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Counting Women: Women Count | Nina George

Friday 9 March 2018 - 10:15am

Sahar Halaimzai
Communications Manager
PEN International
+44 (0)20 7405 0338

Nina George. Photo by © Helmut Henkensiefken FinePic

On 11th November 1987 when I was 14 I confessed my two most intimate secrets to my grandmother: I faked my diary entries. And: I wanted to be a writer! She replied in shock: “But child! A writer?! You’ll never find a man that way!“

She then went on to list all the female writers who had killed themselves: head in the gas oven (Sylvia Plath), stones in her pockets (Virginia Woolf), poison in the forest (Karin Boye)! She warned me that a disreputable, dangerous life lay of me since a woman that writes scares off men, can’t manage a household and only visits the oven to light a cigarette on the hot plat.
This prospect seemed exceptionally appealing to me.

Two years later I found myself a job as a catering worker, bought myself a loud, semi-automatic Brother typewriter and began to seriously unsettle my family. Naturally I didn’t have the faintest idea about how to go about becoming a writer. At the start of the 90s there were no writing courses, but rather just the “genius”. The Muse dripped inspiration preferably into a) selected and b) male brains. Female German-speaking role models? A rare commodity apart from the extreme variants: Ingeborg Bachmann and Christa Wolf as exceptions of the century, and Utta Danella, who everyone might have read but no one respected. Reading was already considered an exotic hobby for precocious, cheeky girls – but writing, that was sheer presumption!

Men created “the real literature”, and women, they created … well … trivialities.
At this point I did not know that there were female scholars like Inge Stephan, Sigrid Weigel or Regula Venske, tough and clever women, pioneers of the lifelong work required to change the bias. I was young and stuck in a reality, where writing was not for girls.

Literature itself betrayed women. Everything exciting happened to men: Tom Sawyer, The 3 Investigators, Old Shatterhand. Even Lois Lane was only tough as long as Clark Kent didn’t pull his shirt off. Ninety per cent of books, films, series and comics I grew up with in the 70s and 80s suffered badly from the “Smurfette syndrome” as the American Book-Award winner Katha Pollitt described it: women only appeared as singular marginal phenomena, like Smurfettes in the male world of the Smurfs. Each of them had their own names, Brainy Smurf, Poet Smurf or Clumsy Smurf, and had strong and defining characteristics. Smurfette had neither a first name nor talent. Nevertheless, she looked hot and watered the flowers.

In 1993 I sold my first text to a high-profile magazine that most people of course rated on account of its interviews: Penthouse. My radical feminist essay “Man, just keep still“ written from the point of view of a catering worker about male flirting habits after their third beer earned me 1000 Deutschmarks – and the request from the Chief Editor to work for him. He didn’t think much of muses or genius but rather relied on tradecraft, discipline and courage. He said: We’re all just old sad-sacks here, stir us up a bit! Drunk on this encouragement I said: Yes, I want to. I was 19 and the first female in the male-only editor’s department, not only typing and note-taking, but writing . From a featureless Smurfette to a writer Smurf. That it had to be the head of a men’s magazine who was my first patron amazed a lot of people who would have preferred things to be more black and white when it came to women’s issues.

In 2013, at 39, I landed my first international bestseller, Das Lavendelzimmer / The Little Paris Bookshop. I had the dubious honour of being chucked in the garbage bin by the German people’s critic Dennis Scheck and the charming satisfaction of being praised to the skies by Oprah Winfrey. I had taken nearly 20 years to become famous overnight. Would it have been different if I’d been a man? Now and then I’ve looked at male colleagues who had fewer books sales, fewer foreign licences, less depth to their stories – but who were praised significantly and more frequently in the big newspapers. Because they are men? Because they had themselves photographed in long-limbed poses in front of their cars? Or was that all coincidence?

To answer these questions I have been carrying out my own study over the last 20 years and it concerns the reception of female authors in the public sphere. The presence of female authors, the profile of women in the media and literature, the acceptance of female intellectuality and perspective of the world has been key to answering this question.

The means of evaluation is simple: counting. I count women. In order to find out whether they really count. In the media, on expert podiums, on boards, on juries, prize awards, as speakers, in washing powder advertising - we really can’t complain about underrepresentation there. Women have also a greater audience of haters: according to the Guardian, after an evaluation of 72 million comments, an average of eight out of ten authors in Europe who find themselves confronted with abuse (hate comments, hate e-mails) after a publication are female. The two men are either black or gay. Especially aggressive reactions come from the sometimes anonymous, sometimes not at all anonymous and mostly male, white mob, on topics like sport, feminism, politics, refugees and the displaced and in “opinion-sections“ – but only as long as these come from female pens. And where male authors have to deal with hostility casting doubts on their arguments, FEMALE authors additionally have to deal with threats of violence against their kids, insults about their appearance usually in the form of radical gutter language and genitalia-themed abuse. Bad news: if female authors are described on Twitter as “bitch“ or “cunt” – women often refer to them like this as frequently as men. I have no idea where these people’s upbringing went wrong.

