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Joan Didion Talks About Female Writers

 

I’ve said this many times, but I love The Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interviews. They really are a fascinating look at famous authors.

The interviewer always manages to get these writers to open up about their craft, and even their personal life to some extent.

Joan Didion’s feature on The Paris Review was no exception. She talked about a variety of subjects, including female writers. 

INTERVIEWER

Have any women writers been strong influences?

DIDION

I think only in the sense of being models for a life, not for a style. I think that the Brontës probably encouraged my own delusions of theatricality. Something about George Eliot attracted me a great deal. I think I was not temperamentally attuned to either Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf.

INTERVIEWER

What are the disadvantages, if any, of being a woman writer?

DIDION

When I was starting to write—in the late fifties, early sixties—there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O’Connor, of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I’m not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved—I suppose—deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.

INTERVIEWER

Advantages?

DIDION

The advantages would probably be precisely the same as the disadvantages. A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell simply from the style of writing, or the sensibility, if the author is a woman?

DIDION

Well, if style is character—and I believe it is—then obviously your sexual identity is going to show up in your style. I don’t want to differentiate between style and sensibility, by the way. Again, your style is your sensibility. But this whole question of sexual identity is very tricky. If I were to read, cold, something by Anaïs Nin, I would probably say that it was written by a man trying to write as a woman. I feel the same way about Colette, and yet both those women are generally regarded as intensely “feminine” writers. I don’t seem to recognize “feminine.” On the other hand, Victory seems to me a profoundly female novel. So does Nostromo, so does The Secret Agent.

I thought that last question was interesting.

Can you tell whether a writer is a male or female by their style of writing? But, really, does it even matter? Do you guys care? I certainly don’t. What are your thoughts on this…and Didion’s other comments on female writers?

You can read the full interview at The Paris Review.

(Image: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

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31 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting!

    Like

    February 3, 2016
  2. With exceptional writers who know what they’re doing, I personally can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. I don’t particularly care, either; I’m interested in the story.

    Like

    February 3, 2016
  3. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Joan Didion on female writers and more: “But this whole question of sexual identity is very tricky. If I were to read, cold, something by Anaïs Nin, I would probably say that it was written by a man trying to write as a woman. I feel the same way about Colette, and yet both those women are generally regarded as intensely “feminine” writers. I don’t seem to recognize “feminine.” On the other hand, Victory seems to me a profoundly female novel. So does Nostromo, so does The Secret Agent.” Read on!

    Liked by 1 person

    February 3, 2016
  4. I dug thru your old posts and found the one on V.S. Naipaul who proudly claimed that he could always tell if the writer was a man or a woman. Was this interview with Didion done before or after that little storm blew up in literary circles?

    Like

    February 3, 2016
    • This interview was from 1978, so a good bit before. I forgot about that Naipaul post though. Thanks for reminding me!

      Liked by 1 person

      February 3, 2016
    • Aside from having an ambiguous-looking external genitalia, true hermaphroditism in humans differs from pseudohermaphroditism in that the person’s karyotype has both XX and XY chromosome pairs (46XX/46XY, 46XX/47XXY or 45X/XY mosaic) and having both testicular and ovarian tissue. One possible pathophysiologic explanation of this rare phenomenon is a parthenogenetic division of a haploid ovum into two haploid ova. Upon fertilization of the two ova by two sperm cells (one carrying an X and the other carrying a Y chromosome), the two fertilized ova are then fused together resulting in a person having dual genitalial, gonadal (ovotestes) and genetic sex.

      Another common cause of hermaphroditism is the crossing over of the SRY from the Y chromosome to the X chromosome during meiosis. The SRY is then activated in only certain areas, causing development of testes in some areas by beginning a series of events starting with the upregulation of SOX9, and in other areas not being active (causing the growth of ovarian tissues). Thus, testicular and ovarian tissues will both be present in the same individual.[22]

      Liked by 1 person

      February 4, 2016
  5. Thank you for posting this, Robert. It was amusing what she said about Anais Nin, because I always imagined her as a man. I always felt Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins was written by a man, and I find John McGahern’s By the Lake to be profoundly ‘feminine’. It doesn’t matter to me as a reader if I can tell from the style whether the writer is a man or a woman, but it is intriguing.

    Like

    February 3, 2016
  6. I agree that with skilled writers I’m not able to tell if the author is male or female. I’m currently reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which features a male protagonist, and it struck that if I didn’t know it was written by a woman, then I *wouldn’t* know it was written by a woman. Unless the author is speaking specifically to or for one gender, or is a terrible writer prone to stereotypes, I suspect I wouldn’t be able to tell most of the time.

    Like

    February 3, 2016
  7. This is fun, because our last work book club book was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and this time we have Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. I’ll be thinking about this post and interview as we have our discussion.

    Like

    February 3, 2016
  8. I’m reading Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” right now – getting ready for a seminar on 3 of her books next month. If someone had handed these essays to me, unidentified, I absolutely would have known the author was a woman.

    I read her memoirs about the deaths of her husband and daughter when they were published a few years ago,
    and loved them both. She is a spectacular writer. I was intimidated by her for decades and really regret it. She is wonderfully readable.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 3, 2016
    • Tobi #

      “If someone had handed these essays to me, unidentified, I absolutely would have known the author was a woman.”

      Why? I mean what would have given the author’s sex away?

      Like

      February 4, 2016
    • Dale, you look like you care.

      Like

      February 4, 2016
  9. I don’t generally care, I’ve been tricked many times before, reading a novel with a feminine voice in my head, while the author was a man… also, despite sounding sexist or even silly, there’s a style some point as masculine and other as feminin, being the first recognisable by the use of short sentences and well manipulated simplicity, and the latter by the fine weaving of words, long sentences prolonged by endless ponctuation, romantic, descriptive… I’ve read the most raw pieces of writing, written by women, short, cold, piercing. I agree with her saying that style is one’s sensibility, and though it might reveal your sexual identity, the softness or hardness as little to do with gender… even if it does, isn’t the reader’s pleasure and privilege to read and hear the voices he/she so choses?

    Liked by 1 person

    February 3, 2016
  10. CooL; Robert

    Liked by 1 person

    February 4, 2016
  11. She must have a big garden …

    Like

    February 4, 2016
  12. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    February 4, 2016
  13. She is Great anyway

    Like

    February 4, 2016
  14. …………. Love, her word~ Theatricality

    Liked by 1 person

    February 4, 2016
  15. Really she is Great..

    Like

    May 21, 2016

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