The Country Diary of a 21st Century Lady
6.55am in the morning. I’m asleep. 7am: my phone clicks into answerphone. It’s someone from Women’s Hour. They want me to come on, live, later that day and talk about why I don’t like writing by women. Eh? They what? I don’t?
We sit up in bed blearily. We go downstairs and unfold the newspaper. One of the broadsheets has clearly fallen for a negative marketing ploy set up by the marketing department of the publisher of an anthology I’ve co-edited with another writer, Toby Litt. The phone rings again. Answerphone. Front Row. Will I come on and talk about …? Toby and I have been saying no since the beginning of the year to this stupefying ploy, the prime aim of which was to stir up a “controversial gender debate” on the day of the announcement of the Orange Prize longlist at the London Book Fair. We were the first editors in the history of an established series of British Council new writing anthologies to read all the unsolicited manuscripts rather than let someone else sift them for us, so as well as finding brilliant writing we saw everything the editors don’t usually see and we commented on it specifically in our introduction. The ploy wanted to take some of our remarks out of context, hype them up and make a fuss. Which is exactly what’s happened.
Answerphone again. Radio 4’s 5pm news programme. Will I come on and talk about…? Answerphone. The Today programme. Answerphone. The marketing director, peeved that I won’t go on the radio and talk about something I never said in the first place.
One of the people who rings me is Toby. He asks has anyone been in touch about the thing in the papers? Because not a single person’s called him, and the only email he’s had is from eBay. Now that’s what I call a gender debate. The phone stops ringing next morning when it’s obvious that the story’s not a story, though the broadsheet trundles its non-story on for a few more days, in the course of which we learn that Charlotte Bronté was the mother of chick lit. Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of writing a radio play about a lot of people in a room who can all psychotically hear a radio programme in their heads, but for everybody it’s playing a maddeningly different music.
For the next few months I find myself billed at my own readings as “controversial outspoken novelist, Ali Smith”. I get a text from a friend of mine in Denmark. It says: My dear
Ali, news of your anthology has reached my morning paper even here in Copenhagen. They are taking what you say very serious indeed because they think you are a man.
Sarah and I go to see Deborah Warner’s version of Julius Caesar, a play I can only dimly remember from second year at Inverness High School as one of the most boring things we ever had to read. Warner’s version erupts with an extraordinary crowd choreographed on stage – a revelation of the mob. Her Mark Antony is the epitome of celebrity power, and the play, with its pointless lying war, its emotive empty rhetoric, and its black and white side-taking, becomes explosively contemporary.
In the papers and on the news, the 2005 election build-up focuses in on domestic policy, in other words, on which party will let in the least number of asylum seekers or foreigners.
Near the end of the month, my phone rings and I answer it. A woman says she’s from Women’s Hour, and that they’re planning a programme about the Orange Prize and whether it’s any good or not, and can I tell her what my opinion of the prize is. Yes, I say, I think the prize is incredibly important, that no matter how equal women think they’ve become, history teaches us the profound need for gender debate and positive discrimination, and in a time when so many empowered women are, paradoxically, embarrassed by the word feminist or scared of even saying it out loud, this prize is even more important than usual. Silence on the other end of the phone. Oh, I see, I say. Did you phone me up specifically because you thought I’d disapprove of the Orange Prize then? Um, she says, if you’re not against the Orange Prize, then can you tell me some names of any women you know who I could contact who are against the Orange Prize?
Sarah and I go to see the first feature film by the American avantgarde filmmaker, Jennifer Reeves. It’s called The Time We Killed, a beautiful film which will never have mainstream distribution, being experimental and low budget. It begins on a personal note that seems daunting, dismal, and opens out into proof that the personal is never not political. A girl in a New York flat is depressed and agoraphobic. There is nothing in her life but her damp, dark, crumbling apartment and nothing in her ears but the aggressive voices of the people in the other apartments. She switches on her television and watches Bush and Rumsfeld talk about American policy in Iraq while outside the sounds are of the police breaking indifferently into a neighbouring flat where someone’s dead. The film layers itself into an examination of madness rooted in the breakdown of connection and in the loss of any contextual understanding.
One of my friends phones me up. His latest novel has been turned down because his publishers feel that “the woman character in it isn’t sympathetic enough”. He’s the third novelist I’ve spoken to this year – and this is just among my very few acquaintances – who’s having trouble placing his new book. All three are established, challenging authors ranging in age from their forties to their seventies. In another’s case, the writer submitted his newest novel to the publisher he’d been with for twenty years. His editor emailed him to say she thought this was his best book ever and that she’d be proud to publish it. Two weeks later she emailed again to say that she was turning it down, that her marketing department had refused it because his last book sold too few copies.
Sarah and I go to see the artist Martha Rosler talk. She’s the artist who, among other things, organises garage sales in art galleries, invites people to buy a load of old junk with price tags on it while watching yourself do this on a screen, with a voice over your head saying pleasantly: Do you really want to buy that? What difference will buying it make to you? Rosler speaks about how the protest march on February 13th 2003 was the biggest ever no in history. She reminds the audience that it took twelve years of saying it to end the Vietnam War.
We also go to see the New York performance artist Laurie Anderson in her latest piece, The Other Side of the Moon. It’s on the same stage, strangely, as we saw the great rhetorical overfill of Julius Caesar just last month, and there’s Anderson, small lone figure standing among hundreds of mourning-candles, in the first show she’s done in twenty years that can’t be ironic, that founders in real tragic bewilderment, and that somehow daren’t have the transformative distance she can usually take on her dialogues with us and herself.
A few days later, Jane Fonda is in Cambridge, where we live. She’s going to give a talk in the local cinema one afternoon; earlier that morning we go to see a print of Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 film Julia in which Fonda plays the writer Lillian Hell-man. We come out reeling. The complexities of this then-mainstream film are actually startling now, only thirty years later, when our mainstream cinema is so much less adept with chronology and edit, so much more sold by narrative resolution. I’m famous! Hellman says half way through, with ditzy delight, before the film and its war shred her celebrity and leave everything properly questionable.
Fonda has written a book. She is in town on a tour that includes the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, this year appearing alongside Sting and Goldie Hawn. She talks, in Cam-bridge, about her life in film, and about why she wanted to produce and act in the 1978 film Coming Home after sharing a stage one day with paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic and hearing him say: I lost my body, but I came home with a mind. She talks about her plan to drive round America with her daughter in a car built to run on vegetable oil, with the message: support our troops, don’t buy oil. She’s ready for the next phase. She talks about how she became a feminist, and how she’s still one. A man stands up and complains that this makes him feel excluded. Fonda apologises to him personally, says that male violence is now pandemic and that 1 in 4 Ameri-can girls are sexually abused before adulthood. The man says: But I’m not violent.
The woman in her fifties next to us says: I heard her on the radio and I came because I wanted to get a look at her. A twenty-year-old movie fan along from us says she doesn’t know why she’s come, she’s never seen a Fonda film. Probably she came, she says, because Fonda’s supposed to be a star.