If one leaves the terrain of the Internet and goes into the traditional, large analogous buildings and spaces dominated by art, one doesn’t need many fingers to work out the female proportion: 52 men are members of “Literature Section” at the Academy of Arts in Berlin (AdK). There are also female members: 15. The AdK is being headed for the first time by a woman – after 320 years of male presidents. Congratulations, we’re moving forward! Overall in Germany we have managed to get just 20% of female authors in the Academies of Art; the intellectual league of men clearly doesn’t like admitting other sources of potential. Or it overlooks them – as is the case with most renowned, prestigious literature prizes. The Büchner Prize, awarded by the German Academy of Language and Poetry in recognition for intellect and relevance has been awarded to men 56 times, and only nine times to women. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been given 14 times to women and a staggering 99 times to men. Of the 150 relevant literature prizes in my country, male writers win these five times more often than female writers.

Perhaps this is down to the mostly male-majority juries, but also possibly to the publication ratios? In 2015 around 43 per cent of the hardcover original fiction titles were written by women, in 2017 according to LITPROM boss Anita Djafari barely 30 % of FEMALE authors emerged with kudos in the classic (high) literature publishing houses. The profile differs. While women are almost over-represented for historical or crime novels, in other words for so-called “entertainment“, the “high literature” publishers bring out new works by women strikingly infrequently compared to works by male writers. The lowest ratio was two women to 11 men at one of the three most important publishers for reviewable literature in Germany in 2016. It’s similar in the specialist and non-fiction book area: less than 20% of specialist books are written by women. Things look equally bad with prizes or even nominations: in 14 years of the Leipzig Book Prize there were some eight years in which not one single female author was even nominated for a non-fiction / specialist book.

We have a traditional, typicial German view on literature: The “E” and the “U”-Literature, and the old, unnecessary fight of the “genius” writer against the working writer. “E” in german stands for “ernsthaft”: serious, significant, well written, important”. U, in other words “Unterhaltung” (Entertainment), is the second-best-literature – chewing-gum for the brain, not serious, “low”. Even John Le Carré would have been classified as a “U”-Author,  as well as John Irving, Patricia Highsmith and Marguerite Duras. And then there is the The Double-Effect: If you are a woman (these creatures with so much emotion), writing in the so-called “entertainment-genre” and published in a traditional “U”-Publishing House – you will never, ever, ever win a renowned literary prize, you will never win the hearts of the critics that 'matter' and as result you will be under-estimated forever.

On no day of the week does an examination of reviews provide a more positive perspective. In the course of the reviews for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair, 26 per cent of the critiques were written by women. Female authors were discussed 24 per cent of the time. My studies from literary supplements on Saturday or Sunday found a recurring ratio of two female writers to ten male writers.

But because all these figure are only “mine” and one is so incredibly quickly accused of jealousy, resentment and other hysteria, PEN Germany and Diversity AG have initiated a new study on ‘Profile of Women in the Media and the Literary Scene’, which began on 1 March 2018. In collaboration with Rostock University’s Institute of Media Research over a specific period, 71 media outlets will be monitored and evaluated on a daily basis. The random sampling has to date offered few surprises apart from a clear rise in reviews and soft soap by female authors on International Women’s Day. Is this one day in the year supposed to be enough for us?

The uncrowned king of, on the one hand intelligent, on the other hand intolerably embarrassing, patriarchal literary criticism, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, responded to the question “Do men write better than women?“ in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: “Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Molière, Racine, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Calderón, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Brecht. They were all men. Is this answer enough?”
Incidentally this was in 2009, not 1509.

