Doris Lessing and the Fem Diss

Publishers Weekly's fem-anemic 100 Best Books of 2009 (no books by women in top ten, only 29 total) goosed the immortal topic of the relative gravitas of women's fiction and its status in the publishing world. I'm no fan of po-co inclusivity, but at a minimum it seems eco-inco for an industry pub to diss the money base of publishing, a base identified in a recent consumer research report that PW helped produce--you know, the loyal, book-buying women who reliably open their pretty little purses to purchase their gendermates' oeuvres in bestselling quantities, as well as books written by guys. Respect, anyone?

Of Prizes and Men
The PW fem-diss has reinvigorated a discussion of the criteria by which books are judged and the utility of "best" lists and prizes. For direct responses, read these wise and punchy essays by Laura Miller at Salon and Lizzie Skurnick at Politics Daily. You can also listen to Random House sales reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness provide illuminating modern and historical context on their 11/11/09 Books on the Nightstand podcast (about 22 very interesting minutes, also downloadable from iTunes).

Twitter Rallies for #Fembook
You can also eavesdrop on the ongoing discussion on Twitter by clicking on this #fembook search hashtag, or participate by acquiring your own Twitter @handle if you don't already have one. (Warning Message: Twitter is currently free, often fascinating, and a huge potential time-pecker.) Charlotte Abbott (@charabbott), host of Follow the Reader, and guest Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven) of The Book Studio, will conduct a live, open-invitation #fembook #followreader chat on Twitter on 11/13/09 from 4-5 pm EST (scroll down this page for instructions).

When I first heard about the PW list, I wondered aloud (on Twitter, of course), "What would Doris Lessing say?" Lessing has come out in the past against an oversimplified feminist call-to-arms, but when she hears her own work patronized she can execute a near-castrating boomerang diss. There's a sterling tranche of online audio from a Q & A she did at the Cheltenham (UK) Literary Festival in 2006 (iTunes link to Part Two--may not work) that captures Lessing's skill at demolishing the disser. I've typed in a mini-transcript below because the podcast audio was unavailable online at posting time.

A Jolly Good Slapping
[The anonymous male questioner speaks in plummy-posh voice, with self-satisfied pauses following each multisyllabic word. Doris Lessing speaks in an assertive yet slightly chipmunky octogenarian voice, pausing for breath and her canny punchlines.]

Minute 19:55 of the Times Talks Books Podcast 10/11/06, Doris Lessing Part Two:
Male Questioner: “I speak from enormous ignorance about your work, except that my wife is one of your best fans, but I wanted to ask you, can you think of anything better than music to characterise what might be said to hold all the diverse African peoples together?”

Lessing: “Well I don’t see why music, which is different in every part of Africa, should apply to the whole continent. You know I must say, you say that your wife is a fan--you’ve got no idea how often female writers hear the following: ‘Oh, my wife loves your work!'--You know what you really want to do, I have to tell you, is to give this very conceited male a jolly good slapping. [audience laughter and applause] Right? …These little women with their little minor interests, is what you’re suggesting. Now, about the music…”

Having dispatched the diss, Lessing talks about real and rubbish African sculpture art, then makes the point (at Minute 23:30) that there is no reason the African continent should be any more united culturally than the European or South American continents.

At Minute 25:30 of Part Two a female audience member says she wants “to balance things out” and states that the Doris Lessing books on her shelf were all placed there by her husband. Lessing says, “Really. Oh, that’s good,” and then she takes another swipe at male-centric attitudes:

“I do get letters from men from everywhere, interestingly, often about The Golden Notebook. A letter I get regularly says, ‘I have given The Golden Notebook to my wife, daughter, mistress or whatever, in order to show that women don’t always have to talk about babies and cooking.’" [followed by a Lessing chortle, and more audience appreciation]

So that's what Doris Lessing might say: a verbal slap, a caution against continental lumping, and an assertion that what she wrote is bigger than babies and cooking.

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