Education: The View From Here

University classrooms these days are gender-free zones. At least in literature departments, it appears that neither we nor our students need any longer pay much attention to old-fashioned notions such as affirmative action, making space for women to speak, keeping men from dominating discussions, or giving women special encouragement to help them perform better in tests and examinations.

Our women students perform exactly as well as the men. They talk as much in class, they are as likely to be the first to formulate ideas in discussion, they show confidence and are at ease with themselves in public. They score equally highly in exams, they take as many first class degrees. And, naturally, it goes without saying, some of them match some of the men in desultory attendance, poor performance, and missing assignment deadlines. As for what they study, I see little evidence of gender-bias there either. All our students read extraordinarily widely among works by women and by men, and there is no partisan pattern apparent in choices of authors for special options or dissertations. Angela Carter is as much in evidence as Salman Rushdie, Luce Irigaray as widely cited as Roland Barthes.

So I am perplexed by what seems to me to be a sotto voce strain of gender prejudice rumbling away in our broadsheet papers at the moment. After all, the youngish people writing, particularly on art pages, graduated pretty recently from those same charmed classrooms in which I teach.

Let me be specific by taking a particular instance which has bothered me. A decent amount of space has been devoted recently to profiles of Frances Coady, the new managing director of Granta Books, an admired, highbrow imprint which is about to be relaunched.The consensus seems to be that while Coady is a "good thing", something has been lost in the transition from male to female boss. A journalist well known for her feminism recently wrote, in the midst of her admiration for Coady's energy and enthusiasm, that she regretted the passing of the "inspiring dream" that was Bill Buford's old Granta Books. Coady's Granta Books, she maintains, will be safe rather than exciting, will follow trends rather than setting them.

She had fallen into a trap we all stumble into at times. What we as critics seem to feel nostalgic for when caught off guard is what Carmen Callil has called "jockstrap publishing" - boys' books, a particular style of nonchalance and wit, authors such as Graham Swift, Roddy Doyle and Seamus Deane. There is nothing at all wrong with that kind of writing, of course, but why reproach Coady for moving on from swashbuckling men to ... well, to swashbuckling women?

Why do the commentators want to diminish Coady for aspiring to publish prominently authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Jenny Diski and Linda Grant, who offer their own tough-minded kind of writing in another mode? The only answer I can find is that they have fallen for the old critics' trick of ranking the "virility" of male writing as intrinsically superior to anything that women can do. But, as I have said, that no longer happens in the classroom, so why in the pages of our newspapers?

One answer may be that critics are an overworked bunch, who necessarily form their judgements rather rapidly, and make extensive use of prevailing opinions to body out the bits they have speed-read in the book before them. It is easier to buy in to the male critical consensus than to stick your neck out. This is clearly true with the new Jeanette Winterson. After a number of not-quite-outstanding novels, Winterson's Gut Symmetries finally matches up to the exacting standards of her early work. It is sparely written, with a kind of strenuous intellectual rigour which I would have expected the critics to admire. Instead, some of them have taken her to task for "pretentiousness" and "abstruse language" - features of some of her recent writing, but not, as it happens, of this book.

As soon as an author such as AS Byatt, Anita Brookner, Fay Weldon or Jeanette Winterson has made her mark with a prizewinning or otherwise critically acclaimed book, she becomes an uppity woman in media terms, and has to be cut down to size. Whatever she writes thereafter is a disappointment. And the recognition she has achieved gets modified into the assertion that she is pushy, difficult, opinionated, obnoxious, fancies herself, and now has to be taught a lesson. Whereas men doing the same thing are great men in the making - geniuses have always behaved badly.

Some of my colleagues in the media find my irritation at such petty signs of gender prejudice tiresome: predictable sort of stuff from an old-fashioned feminist. There is an easy way to make me shut up. I will get down off my soapbox as soon as grown-up journalists can manage to behave with the integrity towards gender that is customarily shown by my students

The author is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and a writer and broadcaster. Her latest book, `Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance' is published by Macmillan, price pounds 25.

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