I’d like to respond to him with “Sontag, Sachs, Woolf, de Beauvoir, Sagan, Lessing, Lindgren, Shalev, Allende, Roy, Colette, Austen, Sand, Eliot, von Bingen, de Pizan, Zeh, Franck, Hermann, Hustvedt, Munro, Duve, Ulitzkaya“ but from somewhere or other it would echo back hollowly: “Female littteraturrre!“

The label “women’s literature” is a disparagement in itself. Something suspected of superficiality, kitsch, intellectual and stylistic simplicity. It’s astonishing there’s no equivalent for disparaging works by male writers. Or rather it isn’t: it’s absolutely not astonishing. Up until a century ago there were significantly more – in the ratio of publications – published women than today, shows a study of the University of Berkeley (“ The Transformation of Gender”). As well as the drop in the number of characters who are women or girls, Ted Underwood, David Bamman and Sabrina Lee also found “a fairly stunning decline” in the number of books written by women in the first half of the 20th century. “The proportion of fiction actually written by women … drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950.” And also the female characters got lost: According to the academics’ analysis, in 104,000 novels from 1750 to 2007, in books by men, women occupy on average just a quarter to a third of the character-space. In books by women, “the division is much closer to equal”. The analysis finds: “This gap between the genders is depressingly stable across 200 years.”

But back to the drop in female writers: Something must have been destroyed, and possibly not only here in Europe, here in Germany when we lost an entire generation of free female artists after the dark years of anti-pluralism and unbridled misogyny.

I’d just say this: Dear review section, dear high culture, it’s time to move into the present and not be controlled by subconscious prejudices; talking about inclusion is not enough, it’s time for action. Age, gender, origin, culture: there’s more to tell than the stories of old white men which mostly interest old white men and those keeping them in power. Excuse me that was a bit polemical. Or wasn’t it?

“Men don’t feel included [in the gender question]” confirmed my male colleague Mr Carlos Collado Seidel, the General Secretary of German PEN in his favoured Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Men tend to see gender equality as a threat. Thus equal opportunities are seen as a hindrance for appointment procedures at universities.” Furthermore, men always estimate the female ratio as being higher than it is; if there is an upward of a ratio of one-third of women on a team, then men begin to feel themselves in the “minority”. Or when critiques are involved, the critic’s squad likes to pronounce stubbornly: “But it’s only about quality, I don’t care at all about gender!” Is that so? Conversely that would mean that women would write less well.

My suspicion is that critics, juries, bursary-givers, and, yes, also programmers, are wearing entrenched blinkers. They are conditioned to see the world through a male-dominated view without noticing this one-sidedness – just as little as the majority in our society. We’re used to this.

My female colleague, the scientist Katharina Herrmann, has also recently been keeping her own count, specifically the presence of female authors and their works in school curricula and university recommendations. The conclusion: for every ten works, one female author is cited. This means that students can go through their entire educational journey, through their most formative years and be consistently told that it is men who have something to say, who explain the world, who WE must be read.

So we don’t make any progress, and women writers don’t get their fair share of commendation except for on International Women’s Day. Naturally we can’t change the system of the established, normal underestimation of female voices and thoughts overnight; we’ll probably need another twenty years. Nevertheless let’s start softening this resistance by creating two things for girls, young women and the women writers of the future:

a) Support the PEN International Women’s Manifesto, which stands for non-violence, safety, education, access and parity. Even in countries where we think there is parity, there just simply isn’t– although I know I have it easier than a lot of other women. I don’t have to worry about being beaten or threatened, or going to prison for my opinion or my work. But as long as all women are not free to do exactly as I am able to, my freedom is not complete. The PEN Women’s Manifesto points out the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely in any culture and country.

b) Create role models for girls and women. Role models in real life and role models in fiction.
As far as children are concerned fiction is real. When they read they imbibe values and gender clichés. Let’s create more female role models in literature. Female figures who experience the world in the complex, nuanced way we all do, who explain the world, save it, turn it on its head! Let’s increase the basic stock of multi-dimensional heroines for coming generations of female artists in all cultural works. Let’s create role models that inspire many more women to dare to imagine into existence female protagonist of their own, in their works or their own lives.

PS: Contrary to my grandmother’s fears I have found a man. He’s a writer. His key characters are always strong women. Now and then he’s asked why he “as a man” writes about such women? His reply: “Because they’re there.”

Nina George is a prize-winning and international bestselling German author and journalist since 1992, who has published 28 books, as well as over hundred short stories and more than 600 columns. In 2013 she had her first international bestseller “Das Lavendelzimmer” (“The Little Paris Bookshop”) translated into 36 languages and 20th Century Fox bought the film-options. George is an expert on authors’ rights and an activist for the rights of women writers. She sits on the boards of the German Writers Union (VS - Verband deutscher Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller), of the PEN-Centre Germany and the Three Seas’ Writers’ and Translators’ Council. She is the founder of the Author’s Initiatives Authors for a Fair Bookmarket and the Network Author’s Rights“ representing eleven german authors’ associations. She was also an advisor on the PEN International's Women's Manifesto.