What we learnt at ‘On Reading Women’

11th Mar 2014

Last night, George Saunders was announced as the winner of the inaugural Folio Prize. With a women majority in the shortlist, comprising Amity Gaige, Rachel Kushner, Jane Gardam and two of the most transgressive books of the past year – Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, it was not the result we had hoped for.

However, The Folio Prize rang in the announcement with a weekend of talks and discussions on the key ingredients when whipping up a story. We went to the “On Reading Women” event, and while the ethnic diversity of the authors discussed was less than broad, it was affirming to hear Folio academicians celebrating the writing sisterhood.

The panel was made up of Deborah Levy, Tessa Hadley and Frances Wilson, and chaired by Suzi Feay. Each of the four writers had picked some authors as their literary heroines. These selections were discussed, along with other observations about the world of women writers.

Fun facts, musings and recommendations from “On Reading Women”:

– It was agreed that biographical readings can add great flavour to a writer’s work. Conversely, when that biography tells the story of a kick-ass subversive woman, it can render their work a little bland by comparison. Levy sited Isabelle Eberhardt as an example of this. The Swiss-born traveller and writer famously explored Arab society dressed as a man, shunning Western practices in favour of Islam and spirituality. Her short stories just aren’t as good!

– Tessa Hadley’s first selection was writer and LGBT supporter, Elizabeth Bowen, who she discovered when she first promoted herself to the adult section of the library – “I loved the words and I remember some sensation of texture.” This photograph taken in 1953, captures a young Sylvia Plath interviewing Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine. Levy commented that it is lovely to see the admiration on the face of a future writing legend.

– Frances Wilson said reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journals for the first time “was like I’d been plugged into the National Grid.” Her journals have been noted for their fine descriptions of nature, but they also intimate at a distinctly unnatural relationship – that of her romantic attachment to her brother, William. Somewhat tragically, Dorothy was never taken seriously as a writer in her lifetime, and still remains in her brother’s shadow, despite famously inspiring William’s most renowned poem. She also frequently transcribed for her brother, who hated the physical act of writing.

– Levy advocated we persevere with the experimental work of Gertrude Stein. Often recognised for being Gertrude Stein than for her writing, much of it is influenced by her extensive studies in psychology and medicine. After a dinner party, her lover, Alice B. Toklas famously said “Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her years to understand.” Levy suggested it was important to push ideas “when everything now has to be so intelligible.” Stein was reportedly wounded when her contemporary, Joyce was praised for the publication of Ulysses, when her equally lengthy novel, The Making of Americans was rejected for years for being too long and complex.

– Feay selected Antonia White, another writer thought to have experienced complicated feelings towards a male family member – this time her father. This relationship emerges repeatedly in her four deeply autobiographical novels. Feay admitted that she is scared to reread the work now because she “inhabited these books so entirely”, and, due to White’s psychological battles , it proved quite a frightening experience. White was the first author to be published by Virago.

– Titles recommended by the panel include: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journals, The Clara Batchelor trilogy by Antonia White, Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Marguerite DurasThe Lover, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf’s Collected Essays and Joanna Welsh’s Fractals. Anything by Alice Munro, Deidre Madden, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and Rachel Cusk.

The hour ended with Deborah Levy calling for women writers to make legends of each other. This is a sentiment For Books’ Sake is built upon, so perhaps we can hope to see this prize instigate more parity for Folio as a whole.


  • sianushka says:

    I am a huge advocate of Stein. Some friends and I were discussing her last night, and how her experimentalism was dismissed when the men who experimented in similar ways were celebrated. She is truly inspiring and fantastic, and her work is difficult but in such a satisfying and exciting way. Everyone should read her! Considering her huge influence on the BIG MALE WRITERS of modernism, the fact she has virtually been written out of the canon is simply not ok.