A. Have you read the new Arundhati Roy?
B. No. I’m not a fan.
A. Oh, OK. Didn’t you like ‘The God of Small Things’?
B. Um, it was OK. I felt like she was trying very hard to be different and clever.
A. Is it? In what way?
B. Her use of language for one thing. I found it too self-consciously inventive. And I also feel she tends to fetishize the tragic.
A. OK. When you say her language is self-consciously inventive, how do you mean? Haven’t a lot of writers been ‘self-consciously inventive’? Joyce. Kafka. Woolf. Rushdie. Pynchon. Your favourite Michael Ondaatje as well.
B. Sure, they have.
A. So why is Roy’s linguistic inventiveness self-conscious and theirs not?
B. I don’t know. It’s something to do with her voice. It sounds like she’s raising one eyebrow at you as she writes a particularly clever sentence. It’s like she’s telling the reader, “See, how clever I am, how different.”
A. Is it? And you don’t get this feeling when you read Rushdie?
B. Not so much, no.
A. OK. And this fetishizing of the tragic that you speak of. Doesn’t Ondaatje do it too?
B. No, I don’t think so. He addresses tragedy in creative ways but I don’t think he fetishizes it.
A. OK. But both our examples, Rushdie and Ondaatje, are men. Can you think of a woman writer who, like Rushdie, is linguistically inventive without being too clever or self-conscious? And who, like Ondaatje, addresses the tragic, without fetishizing it?
B. Hmm, let me see. Virginia Woolf? Ali Smith?
A. Do you read these writers?
A. Why not?
B. I think it’s the same reasons as I cited for Roy. I find them all trying too hard to be clever – with language, with problems of the human heart – to be taken seriously.
A. Hmmm. OK, allow me to consider an idea?
A. Do you think you may have an unconscious bias against women writers who write differently, creatively, boldly?
B. Why do you say that?
A. It seems when Rushdie or Ondaatje take risks with language or create tragic love stories they are somehow legitimate, laudable efforts in your mind. But when Roy or other women writers do the same thing, it’s somehow not seen as appropriate? Do you think it’s because you’re not comfortable when women get too clever, too competent? You feel like telling them, “Hey pipe down, it’s not your job to break new ground. Leave that to the big boys”. I could be wrong but humour me.
B. Sure. To answer your question, I don’t think so. I like to believe I’m evaluating Roy and other women writers, including Woolf and Ali Smith, purely for their writing. Not because they’re women.
A. But they do the same things Rushdie and Ondaatje do, and yet, somehow, in your mind, the male writers are relevant while the female writers are not?
B. It’s probably only because all the three female writers we are talking about – Roy, Woolf, Smith – are not to my taste.
A. So can you think of any other female writers who are inventive with language and who deal with the tragic, and who you like?
B. Not at this moment, no.
A. Hmm, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to find fault with you. I’m just investigating your preferences and finding out if you may be harbouring an unconscious bias against clever women writers. If you do, then I want to tell you that it is perfectly normal. It’s a psychological by-product of the society we have created.
B. OK, let’s say, hypothetically, that I do harbour an unconscious bias against clever women writers. How is it a psychological by-product of society?
A. Thank you for humouring my theory. OK, so if you do harbour an unconscious bias, it could be a by-product of society because we have been raised in a patriarchal society where being smart or bold has been a man’s prerogative while being submissive or obedient has been a woman’s duty.
B. Things are changing now of course.
A. Of course. But the past haunts us. Its too hardwired into our psyches. For years and years, all the institutions we transacted with and learnt from were designed to reflect a patriarchal worldview. So whether we like it or not, we want women in a certain ‘place’. And when they shift from that place by getting too ‘clever’, we feel threatened. But we can’t say we feel threatened because it reveals our own vulnerability and bias. So we rationalize it by saying “She’s not good enough”.
B. OK. I understand what you’re saying. But isn’t it also possible that I don’t harbour such an unconscious, blanket bias against the strains of feminine intelligence? Isn’t it possible that I simply don’t like the way Roy writes and expresses herself?
A. Yes, it is. But if that is the case, then there should be other strong feminine voices that you admire and read often. But you can’t think of any. Isn’t that unusual? So then it is also possible that you don’t like the voice of feminine intelligence in fiction. Or rather, you like the voice if it is moderate, demure, poised. But when women take their intelligence to bold, creative, uncharted territory, you feel uncomfortable. However when Rushdie and Ondaatje do the same thing, you’re more tolerant. The funny thing is both Roy and your favourite writer Ondaatje have the same philosophy. They are both interested in telling stories of “the other” in society. And they both take liberties with language. Yet, you tolerate Ondaatje but you don’t tolerate Roy.
A. If this is the case, then it’s patriarchy again, albeit a more invisible form. Hence the ‘unconscious’ in ‘unconscious bias’.
B. OK. So what is the correct attitude to take then? Assuming you’re right.
A. Good question. Assuming we’re right about your bias, then perhaps you need to be more sceptical towards the voice of feminine intelligence in fiction. Maybe you need to be more open to the idea that the voice of feminine intelligence in fiction is going to sound different because it might be crawling out of the woodwork, unlike the voice of male intelligence in fiction which speaks from a point of confident privilege.
B. Explain that.
A. We’ve been raised in a society where the feminine voice per se – the voice of feminine intelligence and daring and indulgence and madness – has been suppressed or controlled or stigmatized. So you’ve never really experienced its flowering. It’s not a normal voice to your ears. As opposed to the voice of male intelligence which has been normalised, even idealized. So, yes, when you encounter a strong feminine voice in say, a book or a song, you find it strange. In your mind, this voice is “not OK”. But maybe it is neither strange nor threatening nor irrelevant. It simply is. It is just another facet of intelligence.
B. Another lens on the world.
A. Exactly. A lens hitherto controlled. But that has always been around. You just didn’t pay attention. Or you didn’t like it. But sometimes we need to appreciate a voice on its terms, not ours.
B. Hmm. I need to think about what you’ve said.
A. OK. Thank you for indulging me. If more men were willing to have a conversation like you, we’d be able to pave the way for a very different society.
B. And what kind of society would that be?
A. One where women are allowed to be clever, perhaps even self-indulgently clever sometimes, without being judged just because they’re women. In other words, we can replace quick, thought-substituting judgment with a generous, healthy scepticism towards different kinds of intelligences, different forms of psychic, creative and moral expression. We can create a Ministry of Utmost Scepticism, if you’ll pardon the cheesy joke. Scepticism towards all lives, all intelligences, however strange, however unfamiliar.
B. Ha ha, that’s a nice formulation!
A. Oh, while you’re at it. Do try “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Roy. Maybe you’ll be surprised.
B. Sure. Maybe I will! But I retain the freedom to appreciate her philosophy while still not liking her writing, if it comes to that.
A. Of course. That’s what this is about. Freedom.
First published on Labyrinths