Joanna Walsh is the author of Fractals (3:AM Press) and earlier this year, she sparked a global movement with a hashtag that allows social-media users to expand daily on a very worthy conversation about the scarcity of women and their voices in mainstream publishing. I’ve admired her work for ages, both online at her long-time blog, Badaude, as well as in person, in a way, from the portraits painted on the wall at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, which I recognized as her distinctive work. She was kind enough to discuss the latest buzz, and some mutual interests, over email between Oxford and New York. Hopefully next time it will be over a meal in London or Paris.
– Lauren Cerand
What was the spark for this project? Why this moment?
I'd been looking at the projects of Matt Jakubowski, a US reviewer who's reading only women this year, and Jonathan Gibbs, a reviewer the UK, who read only women for a period last year. The project was also prompted by the VIDA count, which logs the gender balance of reviewers and reviewed, UK and US literary journals.
But, more simply, it started as a celebration of the names I'd written on the back of some New Years cards. I posted them on Twitter and invited people to tweet more. I thought it might last for a few days, a week, but the response was incredible, so I guess other people thought it was the moment, too.
How does #ReadWomen2014 connect to your other projects?
I'm a writer as well as an illustrator (my collection of short stories, Fractals, just launched at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and is available here). It's always a difficult title to claim, as there are so many feminisms, but I consider myself a feminist writer.
What has surprised you most about the public response to this initiative?
The number of people willing to support it—including bookshops worldwide that sent me photos of their #ReadWomen2014 displays. Blackwell, Oxford, The London Review of Books Bookshop, and Shakespeare and Company, Paris, who asked me, and others, to choose books for display. I'm currently editing an all-woman edition of Five Dials, the literary journal of publisher, Hamish Hamilton. I'm delighted that the idea has support both from readers and from the industry.
How do you see the role of the feminist writer in this day and age?
That's such a big question and one each writer might answer slightly differently. I think there's still a long way to go in delineating women's experiences—experiences that, of course, also become intersectional: for example, I can't wait to read Juliet Jacques' forthcoming book from Verso, about her life as a trans women. There's so little written on this subject; it's a great thing for everyone—all women and men—that she's doing it.
This doesn't mean a feminist has to to write autobiographically. I write a lot about (and in the midst of) the difficulties of using language to describe everyday experience. This might seem abstruse, but I find it connects with certain things—often quite small things—I find I've been asked to ignore, not to see, and not to talk about. These things are sometimes so tiny, so fundamental that there are hardly words for them. (Friedan used to talk about "the problem with no name" that afflicted housewives unable to express their frustration with their situation.)
Delineation and naming are not concerns exclusive to feminist writers. "What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest," (written, after all, by Alexander Pope) has long been the goal of male writers, too—of any writer. So maybe I'm just asking for the (difficult) permission to write. Perhaps one goal of a (woman) feminist writer is to be able to claim this permission for herself.
What parts of the publishing, media, and literary ecosystem do you hold most accountable for the lack of attention for women writers?
Women often feel their writing is treated differently from mens' by various branches of the media/culture: that their books are given "gauzy covers with shy titles" so "the literary establishment needn't take this work seriously" (says Lionel Shriver); that "it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry" (Claire Messud, in an interview about her book, The Woman Upstairs). Women have complained that they are evaluated on their appearance rather than their writing (UK classical historian Mary Beard was called "too ugly for television," while Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, a "chick" ). An aggregate of women's voices—and these are the voices of well-established, prize-winning writers—is saying that there is something wrong with the way their writing is perceived, for no other reason than that they are women. It's impossible to say that all these problems stem from one easily-definable source, but it would be wrong to ignore them.
Who would you most like to see support this endeavor next?
I'm pretty sure VIDA's onto something. Quotas are not the answer, but a willingness on the part of individual editors to be more adventurous might be. I'd like the main offenders on VIDA's list to think about branching out just a little. I love these papers, some of which provide opportunities for forms of writing scarcely available elsewhere, particularly in long-form journalism and essay. I'd like to see them using their experience, their expertise, their high standards, without the almost inexplicable current bias.
Which living woman writer would you most like to sit next to on a flight?
That's more or less happened to me already, when one of my favorite living writers, Deborah Levy (author of Black Vodka: ten stories, published by And Other Stories) turned up at the launch of my book, Fractals, at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris this week.
But otherwise I think it would have to be Lydia Davis. She often writes about the spaces of travel (about spaces of all kinds—houses, too—and how they affect our behavior) and she wrote this story, "The Landing," about air turbulence. The readers of The Telegraph didn't think much of it, as you'll see if you read the comments below. I particularly like, "This is probably great if meaningless banality is your cup of tea," because, maybe it is.
Editor's note: Fans of #ReadWomen2014 should look for our new series on Women Travelers, reviving classic and little-seen narratives with contemporary introductions. The first title will be Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France with a new introduction by Lavinia Spalding, available in May.