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.
Have any women writers been strong influences?
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.
What are the disadvantages, if any, of being a woman writer?
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.
The advantages would probably be precisely the same as the disadvantages. A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.
Can you tell simply from the style of writing, or the sensibility, if the author is a woman?
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.
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