One of Violaine Huisman’s last memories of the world before the Covid is the signing tour for her latest novel, “Rose Desert” (published by Gallimard in November 2019). A fiction largely inspired by his own story, in which it is in particular a question of desire, love and relationship to the body. “More than 90% of the men who came to my table said to me ‘it’s for my wife/my mother/my sister’,” says the author. When I asked them why they didn’t want to read me, they told me it was a women’s story. Need to justify a “feminine” reading – there is “rose” in the title of the book – or a symptom of a general lack of interest among men for literature written by women?
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Too few women in male libraries
Nielsen Book Research, a British research institute that studies our relationship to books, estimated that only 19% of the readers of the ten most widely read women authors in the United Kingdom are men, while conversely, the ten authors best-selling men’s books are read by 55% of men compared to 45% of women. And it’s not better on our side of the Channel. The most prestigious literary prizes still mainly reward men, as underlined an analysis of the website of the French Association of Feminism : “in September 2019, the Nouveau magazine littéraire headlined “La Rentrée des autrices”; however, when the greatest literary prizes were announced, the Goncourt prize was awarded to Jean‑Paul Dubois, the Renaudot to Sylvain Tesson, the Fémina prize to Sylvain Prudhomme and the Grand Prix of the French Academy to Laurent Binet. Excellent authors were certainly rewarded, but female authors only came at the end of the list, winning none of the most prestigious prizes, with obvious consequences for the sale of their books. Without even considering the figures and the literary prizes, it suffices to study the library of the average man to see that few women have the right of citizenship there.
In her book “The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men” published last June, British journalist Mary Ann Sieghart rightly deplores the fact that men read very few authors. This is, according to her, one of the reasons why women are still “demeaned, undermined, questioned, mocked, discussed and generally not taken seriously in public and professional life”: without female role models and women on the world, these gentlemen would struggle, according to Mary Ann Sieghart, to develop an empathy for the “second sex”. Because immersing oneself in the perspective of a narrator or a hero is the exercise of empathy par excellence.
“It is obvious that we are inspired by our life to write, testifies Violaine Huisman. So we tend to gender our narrator according to us. Men write from a male perspective, and women write from a female perspective. And if female readers often have the opportunity to experience authors – if only in high school – the reverse is not necessarily true. With a few exceptions, such as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina – having, by the way, the tragedy of their destiny as a common point – complex and central female characters are often lacking in literature written by men.
Change baccalaureate programs to open them to women
At least, in classical literature, the one that we study in the French programs in college and high school and which partly forges our relationship to reading. Of the 16 texts on the French baccalaureate program for 2021, only three were written by women. The Hubertine Auclert Center studied 17 second-level literature textbooks: only 3.7% of the authors cited are female authors. “The works studied in high school mostly date from the 17th or 19th century, laments Sandrine Aragon, professor of literature at the Sorbonne. However, during these periods, women did not have access to education and therefore to writing. This poses a real “male gaze” problem, and teachers have an essential role to play in this. Literature constructs our approach to the world and to each other. Only, it can be difficult to find female authors in the classical period, she admits: in France, female authors from the 17th to 19th centuries are lacking, because of the place of women in society at these times.
So, apart from a few major exceptions such as Madame de Lafayette and Georges Sand, it can be complicated to include women authors in the corpus – and apart from “La princesse de Clèves”, the works studied in their entirety were written by men. “By necessity, there are few women writers in history, defended in 2015 Romain Vignest, president of the Association of professors of letters, questioned by “Liberation”. And those that exist are studied: Madame de Sévigné, Christine de Pisan, Marguerite de Valois. It does not have to become a criterion for choosing authors, we select works according to literary interest, not gender. Other teachers testify, on the contrary, in this same article, to a masculine tropism in the programs: the periods and themes studied do not always allow women to be included, and the study of French is made to transmit , rightly, a “heritage”.
To enable, among other things, the development of feminist literature and its study in school curricula, the Éditions des femmes – Antoinette Fouque seeks in particular to concentrate resources on scholarly women, to bring them out of the shadows. “For example, we have written a Universal Dictionary of Designers, listing more than 10,000 illustrious women in all fields, and educational manuals to allow teachers to integrate them into middle and high school programs, explains Christine Villeneuve, head of of the publishing house, a pioneer in its field. It’s a way to inspire fictional characters, and to create corpus-resources for future generations of teachers, but also for authors who need inspiration for beautiful, inspiring female characters. »
Not typically feminine writing, but themes that deserve to be told
Because that’s also where the shoe pinches: women are furiously lacking in characters that do honor to their gender. describes Violaine Huisman. I found Proust’s description of the love story between Swann and Odette quite shocking, with a crushing objectification of the female character. Same observation with “Belle du Seigneur”, the author’s favorite book for a long time – and adored by generations of young readers. “I was stunned by the misogyny of Albert Cohen, and by the fact that when I was younger, I idealized the passionate love he describes! Looking back, I realize that the female characters are very often tragic, even pathetic. The romantic female character is necessarily an amorous, irrational woman, whose passions make her non-mistress of herself.
“There are subjects that are missing if you don’t read women,” adds Sandrine Aragon. Just as there are matters a woman cannot know. But the fact is that nowadays it is much easier to find stories of male lives and experiences than female ones. And publishing remains a very masculine environment – “which is why many women have created their own structures”, she believes. “Rooms of their own”, in the sense of Virginia Woolf, which allow a better visibility of women authors, and this, in all literary genres, from fiction to poetry, including essays. “For a long time, women who wrote police officers did so under pseudonyms, and men authors of Harlequin-type rose water novels also, decrypts Sandrine Aragon. Hence the fact that we think that there are male or female writings, and genres precisely reserved for one or the other. For a long time, women were expected to stay in their own backyard. If there is no writing, in the strict sense, typically feminine or masculine, there is in the authors a different approach to the world and to literature.
“By my function, and perhaps a little by intuition, I read mostly women, admits Christine Villeneuve. If there is no major difference in the way of writing between men and women, I would still say that the relationship to the truth is not the same. Women produce a more intimate literature, precisely because their intimacy has still been very little explored. Conversely, any reader of Houellebecq will know all about the impotence of fifty-year-old men. “The only thing that I still find complicated today is that with the centuries of oppression that we have suffered as women, there is a kind of obligation to take a political point of view, believes the author Violaine Huisman. It is a luxury of a privileged white man to be able to choose his subjects. »