‘The other thing that annoys me about the debate is the shrillness of it… I don’t think that the statistics gathered by the Stella people, which are being gathered specifically for the purpose of setting up a women’s only prize, can be considered conclusive or meaningful…’
Cameron Woodhead, a critic for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, as quoted in The Nose June 2012
Our Beautiful Literary Democracy
Is Tara Moss guilty of ‘privileged whining’ when she raises, again this week, the question of gender balance and bias in literary pages? When Tara Moss first blogged earlier this year about the VIDA statistics – that despite roughly equal numbers of books being published by both sexes, books written by men dominate the literary pages and those reviews are written by a predominantly male contingent of critics, she incurred the wrath of many, including the critic Cameron Woodhead.
His response was, “I don’t mean to rain on your parade but this is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me.”
But why shouldn’t Tara Moss have the right to publish statistics prepared by a legitimate organisation on her own blog without incurring the rancour of those who dispute the facts and decide to attack her personally?
Surely an internationally successful writer has the right, and some might say the obligation, to speak out on an issue that affects all writers, male and female. Because if literary reviewing, criticism and award giving were an actual level playing field, being lauded and awarded for writing a great book would be more meaningful, not less.
It does seem untenable that despite women having as many books published as men, they are of such an inferior quality they are unworthy of column inches in prestigious publications, let alone of winning prizes. If one accepts the premise that winning an award is a validation that a writer said what they wanted to say in a way that was well expressed and resonated with a reading audience, then it seems impossible to determine that only one gender is capable of achieving that goal.
White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby
At the end of his life, legendary French chef, Auguste Escoffier returns to the family villa in Monaco, a place he has barely visited in forty years, to spend the last of his days with his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis. Their relationship has had sixty years to mature into a complicated dance. She refused to live with him in London where he starred at the Savoy because his lover, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, was in residence. But for Escoffier, his love of one cannot exist without his love for the other, and food is the language he uses to seduce, and to love his whole life. Escoffier loves Delphine, despite her rejection, and sends her packages of exotic and exquisite foodstuffs, first as Georges and then as Mr Boots. In turn, Delphine spends a lifetime refusing to acknowledge that the gifts from her imaginary admirers are really from her husband.
Upon Escoffier’s return to La Villa Fernand, Delphine’s dying wish is that the man who has created dishes for Kings, Queens, Emperors and too many for Sarah Bernhardt, will at last create a dish in her name. Escoffier is reluctant, failing to see, until it is too late, that what matters to Delphine, is that “To be forgotten is the saddest thing.” Before he too joins his wife on the other side of life, Escoffier has one last chance to decide on the perfect dish with which to honour his wife.
In White Truffles in Winter, N.M. Kelby has imagined the life of Auguste Escoffier, who began his career as a thirteen year old apprentice in his uncle’s restaurant in Nice and went on to create a brilliant career including two famous restaurants of his own at the Savoy and the Ritz Carlton.
Escoffier is a complex and contradictory man in many ways but is singular in his passion for food and the two women who anchor his life.It is also a story of a time, there is Escoffier’s relationship with Queen Victoria and her ill-fated grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II who would lose the Germany he loved in World War I.
Despite all the horror of the war and the death of his own son Daniel, Escoffier can only look upon the failed Emperor, the man who once named him the Emperor of Chefs, as ‘the Queen’s sad grandson.’ This is such a romantic, sensual book full of deep passionate, yearning that fulfils its own promise that, “Nothing speaks more accurately to the complexity of life than food.”
On My Bedside Table Are…
There are some fantastic books coming in from all corners of the world at the moment. Here are three that caught my eye.
Abdo Khal won the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction with his novel Throwing Sparks, which was also banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. It is the story of an ambitious young man from the slums, Tarek, who sees an opportunity to escape poverty and petty crime when an opulent palace, called Paradise by the impoverished locals, is built on the Jedda waterfront. Appointed to serve the Master, Tarek thinks his dreams have come true but “make a deal with the devil, and life is certain to set up a vicious and inescapable trap.” After thirty years serving the mercurial and cruel Master, Tarek realizes he has been nothing more than a slave to the Master’s desires and will always carry the burden of having performed unspeakable acts in his name.
Unflinching and troubling, Abdo Khal has written an incisive satire decrying the debilitating effects of wealth, power and violence.
Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses is a tragic-comic novel about the good citizens of Liven, where each of the residents are disfigured or disabled in some way. The village is far removed from the cultural change sweeping China, which spares them closer scrutiny from the government. But when their wheat crop is buried under ‘hot snow’, an unseasonal summer blizzard, a local county official convinces the villagers to set up a travelling freak show to raise funds. Expressing his entrepreneurial flair, the official intends to use the money to buy Lenin’s tomb from the Russians who can no longer afford to maintain it, move it a purpose built mausoleum, thus creating a tourist attraction and saving the village.
Lenin’s Kisses is a novel of great breadth and skill, wonderful characters and magical story telling. This book may be an unflattering portrayal of a China at the historical point where it shifted from ‘high communism’ to ‘hypercapitalism’, but it is also immensely readable and joyous.
It was the name on the sailor’s jacket, Sampo Karjalainen, that made Doctor Friari accept the patient on board the German hospital ship. Set upon by thugs, the injured sailor had suffered terrible brain injuries affecting his speech and memory. The Finnish doctor sees an opportunity to help a fellow countryman and with diligence and compassion, he restores the soldier’s health and invests hours helping him relearn language that was lost in the accident. With the doctor’s assistance, Sampo returns to Finland carrying the doctor’s hope that the familiar environment will bring back his memory. However the longer Sampo spends in Finland, the less connected he feels. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani is a wonderful mystery story in the old tradition, well told and with characters that draw you in. It’s about what is lost and what replaces it and the spaces in between, reminiscent of books such as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
Booktopia’s Top 5
Comfort food and comfort books are what we are buying this week.
1. Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals by Jamie Oliver BUY THE BOOK
2. The Golden Land by Di Morrissey BUY THE BOOK
3. Fresh and Light by Donna Hay BUY THE BOOK
4. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling BUY THE BOOK
5. A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy BUY THE BOOK
So what do you think about this debate about books by men dominating the literary scene? Do you read more books by men or women, or about the same? And is that a conscious decision or a reflection of the kind of subjects that attract you to a book in the first place. Is an Australian literary prize for women a significant way of addressing the gender bias? Plenty of food for thought. As always, leave your comments in the thread below. Until next week! Mx
*The Hoopla’s books editor Meredith Jaffe is a book reviewer andblogger. She lives in Sydney with her husband and four children. You can follow her on Twitter: @meredithjaffe.