(Ben Okri won the Booker Prize this same year with his “The Famished Road.”) Some are of the opinion that it is not fair to have a prize open only to women, and wonder what women would say if there was a men-only prize. Others think it is separatist, and does not really serve to better women writers and how they are perceived. It is significant then that Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 Nobel Prize winner, rejected the 1998 candidacy for the Orange Award because it was restricted to women writers. People think the award marginalizes women’s writing by setting it apart and making a public point that women’s writing is different in some way, and is not the stuff of good literature; in effect, that women writers need a separate prize. This is almost like the case of shooting one in the leg. Regardless of this point, it is not hard to recognize that women writers have encountered more difficulty in getting published and receiving due recognition than other male writers within the mainstream. Therefore the Orange prize raises very important issues about women’s writing. In line with Gordimer’s reaction, the 1984 Booker Prize Winner, Anita Brookner affirmed:
I’m against positive discrimination. If women want equality, which they do, and which they have largely achieved, they shouldn’t ask for separate treatment. Publishing is an open forum. If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.
The controversy is still on and today, there are most surely the most varied opinions but what makes a literary work good enough to be published? Here also, controversy reigns supreme but the idea is to achieve some understanding. What really makes a book good enough to form part of the “received cultural tradition that publishers are instrumental in maintaining” and passing on? Whenever this question arises, many writers ask: Who sets the standards? Who decides what is good or what is bad? These are some of those same old rhetorical questions that lead no-where or at the best, to dead-ends; they neither help nor push one towards achieving a better understanding. One would rather ask the question: what is more practical, what is more useful? It is certainly more rewarding listen to what the experts and fellow writers think make for better writing, than remain in useless rhetorical questions that leaves one more ignorant than before. What are some of the qualities that memorable literary works contain? No one knows it all – that is obvious. Controversies are just to air opinions (both the informed kind of opinion and the uninformed kind) and more often than not, they lead no farther. But study does. Taking a closer look at works that have become classics, one can tease out some characteristics they share. Characteristics that make them win awards or survive for centuries. Before pointing out these qualities however, we will consider what some writers think good writing should not be.
Linda Grant for example does not want to:
read any more books about young women coming to London and getting anorexia or copping off in Clapham …depressing experiences.
(Linda Grant, author)
She thinks these are those “women’s topics” trivial issues that will not interest men or even other women. Virginia Woolf on the other hand, observes that women writers would eventually “look beyond the personal and political relationships to the wider questions which the poet tries to solve – our destiny and the meaning of life”13. For writer, Lesley Chamberlain, the difficulty for women writing today lies in the nature of female characters. “Women need to write about women whose horizons and experience are wide”14. This is the point. Mrs. Mobolaji Adenubi has pointed out time without number, stressing the fact that society needs role models in the kind of women who have crashed through the glass ceilings, into a world believed to be the preserve for men only. Novels that have women of character, not simple commodities, blown around by any wind whatsoever. It is sad to read what Sarah Ridgard says in a write up:
One only has to pick up the Bookseller at random to read “the publishing schedules are filling up with bright bubbly twentysomething women writing about bright bubbly twentysomething heroines, all working as PR assistants, getting plenty of sex and looking for Mr. Right”
It is a saturation of so many topics like this that makes many people conclude that women do not write the stuff of good literature. This could be said of a good number of writers both male and female. However, it is also true that some women writers have created heroines that really can be considered role models.
One of the arguments to date about the notion of good literature is the “Universality of human experience” and for Joseph Brodsky, a writer,
it is a touch of the metaphysical thought that lifts fiction or verse into literature.
Apart from the kind of heroines created in novels, there are also many women writers who have proved their ability to combine the metaphysical that Brodsky talks about, and
Virginia Woolf’s “wider questions which the Poet tries to solve”. Nadine Gordimer and Karen King-Aribisala are two writers that readily come to mind.
Gordimer’s characters define her moral position most clearly: i.e. that humanity and apartheid cannot co-exist. Inevitably, one must destroy the other. One of her books, “Burger’s Daughter” (1979) was banned in South Africa after the Soweto uprising. She had many reviewers to review her many works and most laud her “precise ear for spoken language that lent great authenticity to her dialogue”, “a sensitivity to the rhythm and texture of the written word that gave her prose the power of poetry”, “a keen eye that made her a tireless observer”, “an even keener sense of social satire … and strong feeling of moral purpose, composed in equal parts of her indignation at the share injustice of South Africa’s entrenched racial oppression and of her commitment to speak the truth as she saw it.” 15 In a nutshell, she deals largely with the consequences of apartheid on the lives of men and women, black and white, and the distortions it (i.e. Apartheid) produces in their lives. Her works must have also contributed their quota in helping to pull down Apartheid in South Africa.
King-Aribisala is another writer who has sought to address wider questions. In her novel, “Kicking Tongues”, she tries and succeeds in pointing out the multi-faceted roots of the problems Nigeria has faced and still faces as a Nation.16 She does this in the most innovative way: a transposition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. She even experiments further: in the novel, you find poems, a play, and many short stories in her attempt to break down the barriers of confinement to just one genre at a particular point in time. Though the publishers found the original too long, they still wanted it published so they suggested what was to be done. If the story and manner of writing it were not that interesting, the work would have been outrightly rejected. Both writers have touched on the “universality of human experience” which (although each story dealt with particular problems of particular societies) will still find many different people identifying with these stories one way or the other.
Tunde Okoli mentioned something, which apart from being very relevant for women writers, introduces us to the last part of this essay. He says:
What the women need is a new direction that will point the way to true economic and/or political empowerment. The new direction should not come in the status of class struggle, which past efforts have taken. It should be channeled towards making the female folks recognize their innate potentials, talents capacity and harnessing these maximally and profitably.
