The Week before the Festival: Druskininkai Poetic Fall

They Don’t Call It a “Men’s Reading” When Only Men Are Reading: Do Texts Have Genders?

/ by Virginija Cibarauskė and Jurga Tumasonytė

Literary critic, poet Virginija Cibarauskė, and prose writer, Jurga Tumasonytė, discuss the limits of imagination, masculine and feminine literature and their personal experiences of the literary field.

Virginija Cibarauskė: When we suggested the title Vyrai ir moterys poezijoje (Men and Women in Poetry), as an allusion to literary sociologist V. Kavolis’s study Moterys ir vyrai lietuvių literatūroje (Men and Women in Lithuanian Literature, 1992) for the International Literature Festival Druskininkai Poetic Fall, we received criticism about the topic being too limited, because we only presented two alternatives. Besides, both of them are directly linked to biological gender. There’s been a lot of discussion whether the writer’s gender defines his or her style and world view. For instance, Virginia Woolf proposed the concept of an androgynous writer, while philosopher Julia Kristeva regarded feminine and masculine writing detached from the biological gender. Jurga, you’re a writer, and therefore do you think things such as feminine and masculine literature, feminine and masculine imagination exist? If so, what are they like? What Lithuanian authors best represent feminine and masculine writing/imagination?

Jurga Tumasonytė: To me, dividing texts into feminine and masculine is associated with stereotypes. In a text, they can be intentional, or they can be inert. If I read a text for fun, I get irritated by the stereotypical male and female characters. I usually notice this in the texts written by middle-aged and older sorts of men, where women never manage to obtain a psychological outline that’s real and convincing. The female character is typically a combination of stereotypes, in these texts. I’d describe this text as “masculine.” Representative examples are Sigitas Parulskis or Jaroslavas Melnikas. I don’t see as much stereotyping in women’s texts. Speaking of the topics in writing, I don’t think that biological gender has anything to do with imagination. A woman can skillfully describe, e.g. the growing pains of a boy, just as a man can empathize and describe childbirth.

VC: Have you come across women’s texts where men are stereotyped, parodied or vulgarized?

JT: I think the roles of both sexes are rather stereotyped in some works by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė. What about you?

VC: There are plenty of stereotypes of femininity and masculinity in Indrė Valantinaitė’s poetry, but at the same time, they’re used ironically. This reminds me of a masquerade, somehow, a role play. The Lolita look is also a role that Valantinaitė obviously creates and maintains in public. Although I wouldn’t categorize this poet as a feminine writer – it’s simply that she exploits the complex of stereotypes: Feminine, masculine and sexual. According to their topic, texts by Giedrė Kazlauskaitė and Nijolė Miliauskaitė, I think, we can attribute to feminine writing. These poets write about knitting, preserving fruit, bringing up children, feminine chores. But the question I’m always asking myself is, can a topic be identified with female imagination or female writing? When Leo Tolstoy depicts Anna Karenina, for instance, describing her feelings, experiences, as well as her clothes, scenes of setting the table and giving birth, we don’t identify this as feminine literature or feminine imagination. Meanwhile, women authors’ creative works are inevitably credited to feminine literature, even if they don’t contain that much of the so-called feminine chores. Even when a woman – a poet, for example – writes on topics of philosophy and metaphysics, her writings are still attributed to feminine philosophy, etc. – this happened to Gražina Cieškaitė. I think it limits the interpretation and narrows the contexts.

JT: Yes, I’ve never heard of a “men’s world” described in a “male” way.

VC: Has your creative work ever been described as feminine, or has someone recognized elements of female imagination in it?

JT: I haven’t come across such descriptions, or they’ve slipped my mind. But I remember this international event where older sorts of men participated, and where the presenter introduced me as “the young author who will warm up the writers.” It was unpleasant.

VC: Does it occur to you that the way you’re being treated depends on your sex?

JT: Yes, on sex, and also on age.

