Why Women Are ‘Real’ Writers Too: Speaking back to Elizabeth Farrelly

Clementine Ford speaks back to a recent column by Sydney Morning Herald regular Elizabeth Farrelly, who prefers ‘writing with a higher IQ and lower pH than most women can manage’. Citing Jeanette Winterson, Drusilla Modjeska and others, Clementine argues in defence of women’s writing – and of domestic, interior lives as valid subjects for literature.

It’s been almost two weeks since Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly wrote her frankly bizarre treatise on modern feminism. Alongside some fairly cardboard concerns about modern feminism ‘legitimising girliness’ (quelle horreur!) and how annoying it is that an abundance of websites exists that cater to women (with no acknowledgement of the fact that this in part is due to women being the primary producers and consumers of content online), Farrelly wrote the following:

I don’t usually read women authors but not because they’re women. Because they’re boring. My female friends are shocked by this, urging me to revisit my Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson. But I tell you, if I never read another intelligent female devoting her first page to how she felt when her husband left her it’ll be too soon.

Farrelly’s blindingly ignorant attack on women’s writing is by turns tedious and hysterically funny. Women have enough difficulty being considered ‘real’ writers as it is, such is the disdain for female perspective on interior life (or indeed, anything of real note). But the positioning of Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood as women who navel-gaze about the breakdown of marriage is so far off the mark that it only reinforces the irony of her critique of laziness in women’s writing.

Farrelly’s feminist columns often seem to be driven by unexamined frustration, rather than any kind of thoughtful insight into the changing modes of social movements – but in this particular piece, her ability to align readers’ heads with their desks was truly showcased.

Enough has been written about how women’s writing is undervalued that I’ll refrain from delving into it here. I’m more interested in why interior and ‘domestic’ concerns are so offensive to readers like Farrelly, who makes a point of excluding writers like Ruth Ozeki, Barbara Kingsolver and Hilary Mantel from her general assessment that writing by women is inherently naff. Farrelly writes:

In part this is an aesthetic thing. I like writing with a higher IQ and lower pH than most women can manage: tougher, edgier, stringier. But it’s also, unavoidably, political. To my mind it is the task of writing to lace the personal into the supra-personal – bridging from the self to the political, the abstract, the cosmic. To fail in this, to wallow about in the personal, is a muscular dystrophy of the mind.

Leave aside for a moment the outrageous suggestion that ‘most women’ are unable to ‘manage’ writing that is both intellectual and acerbic. The personal as it pertains to female experience is marginalised because that personal experience is widely considered to be meaningless. It’s not so much that women ‘can’t manage’ tough, intellectually stimulating writing. It’s that their basic experience as women, domestic or otherwise, is not considered to be challenging enough to deserve or inspire tough, intellectual thought.

Women who write with intensity about lives that exist in the-day-to-day, with keen insight, humour and quietly observant truth – writers like Melissa Bank, Curtis Sittenfeld and Julie Orringer – have to contend with publishing companies selling their books as ‘chick lit’, because we’re yet to accept the fact that writing about something like love doesn’t always mean writing about Mr. Right.

Farrelly’s disdain for anything she sees as being beneath the proper aspirations of womanhood and feminism seems to be less about her wanting women to strive for greatness, and more to do with her assuming that greatness can’t exist within the interior of a daily female experience that refuses to apologise for itself.

Funnily enough, one of the subjects of Farrelly’s off-hand criticism, the brilliant Jeanette Winterson, includes in her latest memoir the following passage:

I am an ambitious writer – I don’t see the point of being anything; no, nothing at all, if you have no ambition for it. 1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir – and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James misunderstood Jane Austen’s comment that she wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?

Winterson, a writer of enormous breadth and depth, has never once begun a book by delving into the tale of her husband leaving her. Nor have many of the other female writers I love who excavate the personal, or just tell a ripping good yarn – Drusilla Modjeska, Zoe Heller, Sarah Waters. For Farrelly to assume herself above such petty concerns isn’t merely arrogant – it’s mindnumbingly stupid.

As for the self meeting the political, the abstract and the cosmic – to paraphrase one of history’s keenest writers of the personal and the social, she of the four inches of ivory – if Elizabeth Farrelly doesn’t think Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson are up to the task of writing literature that both engages the personal and the political, then I’m no longer surprised she knows few women writers capable of enthralling her … in fact, I rather wonder at her knowing any writers who can do it at all.

Portrait of Clementine Ford

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