Women on top, Linda Burgess

Linda Burgess responds to The Women’s Bookshop’s invitation to vote for the top 10 women writers of the last 50 years … and assesses the results. 

Speaking in that slightly miffed voice that people can use when they get a whiff of positive discrimination, one of my friends said, “So women don’t like men writers?” You could tell he thought he was on firm ground, but oh dear, that wasn’t the point. Yes, yes, of course women do like some men writers* but readers – real readers – real women readers – will have far more female than male writers in their personal top 10s. It’s not a stance – OK? It’s not some sort of feminist point we’re making here. It’s a complex yet strangely simple thing. To lure us in, a book must get an empathetic response from us. We want to be able to identify with point-of-view for a start. We are more comfortable, more engaged, more entertained if we share the writer’s gender.

This is a generalisation, of course it is, and as with all generalisations you can hurl millions of exceptions at it. But there’s no doubt that when Carole Beu and her staff at The Women’s Bookshop in Auckland decided to invite women readers from around New Zealand to list their top 10 women writers – from the last 50 years, and naming if we wished, our favourite book by a chosen writer – they really struck a chord. Hundreds – thousands – of us just couldn’t wait to do it.

One of the main reasons for our enthusiasm is that we constantly see lists – bestsellers, the choice of the staff of a particular bookshop – and all too rarely do they reflect what real readers actually like to read. How marvellous it is to be writing for a periodical such as this and say “real readers”, knowing everyone reading this is indeed just that. We don’t just buy something meaty and easy for our summer holiday. We can’t bear not to have a book (at least one) on the go. When we’re with each other we talk about books. When we watched a last interview with David Lange, we couldn’t resist peering behind him at his bookshelves, trying to make out whom he read (Tom Sharpe, Sara Paretsky). Those who responded to The Women’s Bookshop’s request took the task very seriously. Book groups all over the country held special meetings to do it.

I wrote my list within minutes of reading that request and sent it off with a triumphant click of the send button. This, it turned out, was exactly like scoffing the top layer chocolates without stopping to look at what was on offer below. Moments later I crept around the bookshelves in my house noting what I’d left out and also noting what was missing. Yep, you lend favourites and you lose favourites. A few minutes later I sent another 10, graciously received at the other end. And then I sat back to wait to see how I’d done. What would I get out of 10? One does, after all, feel deliciously ambivalent at such times. Do I really want to like what everyone else likes? Well – sort of. Or do I want to feel a certain smugness – an “I know what they don’t know” about my taste. Well – sort of.

When the list did come out, I recognised several of my choices. Arrogant as it may sound, it was immediately clear that this list was a first – it was made up of writers who are read by people who take their reading seriously. And it was as interesting to see who hadn’t made the top 100 as who had. I went immediately into analytical mode to work out why I thought those chosen had been. Would I have put Margaret Atwood at the top? The truth is I don’t really have a top; this is a plateau not a pyramid. I had certainly had her on my list but my choices had been Blind Assassin and my real favourite, Cat’s Eye. As for Handmaid’s Tale – it’s a stunning work, and one taught at schools and also filmed, therefore her most famous. On my list I had Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver has not written another that equals it), and Carol Shields, though for her I’d chosen her less known Republic of Love and her personal favourite – Mary Swann. Some writers will be ever-famous for one of their books, however many they subsequently write. Perhaps it is a testimony to a genius such as Shields when that is not the case.

I chose Allende’s House of Spirits (every book since a slight disappointment) because when I read it in 1989 I’d never read anything like it. Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, though there were many others I could have named), Alice Munro (Lives of Girls and Women, ditto), and Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence were all high on my list. Margaret Drabble – because she was the first “woman writer”, someone who wrote about a recognisable world – whom I picked up in a bookshop and bought (The Millstone). Barbara Trapido – always a wonderful read but doomed to be forever best-known for her first book, Brother of the More Famous Jack. Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Penelope Lively – I did love Moon Tiger but best of all is Heat Wave. 

Then there were favourites – often picked up by Virago a couple of decades ago but seeming to have gone off the radar again: the genius that was Barbara Pym (Excellent Women), Elizabeth Taylor (Angel) and Elizabeth Jenkins (The Tortoise and the Hare.) The far-too-unknown Elinor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Devine), my newest find Lionel Shriver with her stunning, unsettling We Need to Talk about Kevin. Where were Jane Hamilton (A Map of the World) and Anna Quindlen whose best book One True Thing was recommended to me by several different people before I got around to reading it – I was put off by the title?

About to send the second lot off, I realised that I’d neglected to put one single New Zealander on my list. Shame on me. And now I am about to lose all of my friends who are writers, which indeed describes a large-ish number of my friends. I added Janet Frame for Owls Do Cry and Barbara Anderson for Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. Aaah … the relief after my list went.

Who would have thought that the Top 50, when it did come out, would have been as discussed as it was among my friends? We were united in that for the first time ever we had in front of us a list we (more or less) agreed with. The one disappointment in a way was that it didn’t contain some unheard-of writers for us to discover.

And who would have thought:

  •  That Maeve Binchy would be in the Top 50 at 34,Joanna Trollope at 38, Diana Gabaldon at 39 and Rosamunde Pilcher at 46, but that our own popular/historical fiction writer who has been on the bestseller list almost nonstop since her first book was published – Jenny Pattrick – wouldn’t make it? (She was 72nd.)
  • That Keri Hulme’s The Bone People could be 8th. This initially made me wonder if even in such a select group as this, readers had fallen into the trap of making lists that included what they should think rather than what they did think? This is what I thought anyway – until I asked around and found friends very divided on this one. Some had adored it. I am now determined to read it …. But it does still beg the question of how honest we are when faced with a questionnaire.
  • That people love Margaret Mahy so much they chose her books, written ostensibly for teenagers? Good.
  • That the writers chosen would generally be older women? So no Marian Keyes or Catherine Chidgey. Indeed, a victory for the grownups.
  • That there’d be a real mixture of the intellectual (Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing), the bordering-on-literary-bestseller (Jodi Picoult, Joanna Trollope) and the reasonably easy read (Colleen McCulloch, Anita Shreve)?
  • That times have so comprehensively changed? Such a list as this 20 years ago would have been lucky to feature Owls Do Cry, and now in this Top 50, here were eight New Zealand novelists. But who would have thought there would be more votes for Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Elizabeth Knox, Margaret Mahy, Fiona Kidman, Shonagh Koea, Joy Cowley and Barbara Anderson than for Fiona Farrell (52nd) whose Book Book has been so loved by so many women readers and indeed seems to be the companion volume to this list?
  • That Clan of the Cave Bear could have made it on to this – or any – list?


*Oh all right then: Ian McEwen, Jonathan Franzen, Tim Winton, Michael Cunningham, William Wharton, Alexander McCall Smith and …. That’ll have to do for now.

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