On Novelists, Women and Men

I was appalled to read about women novelists being moved out of the novelists category in Wikipedia.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/25/wikipedia-women-american-novelists

There are several attributes of a book that determine its quality and worth such as the premise, the depth of the ideas presented, the worldview depicted through the book, the beauty of the prose, the plot structure, the readability, the uniqueness of the characters, the personal and social concerns if any that are addressed in the book, the relevance of the book to present times, the impact that it has on the readers among others.

As a reader and as a writer, I am concerned with these and other similar parameters of a book, and not the author’s personal traits, not the least of which is the author’s gender.

It sounds superfluous to say that the gender of a person is irrelevant to their work and their achievements. It is something that I have always tried to avoid. On my first day at work, I resented being labelled as a ‘lady engineer’ and later being called a ‘woman manager’. I have refused invitations to conferences of ‘women writers’.

As a child I had two role models, my aunt who was the vice chancellor of a prestigious medical university and a cousin who had escalated up the corporate ladder in a New York firm to become vice president before he was thirty. I admired the aura of success that surrounded these two people like a halo and the confidence that radiated from their words and actions. I took it for granted that their gender had nothing to do with their achievements which were the results of hard work and ambition. As an engineering student, for a while I believed the professors who said that exemplary performance was enough for a person to rise high in any field.

The illusions began to dissolve when I read a feature in the IEEE magazine in which many successful senior women engineers spoke candidly about the obstacles that they had to overcome in order to obtain an engineering education at a time when their family expected them to run a home and bake cookies, and about their struggles to transcend the glass ceiling that covered their workplace. Almost all the case studies in the article conveyed the same message – Successful women had to struggle much more than their male peers to get ahead in the race. I remember one of them quoting to the effect that in order to be successful in engineering, a man needs to take it up as a career whereas a woman needs to see it as a crusade. Now it seems that the statement holds good not just for engineering but every other field, including literature.

As much as one would like to believe that the quality of literature transcends gender, it is a fact that discrimination against women writers has always been there, everywhere. It led Mary Ann Evans to write as George Eliot and it is perhaps why J K Rowling chose to use her initials rather than her first name on her books. Almost every article on Indian English literature mentions R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao as being among the early pioneers of the field and inevitably go on to talk about Seth and Rushdie but few bother to mention the veteran writer Anita Desai.
Most women can relate to Virginia Woolf’s meditations in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she talks about the status of women as “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history”. Lines that would sound completely familiar to any Indian woman who has grown up in a society where women are theoretically revered as goddesses and openly discriminated against in real life. At the same time, notwithstanding such crude antics like the wikipedia categorisation of women novelists, things are slowly but surely changing for the better.

Focusing on any negative aspect of the world would only serve to amplify it and make it worse. While being aware of the discrimination against women that has prevailed for centuries, I choose to believe that we are on our way to a society where human beings are treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of any of their attributes be it gender, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. It is only a question of time as attitudes slowly change for the better across society.

I just checked wikipedia again and found that new sub categories of American and British ‘men novelists’ have been introduced, in addition to ‘women novelists’. Ridiculous, to say the least. What purpose does this gender segregation serve, other than provide statistical information on how many novelists of a particular nationality were men and how many were women?

The author Shashi Deshpande answered this question in the voice of reason when she asked, “Is Literature a public toilet that we need to have signboards Saying ‘Men’ And ‘Women’?”

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