VC: These are probably two of the most painful things for a young writer. In the literary field, the young poet sounds much more dignified, when referred to a man, as compared to the young poetess, a novice performing the warm-up. The tendencies are similar in the academic world. I am often complimented, after an event or a conference, for “looking good.” There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s pleasing, even. But how often are male conference or discussion speakers praised or criticized for their looks?

JT: How would you define the “limits of imagination” in women’s and men’s poetry?

VC: I thought of this a lot and I realized I don’t know what it is. I don’t know where male or female imagination begins. We did an experiment once – we wanted to see if it’s possible to deduce the author’s gender from the text. A translator friend, with a degree in English literature, would often express her dislike of women’s poetry. Then we gave her three texts, one of which was by Emily Dickinson, the second by Ezra Pound and the third by Sylvia Plath – our friend didn’t guess correctly whether they were written by men or women. I couldn’t guess it myself. I don’t think many people could determine male and female imagination or recognize its manifestations, unless the texts construct the “effect” of femininity or masculinity in a clear (albeit not necessarily conscious) manner. But self-representation, posture and behavior of male and female artists are a whole different thing. The way that the poets behave, and that their texts are received, correlates with common sociocultural stereotypes – women adopt a more reserved posture, they are inclined to doubt the value of their work. For example, one female poet is often criticized by her older male colleagues for being too self-confident. A male debutant, confiding in the value of his work and considering himself a prophet, a natural-born talent is, however, a perfectly normal thing. A male artist’s confidence convinces others, too, while a woman’s confidence is, contrarily, suspicious. A woman is expected to doubt, and to want her talent confirmed.

JT: Why do you think women accept these stereotypes?

VC: Women don’t hold the power positions now, nor did they during the Soviet times. Chairmen of the Writer’s Union and editors-in-chief were exclusively men, and they would determine who would play or not play in the literary field, and how they’ll play it. Women adjusted themselves to what was expected of them, as dictated by the male part of the literary field. I’m glad things are changing. For instance, poet Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, as the editor-in-chief of Šiaurės Atėnai, a prestigious literary newspaper, can decide the destiny of the authors and critics. Groups of literary women are being established. For example, readings are arranged and a society of female artists organically initiated by poet and art critic, Laima Kreivytė. The shift naturally deals with more common sociocultural changes. I don’t believe in the autonomy of the literary field, for both women and men are linked together by hundreds of connections, and their daily life changes the texts that they create. Jurga, did Lithuanian female writers inspire you as a debutante author? Were you “on your own”, so to speak, or did you feel like you belong to a group?

JT: The inclination to belong to a writing group was not foreign to me. The main reason why I started writing was perhaps because I discovered a website where people would share their work and discuss each other’s texts. It involved not only the element of sharing, but also a fierce competition, virtual circles of friends, intrigue and the accumulation of symbolic capital with a definite graphic expression. Just like in the real literary world. I didn’t feel a strong influence of female writing, during my debut. But now I catch myself enjoying the experiences of identification with the characters or lyrical subjects of the texts I read. This happens more often with the texts written by women. Or maybe it’s just that I happen to read more of these recently...

VC: Poet Aušra Kaziliūnaitė once claimed that the creative work by Lithuanian female authors has been more interesting and diverse for the past few decades, mainly because they don’t look up to the authoritative figures, they’re more inclined to experiment. Do you agree?

JT: I couldn’t say that it’s only women’s work that’s more interesting. But I suppose men tend to support each other more, while women keep away from each other.

VC: My experience is the opposite – both as a writer and as a critic, I received the most support from women who were not even my friends, or someone close to me, in respect to the creative work or literary criticism.

JT: What is your opinion of festivals, collections, discussions intended solely for women? Do we need them, do they help in making specific problems public and increase women’s visibility, or is it better to avoid these things, as they merely add to the marginalization of the gender?