This writer is not really interested in what direction women writing should go because this depends on each individual’s interest and informed choice but yes, attention should be paid to the last phrase:
“recognize their innate potentials, talent capacity and harnessing these maximally and profitably.”
This happens to be important because at times, women harness to destroy or to lose already gained ground wittingly or unwittingly. There are innate qualities that women are blessed with and these belong to women and to women alone. If women failed to give these qualities to society, impoverished she remains forever. No other group of creatures – men included – can make up for its lack in society. To get to these innate qualities, we will need to go through three stages.
The first is the anthropological level. Here, the distinction man, woman is indifferent. Both are equally the same in the sense that both are individuals that can make their own decisions. But there are obvious differences. To get to these and to pick out what women can give that men cannot, i.e. those topics that should form part of our cultural heritage that only women can give, one needs to zero in on what it means to be a woman. (in relation to what it means to be a man) Only then can one decide whether the problem lies in “empowering women” in a generic way by just talking about it and doing nothing afterwards or through enabling the environment by enabling some individuals’ minds to expand somewhat to also encompass women’s writing.
‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ are complementary and this complementarity is what enables the human specie. Humanity needs two complementary sexes. In other words, with one man and one woman, we have humanity. Two men or two women do not make up humanity; they are at best two things who after a few years die and rot! The human person is two complementary and absolutely necessary beings that are needed for humanity to exist and as Juan Perez Lopez said way back in 1995: “the presence of the woman in society is essential for social equilibrium.” 17 He arrived at this conclusion after a deep and extensive study going through the biological, psychological and anthropological levels. In the biological level, the differences are obvious: male – female: superficial level. Going deeper into the next plane, is the psychological: here we get “the masculine” and “the feminine”. There is something which is masculine and that which is feminine and in addition both are persons and “persons are spiritual beings capable of knowing and loving.” (Aristotle) This is why on the anthropological level one cannot talk about differences between man and woman but rather of equality. Both are persons and as such, there can be no greater equality of being though each person is one, distinct, unique and irrepeatable. But when it comes to “innate capacities”, women carry the day. Imagine these two scenes:
a) a Child comes in late: Father in a fury; only a mother’s eyes can
see that the boy must have had a hard time as she notices the tears hidden behind the lowered eyes;
b) a baby cries: the father rocks ad moves him around him unsuccessfully; the mother comes, takes a look at the child, dips a finger in water and drops it into the tiny mouth and the crying ceases. It just comes natural to women.
An important consequence of this is that “some people” are ‘women’ because they are of the feminine gender who in coming into being (when they are born) have come into being as female. This is where the radical difference lies in being a ‘feminine person’. Logically it has consequences in the psychological and biological spheres but the deepest cause is in ‘feminity’ in being feminine. This consequence is of more importance for women than for men. Men move within more superficial levels while the deep, more profound, affect women more directly. Women are more hooked on experimental knowledge and this is shown in making decisions. The masculine can generate a lot of alternatives and the feminine evaluates these marvelously. Men tend to escape (responsibility) upwards and women have their feet on the ground. These are an anthropologist’s conclusions not mine; this is where and why there exists a complimentarity and for that equilibrium to be maintained, both have to be paid equal attention. This is what many publishers have failed to observe and act upon and this is why we have a one-sided heritage that needs some serious balancing out.
There is so much women can do and for this writer, the greatest, which belongs almost exclusively to the woman, is to bring humanity back to human beings; back to the world. It is true that any writer can write whatsoever s/he pleases, about whomsoever s/he pleases, howsoever s/he pleases and whensoever s/he pleases but great works of Literature have always tried to bring out the best in human beings. “True freedom is the ability to control that freedom, to exercise it with responsibility. Freedom has a price…” (Karen King-Aribisala in her presentation at the writers’ workshop organized by the British Council, Lagos, May 7th2003.)
The writer who makes me sympathize with his presentations with the whole of my being is more estimable than the writer who calls forth and appeals to a part…; and again, he who makes me forget my specific class, character, and circumstances, raises me into the universal man. Now this is Defoe’s excellence. You become a man while you read. 18
So said Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), about Daniel Defeo’s “Robinson Crusoe.” And nowadays, have you noticed the resurgence of the classics? Shakespeare’s classics many of which have now been made into films; Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” and so very many others after a century of bitter violence in a world filled with books on war and violence written by “men”? It seems a more humane kind of writing is being sought and women are better positioned to give this, above all for their care for details and that quality that in most women is almost second nature: sympathy, empathy.
– the barriers women face when it comes to getting their works published in the mainstream male-dominated publishing industry;
– how women have tried getting around these barriers by setting up women presses and literary prizes, (a phenomenon some consider have brought women more disadvantages than advantages) and
– a few qualities of good literary works (when we considered the opinion of some literary experts both living and dead)
– we finally made a case for the ‘wordsworth’ of women’s literary works: the innate qualities that make them at one and the same time different and indispensable in bringing humanity back to an almost inhumane planet.
The fault that has made women an under-published group is a faulted-coin. The first side of the coin has a lot to do with women. It is high time women wrote less “to right self” and to rather concentrate more in “righting society”. This is how (with Gordimer and many other women writers) the best case can be made
for women’s ‘wordsworth’. The other side of the faulted-coin lies heavy on publishers. It is high time publishers especially those run by men, widened a bit their scope and horizons so that they may not be cursed by posterity for leaving out a most important part of humanity’s literary heritage.
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