Terence Blacker: The day I turned into a tool of the phallocracy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I was hissed last week. It was not much of a hiss – more the sound of a bicycle tyre with a puncture than anything seriously venomous – but I found it curiously encouraging. Disapproval, when expressed with sibilant inarticulacy, often suggests that one is on the right track.

I was hissed last week. It was not much of a hiss – more the sound of a bicycle tyre with a puncture than anything seriously venomous – but I found it curiously encouraging. Disapproval, when expressed with sibilant inarticulacy, often suggests that one is on the right track.

It happened at the Edinburgh Book Festival and the issue under discussion was – perhaps you guessed – gender. The organisers of the Orange Prize for women's fiction had set up a debate, chaired by Kate Mosse and with a panel of four authors, two of each sex. Taking as our text a report on the way the official female jury and an unofficial male one had assessed novels on the Orange shortlist, we were on stage to discuss whether there was a difference in the way novels are read by women and by men.

I had never previously thought of reading as being particularly gender-specific but the report, by Dr Jenny Hartley of Roehampton University, seemed to me to be, behind its apparent reasonableness, as slanted as a barrister's summing up on behalf of the prosecution.

Women "rose to the challenge" of one of the more demanding books while men were "seduced" by its flashiness. While women looked for kindness and generosity in novels, the attitude of male jurors was said, in sceptical inverted commas, to be "kind". The men did read for emotion, Dr Hartley conceded, but "in a rather muted way, perhaps mindful of the male 'taboo on tenderness' ".

The first part of the discussion in Edinburgh followed a similar pattern, with various items of conventional wisdom – all of them inaccurate or highly debatable – being delivered as fact. The Booker prize is biased towards men. Women authors receive lower advances than their male counterparts. Books with male protagonists are taken more seriously than those about female experience.

Attempting to redress the balance, I suggested that, because gender has become such a sensitive issue, it was probable that men – confused, berated for being bullies (or wets), over-sensitive (or not sensitive enough), priapic (or limp) – might approach fiction in a more open spirit. Thirty years ago, there may have been an in-built bias, a pre-set agenda, in the mind of male readers but now it was the other way around.

The dangers of assessing fiction with a sexism detector have been exemplified many times over the past decade or so. Martin Amis's London Fields was excluded from a Booker prize shortlist because two of the female jurors objected to his treatment of his central female character. Jay McInerney's brilliant Story of My Life was excoriated because the author had dared to write in the voice of 22-year-old woman. John Updike is regularly taken to task for alleged sexism.

These views seemed to arouse strong feelings. When the other male panellist, Niall Griffiths, responded to me with a one-word argument, "Gobshite!", he was loudly applauded. The woman in the front row had her hissy-fit.

What seemed the problem was not the argument itself but that, merely by speaking up for men, I was putting myself among the sexists, oppressors and abusers.

The reaction to Doris Lessing's recent remarks about the anti-male teaching of history reveals how mindless and sinister this trend can be. Her critics have preferred to attack Lessing personally – old, out of touch, losing it – rather than address the argument she was making. She had made a fool of herself, Joan Smith wrote, as if no further comment was necessary.

After our debate, a woman member of the audience murmured to me, as she passed, that she had agreed with everything I had said, but then moved on quickly. It was as if we were now living in a police state where dissent could only be expressed quietly, or in secret.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments