelist who comes to read at Joan’s college. Elaine tells her:
‘Don’t do it … Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature … The men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? … Because they say so.’
This extract provoked a great deal of anger at the Walking Book Club. It is still the case, people shouted in outrage. Indeed, the annual Vida Count is ever discouraging. This counts the number of women and men who are published in, or have their books reviewed by, literary magazines. While a few, such as The Paris Review, are getting towards gender equality, the majority, including The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker are hugely skewed towards men, with respective figures of 574:157; 2156: 795; 555: 253 for the 2013 count. (I actually wrote a review for the TLS recently, so let’s hope that skew is shifting a little.) And just look at the way men’s novels are published compared to women’s! They are almost invariably more expensive, given a hardback edition, and a smarter cover …
On and on the gender debate raged as we swarmed across the Heath: Is women’s writing so different from men’s? Why is women’s writing less valued than men’s? Why is it such a male establishment? Why has so little changed since Joan and Elaine Mozell’s fictional conversation in the 1950s? And so on… until I called a halt to sit down and eat some Panforte brought back from Lucca.
Joan is aware that even in the 1950s, it is not be impossible to be a woman and a writer. Wolitzer gives us a great image of Joan’s box of women writers:
It was as though there were a box I kept under a bed and pulled out only once in a while, and in this box were crammed Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and now Lee the journalist. It I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers, and that maybe I could have done it if I’d tried. But instead I was standing with the wives, the kerchief-wearers, all of us holding ourselves in a way we’d grown accustomed to, arms folded, purses slung over shoulders, eyes flicking left and right to keep watch over our husbands.
‘Maybe I could have done it if I’d tried.’ This ‘maybe’, the slim possibility of success against the odds, makes it all the tougher. Given that some women manage to do it, the impetus is on the individual woman to try to succeed, and if she doesn’t, it is as much her fault as anyone else’s.
There was a funny moment when someone said, ‘What about West with the Night?’ This wonderful memoir by Beryl Markham tells of her gung ho adventuring life as the first aviatrix in Kenya in the early twentieth century. We discussed it at a Walking Book Club a while ago. What about it? Well that, said the walker, isn’t at all like a woman’s book, it could just as easily have been written by a man.
The odd thing is, West with the Night might indeed have been written by a man. A teeny bit of internet research shows that many people suspect Beryl Markham’s memoir to have been written by her third husband, who was a professional ghost writer. Though for such a suspicion even to exist makes an uncomfortable point about our gendered perceptions of writing.
Perhaps gender is especially on my mind at the moment, as everyone wants to know is the bump going to be a boy or a girl, and many people seem surprised that we have decided not to find out, preferring to have a surprise. People seem puzzled as to how can we possibly not want to know? Well, without wanting to sound too San Francisco about it, the sex is such a small part of the picture. Knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl is pretty irrelevant really. I’d much rather know if he or she will be keen on reading, or climbing trees, or misbehaving, or music, or chatting, or (and this one’s important) sleeping. And I would hate to think it’s a girl and be told that therefore she will love reading and dolls and all things pink and hate climbing trees. It’s rather a relief, in fact, while imagining what this little person will turn out to be like, not to let gender come into it at all.
If only we could be just as open-minded when it comes to books.