Joanna Kavenna

Reading Rune

The Blazing World


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The central argument of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is that woman is ‘other’ to man. Everyman expresses the human condition; Everywoman is regarded as a subcategory of the universal. This should really by now sound archaic and peculiar, like theories of eugenics or the ideas of Cesare Lombroso. And yet, in 2007, the Nobel Committee commended Doris Lessing as an ‘epicist of the female experience’. Lessing, even as she thanked them nicely for the prize, was obliged to ask, ‘Why not human experience? … I’ve never approved of this business of dividing men and women writers … it makes them sound like enemies.’ Any author who has politely explained, once again, that her work is not exclusively about ‘women’ even though, yes, she is a woman will sympathise with A L Kennedy’s remark to critics: ‘I’d advise you to avoid the whole Woman Writer area … Very dull.’ A dissonance emerges: the writer creates in a liminal zone where she is not Woman but an individual, creating in her own way, and then her work goes out into the world and is scrutinised on the grounds of what it says about Woman and nothing else. Her male equivalent has his own problems, of course, but at least he is not obliged to fend off this particular variety of dullness. And so we get sent, kicking and screaming, back to Simone de Beauvoir. 

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