Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Anti-Room at the Dublin Book Festival

I'm slow off the mark writing about it, but the Dublin Book Festival outdid itself this year. Smock Alley was decked out to the nines, and with the lovely Peabody pop-up coffee shop and the handily placed beanbags, not to mention gallons of wine, the punter's every need was catered for. Not least was the line up of panels and launches, which made it very hard to decide what to go to and what to have to ruefully miss.

One I wasn't able to pass on was the Anti-room panel, headed up by Sinéad Gleeson and Anna Carey, with Léan Cullinan, Mary Costello, and Anna McPartlin. Of the three, I have only read Mary Costello's work (and loved it, as do many others, as evinced in her Bord Gais Book Award), but I was eager to hear about the issues surrounding women's writing in 2014. 

In the mid-nineties, I wrote a master's thesis on Edna O'Brien. I'll spare you details (mostly because I can't find the thesis), but the thrust was that reviewers were more interested in her eyes and hair and porcelain skin than in her books. A few weeks ago, I was disconcerted to read this Irish Examiner description of Mary Costello: 'Author of quite brilliant collection of short stories published two years ago, in her late 40s, Mary is attractive with her long blond hair, and luminescent eyes, but there’s a separateness about her...'. So it was no surprise that the discussion was depressingly familiar. Women might be the biggest book buyers, and read books written by both sexes, but men prefer to read men; reviewers tend to be men; these men prefer to review the books of other men; journals publish more men; etcetera. Same old, same old.

These gorgeous bookmarks are available from; proceeds will go towards sustaining the #ReadWomen campaign beyond 2014. 
But the picture is not completely bleak. We should take heart from the very fact of this panel's existence in the Dublin Book Festival, and from the size of the crowd who attended the event. The panelists spoke about how inspired campaigns like #ReadWomen affect women writers, and how they feel about women-only prizes, such as the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (no need for them, in an ideal world, but in the meantime...).

At another event the same morning in the National Gallery, it was small comfort to hear about the shiny, pink cover, featuring a 'Kylie Minogue lookalike' dancing around her Hoover, that was presented to Roddy Doyle for his grimly themed Paula Spencer. Fortunately for him, he was in a position to decline.