Is there a gender divide in literature? If so, are compensatory measures in danger of backfiring – that is, might all-female festivals and all-female prizes inadvertently intensify the impression that "women writers" are a lesser breed than their august male counterparts, by suggesting that the ladies can't compete with the boys or need special help? Moreover, aren't we getting bored with this whole debate, recapitulated every single June in the lead-up to the Orange Prize? [Answers: (1) Yes, but it's complicated. (2) Obviously. (3) Even more obviously.]
On Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 November, the Brighton Dome will host Storyville, a mini-festival to support both established and emerging female writers. I confess that I accepted the invitation to appear in this festival before I realised it was an all-female line-up. Had I known, I'd not necessarily have declined the invite, but I'd certainly not have been any more inclined to say yes.
Storyville's organisers believe that literary festivals are becoming more male-dominated. That has not been my personal experience, though the organisers may well have mobilised statistics that back this claim. In the event that male writers really are monopolising festivals, is the best redress to design festivals that shut them out? Most of all for our purposes here, how can we deepen the discussion of the literary gender wars and avoid repeating what's been endlessly said before?
A S Byatt remarked at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August that women who write intellectually demanding novels are perceived by critics "like a dog standing on its hind legs." (She was alluding to Samuel Johnson's famous quip, "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.") Yet surely her observation was hyperbolic. Critics often admire intellectually demanding novels written by women, as Ms Byatt should know. Plenty of critics have admired her own novels for their intellectual content. So the problem is subtler than that.
As I have observed before, what critics don't do with female authors is flop down and face east, blubbering and feet-kissing and throwing around extravagant if shopworn designations like "the Great American Novel", creating the sort of hoo-ha that recently surrounded Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. (By the way, I finally figured it out. "Great American Novel" = "doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man." That is actually what the expression means. So naturally it is never, and can never, be applied to works by women.) Thus the very top cultural tier in literature is rarely penetrated by female authors.
Yet let's get into a more awkward and thus more interesting area. I am often asked at festivals what writers I admire, or which novelists helped to inspire my choice of vocation. If I don't simply draw a blank (I can never seem to remember having read a single book in my life, under the gun), I grab a few of the following names: Richard Yates, Ian McEwan, Matthew Kneale, Pete Dexter, Philip Roth, Robert Stone, Richard Russo, Scott Spencer, T C Boyle, Dennis Johnson, Rupert Thomson, William Boyd, J M Coetzee, Richard Ford, Michael Cunningham, Russell Banks, Peter Cameron, and William Trevor. As for formative influences, I might mention Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Raymond Carver, Thomas Hardy, W Somerset Maugham, or Graham Greene.
Detect a pattern?
When I am mindful, I might recall one or two female authors whom I genuinely hold in high regard: Margaret Forster, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Helen Dunmore, Maria McCann, Kiran Desai, Amy Bloom, Barbara Kingsolver, Hester Kaplan, Joy Williams, Jean Thomson, Sadie Jones, or Hilary Mantel. As for formative influences, I might acknowledge Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, or Flannery O'Connor. Still, even with my library to jog my memory, the list of women writers I revere is relatively short. Embarrassingly short.
Historically, of course, women were not encouraged to invade the world of letters, and it makes sense that a writer like Wharton was an anomaly in the early 20th century. But these days, with publishers so keen to capitalise on the fact that the vast majority of fiction readers are female, women have no comparative difficulty getting into print. So why, at a podium, do I mostly remember reading men?
Two reasons. The big names in the literary pantheon are repeated over and over again, in essays, reviews, award shortlists, and television book shows, and the vast majority of those names are male. So in the glare of a spotlight and frantic to remember any author's name at all, even women like me are going to remember Philip Roth – just as, asked to name a soft drink, I'm going to remember Coca-Cola. Advertising works.
The second reason is less comfortable. The books that have meant the most to me in my life, in majority, have been written by men. Thus when a New York publisher told me this summer that I "write like a man", I received the comment as a compliment – albeit with a guilty double take. There continues to be a subtle self-ghettoisation among women writers, a reluctance to take on subjects on quite the same scale as some men do. Taken as a group – though I powerfully resist the category, which throws Hilary Mantel and Jackie Collins into the same pot – contemporary female authors tend to write books, not B-list exactly, but A-. There are wonderful exceptions to this little markdown, many in my personal all-female pantheon above, but they are too few.
So is the answer to create special prizes and festivals for women authors alone? Look, the Orange Prize does no one any harm. It does a great job of promoting authors, books, and book buying, while awarding one talented writer per year a large enough purse to write another book. Likewise, Storyville is all to the good, giving the Brighton community the opportunity to hear from influential figures like Ali Smith and Bonnie Greer, as well as introducing audiences to lesser known up-and-comers like Anjali Joseph, Amy Sackville and Caroline Smailes. So there's no real problem here, no need for any knickers in twists.
Nevertheless, I yearn for that halcyon day when we get past this discussion and no longer think in terms of "women writers" versus male ones. One of the things I love about my profession is that it liberates me from my sex. For all but one chapter of my last novel, I got to be a man. I relished that. Writing from a male point of view enlarges my interior world. Ditto for fiction readers: we delight in a form that pulls us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.
The ultimate remedy for the sneaky two-tiered nature of the literary hierarchy is to finally dispense with this discussion and discard the whole classification "women writers" – and in the meantime for women to write great books. Any of my colleagues offended by that "A-" crack is welcome to pick up the gauntlet. When enough of my reading life is colonised by memorably marvellous books by women, their names will come naturally to me during festival Q&As without my having to be mindful.
Lionel Shriver's most recent novel is 'So Much for That' (HarperCollins, 2010). Storyville Women Writers Festival takes place at Brighton Dome, 20-21 November. To book tickets call 01273 709709 or visit www.brightondome.org