Updated: 2012-09-26 11:13
By Zhang Kun (China Daily)
A. S. Byatt and Wang Anyi shared their take on women writers at a forum in Shanghai recently. Zhang Kun explains their similarities and differences.
Two prestigious women writers, A. S. Byatt from Britain and Wang Anyi from China, recently discussed contemporary women's writing in Shanghai.
The public conversation was one of the most important events of Byatt's eight-day visit to China. The Man Booker prize-winning author has just had her books, Possession and Angels and Insects, published in Chinese by the Thinkingdom Media Co Ltd.
Byatt challenged the legitimacy of women-only writing and criticism. The Orange Prize for women writers, she says, should not be legal, as it's against British law to discriminate.
Wang on the other hand, justified the advantages women writers have, claiming they have richer emotions and greater interest in the details of daily life.
Wang is chairwoman of the Writers' Association of Shanghai and has more than 20 novels and short story collections to her name.
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, which traces the life experiences of a beauty contestant in the 1940s, is probably the best known and has been translated into many languages. She was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2011.
"In Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rear Window, a bedridden man sends his girlfriend to investigate a murder that he suspects was committed in the opposite building," Wang says.
"And the woman agrees to go and breaks into the stranger's home. I suspect a man would not have done the same if his girlfriend asked him to. A woman is simply more curious about mysteries."
A.S. Byatt, or Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, was born in 1936. The novelist and poet has been named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, by London's The Times.
"Byatt may not be so famous as, for example, J.K. Rowling, but she is a highly acclaimed author and lots of research papers have been written about her," says Li Yao, director of the foreign literature department at Thinkingdom.
Byatt's Possession was published by Thinkingdom, in Chinese, three years ago, and a new edition has recently been published.
"We put her works in the category of modern classics, worth repeated readings, so we decided to introduce Byatt and her works to Chinese readers again," Li says.
Byatt has published more than 20 novels, short stories and poem collections. Possession: A Romance won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1990. It tells about the relationship between two fictional poets of the Victorian age.
Byatt borrows many styles and narrative devices from diaries, letters and poetry; while the lead roles are loosely connected to actual poets, such as Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and Christina Rossetti.
In Possession, the heroine Christabel LaMotte was an unknown poet though she composed better poetry than her male colleagues.
"I was once asked, 'What's your hope for Christabel?' and I said, 'A large number of readers'," Byatt says.
There used to be better women writers than men, Byatt says, but then women's writing became over-simplified when academic studies about it emerged and told women what to write about.
"You have to write good novels, not women's novels," she says. "You have to be a good writer in order to be a good woman writer."
Men and women writers should be free to write whatever they want, though women writers do have advantages to describe unique experiences, such as childbirth, Byatt says.
"My mother didn't want me to become a writer," Wang says. "She thought it was a hard life. Imagination is unaccountable. Life is unpredictable, depending on something so changeable as imagination."
Wang was born in 1954 and was the daughter of acclaimed woman writer Ru Zhijuan.
"But I became a writer anyway, because I took great pleasure in writing. My advice is: Stop trying to be a writer if you don't enjoy writing. You don't get much reward doing it except for the pleasure itself," Wang says.
Her latest novel, Tian Xiang (Heavenly Fragrance) is about a family of embroiderers in the 1600s and tells about the struggles and fates of generations of women.
When Byatt was an English major studying at Cambridge, she was secretive about her writing, even though she had decided to become a writer "as soon as I learned to read".
She only sent her writing to a friend, who sent it to her publisher. "Luckily the publisher took it," Byatt says. She's still with the same publisher 30 years later.
Writers - especially women writers - are easily distracted nowadays, Wang says. Writing should be quiet, solitary and private, but there are too many book fairs, and some writers just don't want to miss any of them.
Thinkingdom plans to publish more of Byatt's works in Chinese, but according to Li, the work has to be done slowly.
"Her books are intricately written and quite challenging for translators," he says.
Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book, published in 2009, is being translated and will come out soon in Chinese.
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