The {Un} Making Of A Woman Writer

An experience that is all too common for women: being judged for their looks rather than for their writing

1/2/2018 7:37:12 PM
written By : Sabyn Javeri Print

If you do not have an opinion on Arundhati Roy’s new book yet, then you have little reason to be alive. You should be prepared to be shunned by the social media literati who love to see books (yes, only in Pakistan do I meet people who say “Oh I have seen your book” as opposed to “have read it”). You must brace yourself for the virtual cold shoulder by those eagerly discussing blurbs of the reviews of her new work as they appear on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, even if they have no intention of ever reading the book itself. So speak now or hold your peace forever.

Now that you have been warned, let me tell you that you don’t even have to comment on her art. You can just rant on her clothes, her hair, her age or the lack of ageing – even her choice of lifestyle is up for discussion. For when it comes to writers who happen to be women, somehow we can’t seem to separate their talent from their looks. The best of the papers are doing that.

It bothered me greatly that The Guardian’s review of her latest started with how “Roy is swathed in pale pink linen, draped around her upper body like a sari over rolled up jeans, open-toed sandals and bright red nail varnish; she moves with arresting grace, and speaks softly. At 55, she retains an impish air of ingénue about her, and the quiet mischief in her smile suggests a certain pleasure in her own troublesome single-mindedness…” I don’t ever recall reading a review of a man writer starting out with how the clothes were draped across his body and how at 60 he could still hobble and how his smile suggested his own stubbornness to keep breathing…!

There seems to be a duplicity here with what’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander or even a starter. Earlier in the same paper, Andrew Anthony began by describing Roy as, “Small, delicately boned, a beguiling mixture of piercing dark eyes and bright easy smile, she is a warm presence… the grey tint to her curls lends depth to a still strikingly youthful face.”  He devoted a couple of paras to her appearance, before neatly tying up her looks with her talent in a tidy little package by adding, “The shrill prose is hard to reconcile with the softly spoken middle-aged woman sitting opposite me.”

Since when does how we look have anything to do with how we write? Imagine how strange it would sound if a critic wrote about Arvind Adiga’s hair (or the lack of it) or Mohammed Hanif’s height or Omar Shahid’s weight.

Yet when it is a woman’s writing being discussed, that space seems to be open to all, allowing critics to somehow relate a woman’s looks and mannerisms with her creativity. It almost makes you wonder whether writers like EL James of Fifty Shades of Grey fame or JK Rowling, who dared to do something unconventional and chose to use their initials, when they first started out.

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