About this time last week, I sallied blithely into print with the unimpeachable aim of throwing a custard pie at a Swede. Horace Engdahl - the permanent secretary of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature - had made some rather beastly remarks about American literature being "insular" and "ignorant", and boasted that Europe, of all places, was "the centre of the literary world". Pish, I said, and tush - from my position of unassailable global expertise. What about these writers, eh? And these ones? And who have you got, you umlaut-slinging weirdoes?
Anyway, I obviously put the wind up old Engdahl, because his team instantly closed ranks and gave the Nobel Prize to somebody called Le Clezio. Hah. One up to the special relationship, I thought. Then I got an email from our chief fiction critic, Lionel Shriver. Lionel is an American novelist who lives about half the year in England.
"A bone to pick," announced the subject line. "I hope you don't think that I'm some rabid feminist always on the look-out for an opportunity to pounce," she continued, "but the gender skew in your article was so drastic that it leapt out and bit me on the nose."
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Nursing her sore nose, Lionel had crunched numbers in my piece. "Total citations of authors: 39 men; 6 women… In terms of appreciative references, the only female writers who made an appearance were A.L. Kennedy, Amélie Nothomb, Banana Yoshimoto, and the below-mentioned Emily Dickinson… In touting American literature, which was what the article was about, the contrast is even more stark. Citations of American authors: 14 men, one woman - Emily Dickinson - who was a poet, not a novelist, and has been long dead. Basically, in defending the vitality and breadth and ambition of contemporary American fiction, the article cited 100 per cent male writers."
There was simply no answer to that. I was mortified. She had me bang to rights. Did it make me more of a sexist pig, or less of one, I wondered, that I didn't notice for one instant while writing that more or less all the names I instinctively reached for were men?
It would be idiotic to argue that "men write better books than women". And it isn't a capitulation to PC, or wet liberal self-castigation, to be embarrassed and alarmed at having cut half of the literary scene clean out of the picture without noticing.
I've read and loved Nicola Barker, A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Annie Proulx, A.L. Kennedy, Audrey Niffenegger, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, Marina Lewycka, Lorrie Moore, A.M. Homes, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Auntie Tamara Cobbleigh and all. My favourite novel - Middlemarch - is by a woman, and Sylvia Plath was the poet to whom I first became passionately attached. Yet when scraping around in haste for Nobel-Prizey-type authors, I went straight to the boys.
I don't think I'm alone in this (though I am a particularly crass example). Lionel doesn't seem to either. She admires Margaret Forster, Amy Bloom, Allegra Goodman, Andrea Barrett and Helen Dunmore, "but these writers do not naturally spring to mind when we reach to grab big literary names out of our heads - and that's what I rue. In defining great American literature with male authors, you were accurately reflecting a cultural prejudice that's a great deal larger than you."
"I'm convinced that high literature is the last redoubt of institutionalised sexism," is her view of it. "Female writers are always put in a different category. And the more purely male icons are promoted as the be-all and end-all of real literature, the more women's implicit second-class status as writers is reinforced."
I think Lionel puts her finger on something with "category". Great novels and big prizes are an oddly macho corner of the literary world. Perhaps there is something characteristically male about the bombastic self-presentation of big state-of-the-nation novels; that when women write state-of-the-nation novels (Marilynne Robinson seems to be a case in point) they get on with it without awarding themselves the full trumpet voluntary. Perhaps "beallandendallism", so to speak, is a male thing; and that assumption is unconsciously adopted by critics.
Already, we're faced with some deeply questionable sexual generalisations. There are some facts on the ground, though. The publishing market tells us a substantial number of men, around middle age, stop reading fiction. That's not true, or much less true, of women. Yet the big noise at the beallandendallist end of things is still made, disproportionately, by Y-chromosomes.
Is this because we tend to read as it were homosexually, men finding male minds on paper more congenial than women's; and men are still the ones in charge of big prizes? Only five of the 17 sitting members of the Swedish Academy are female, for example. Are we looking, I wonder, at the equivalent of the long-standing culinary prejudice that cast women as "cooks" and men as "chefs"?
I don't know what the answer is. But it strikes me as a rather harder and more interesting question than America versus Europe.
by Sam Leith, originally published at www.telegraph.co.uk