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Speaking of Soup and Typewriters By Lilian Nattel

April 5, 2011

Lilian Nattel is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels The River Midnight (Knopf Canada, 1999) and The Singing Fire (Knopf Canada, 2004). Visit her website at http://liliannattel.com and her blog at http://liliannattel.wordpress.com

“I live in a world of women and gentle men. My husband is one of those, a good guy who won my heart by cooking a nourishing and tasty soup. It was early in our relationship, and he noticed on my fridge a list of foods I was avoiding and foods that were good for me (I was having some stomach trouble at the time). Without saying anything about it, he made the soup with all the good ingredients and none of the bad ones, and brought it to me. All my best fictional men have his shyness, gentleness and consideration. While this is the world that I choose for myself, there are other worlds that intersect and impact mine and they are a part of my universe in life and in literature.

I have had ungentle experiences of men and women which infiltrate my fiction, people who are abusive to children and others in their power. I didn’t decide to write about domestic drama out of an ideological position, but because it was the crucible of my own existence. It fuels my work. It requires a story of me again and again. Why should anyone think that matters less than other subjects? It is the crux of human experience and what is literature if not the expression and the illumination of that? It’s also what I like best in the fiction that I read.

All my publishers, editors and most of my reviewers have been women. I didn’t require it, but that’s how it’s turned out. Based on simple stats, a little under half of them should have been men. According to Publishers Weekly 53% of books read are fiction, and 55% of people who buy fiction are women. Perhaps because my subject is family, friendship, mothers and children, the work they do, the dangers they face, their courage and their secrets, it is relegated to the world of women.

But my favourite review of all time was written by Michael Pakenham for The Baltimore Sun. It begins “From time to time, all too rarely, there comes a novel that so exceeds my expectations of mere excellence that I am tossed into the experience of magic. There is simply no way to explain, in terms of anything I know of conventional criticism, the power of the piece. Such was the impact of reading The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel.” Like my husband’s soup, that gained him a special place in my heart because of its understanding and generosity.

It seems strange to me that the subject of family, which results in the greater happiness or misery of every human being, whatever the circumstance, has less respect than other more remote subjects. I suspect that if women were to stop writing about it completely and were to take up some other genre en masse, let’s say political thrillers, then those would be considered of less worth.

I am reminded of typewriters. Yes—typewriters. Back, oh about 120 years ago, typewriters were considered heavy equipment and therefore inappropriate for women’s use. Being a secretary then was a male occupation. The YWCA held a typing competition for women to demonstrate to the world that women could expertly operate this heavy equipment. The purpose was to open up a white collar job for working women who would otherwise be limited to more dangerous, dirtier work. It worked. And a few decades later, secretarial work was exclusively female, poorly paid, and of low status. In Canada the leading female occupation in 1891 was servant, in 2001 it was clerical worker.

The problem has nothing to do with how well women writers write or what we write about. It is all about how femaleness is regarded in our society. This is changing. Thank God, the universe and everything, it’s changing. My daughters don’t understand why women (as opposed to people) are allowed to get off the bus between stops at night in order to be closer to home. But there’s more to do, much more. Women make 77% as much as men on average in the U.S. In Canada it’s worse—70.5%. In literature the situation is even more dire. The proportion of women reviewing and being reviewed ranges from a pathetically small fraction to a high of about ½ in most large circulation publications. Perhaps this is because prestige is more entrenched and slower to move forward. Then we must push and not be daunted, push together, arms linked.

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From → Novelist

6 Comments
  1. Oh, that soup story! What a lovely profile.

  2. When you look at a lot of contemporary novelists – John Updike, say or Richard Russo, they have a huge chunk of domesticity in what they write and often romance or falling in love is a preoccupation. And yet they escape the kind of labelling that dogs women writing about relationships. Not fair!

    I agree this is a lovely profile.

  3. Thanks Emily and Litlove. And you’re right, it’s not fair. So perhaps we need to boost that 55% even higher, buying books and speaking up.

  4. Michelle permalink

    I completely agree with Litlove that men do not often enough get their writing labeled domestic – in the belittling sense – instead, they are writing about the deep mystery of relationships or something equally important. Now the real question is, how to turn this on its head? Women reviewers, more likely, who are aware of the trend and able to circumvent it carefully and conscientiously.

    This is a wonderful site, Lilian, very happy to see you profiled her!

  5. Thanks Michelle, and I agree–more women reviewers are needed.

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