VC: I do think we need them, because without events of this nature, some authors are left behind, they’re only known to the experts of a particular field. I noticed, however, that women’s readings or discussions are usually sort of left to themselves and nobody else. I took part in a feminist discussion once, where a group of men, fancying themselves as intellectuals, walked out ostentatiously. I also notice that the most distinguished male poets don’t come to women’s poetry readings, even those by the most distinguished female poets, even though they do go to the readings of their male poet colleagues, religiously. Besides, they don’t call it men’s readings, when only men are reading.

JT: Perhaps women themselves shouldn’t indicate their events as female, then?

VC: Yes, it’s probably that women’s events instantly presuppose that the texts are going to be about women and women’s problems. And this highlight of femininity doesn’t allow it to convey universality.

JT: Does the term “feminist literature” call to mind a specific text by a Lithuanian author to you that would fit the description?

VC: Some authors identify themselves as feminist artists, and you automatically read their text through an already-familiar lens. But if I wasn’t aware of the author’s position and his attitude, I really couldn’t tell whether the work is feminist or not, at least not it all cases. For instance, Pranas Morkūnas, an inter-war period poet, an Imagist, wrote poems in which I can perceive a realization of Kristeva’s theory of women’s writing as a transgression. Although he never even heard of feminism. What we do when talking about writers is consider the whole package – their texts as well as their personality. It happens that a person declares a particular opinion in public, but reflects completely different meanings in his texts.

JT: You first made your mark in the literary field as a literary critic, and immediately drew attention to your texts by delivering reviews without the compulsory submissiveness of a “literaturologist” to authors with a large symbolic capital. You were not afraid of the wrath of your peers, who referred to you as “the girl,” “the young critic…”

VC: This is what people younger than me did, too.

JT: Yes, well, this sounds even more absurd from younger people.

VC: Male poets and critics are certainly allowed more than women, regarding adventurous attitudes. My lecturer encouraged me to publish my first critical text on a Gintaras Bleizgys’s poetry book, which I prepared as an assignment for his lecture. After that, the poet’s answer appeared in the same publication. It was meant not for me, but for my lecturers (I was doing my Master’s at the time), advising them to teach me how to read poetry. Some of my later reviews would be followed by piles of sexist comments on my looks and personal life, protestations that I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I’m too young (despite the fact that I was nearly thirty then), because I don’t have a PhD, and so on. I took it as a sign that I was on the right track. I wasn’t naive in writing my reviews, I realized very clearly what I wanted to say and why. While doing a degree in literature, I was repelled by the grim essayistic reviews. Their authors – “literaturologists” and poets – would not criticize the works, but write about their own feelings, ideas, other books they’ve read, as well as which authors they find interesting, and which other authors they remind them of. It was risky, of course, but it so happened that my criticism was well-liked by some, and despised (yet still widely talked about) by others, for exactly the same reasons. And then everything quieted down. I’m glad there are many female critics out there who are choosy, educated, angry, who have their own opinion and are not afraid to say it out loud.

JT: Didn’t the offended writers try to get even, when you published your own poetry book?

VC: No, because I published the text under a different name. Besides, it was not a paper book but an electronic one, and the game probably worked. Besides, many poets are not competent to write serious critical texts – perhaps they don’t want to make fools of themselves, or perhaps they didn’t even read the book?

JT: What do you think about anonymous criticism? Is it honest to write without disclosing your real name?

VC: As we started our conversation on the subject of male and female genders, I suppose the names and surnames should also be a secondary thing in the literary field – what does it matter who wrote the critical text? Criticism is only wrong when it is poorly reasoned, when the author is criticized or praised instead of his or her literature. And if the criticism is meant for the text and the arguments are appropriate, i.e. they refer to the text, it’s perfectly honest not to sign the review – in addition, you’ll spare your feelings, as no one will attack you personally.

JT: What about the nice artists you become friends with, but their books turn out to be poorly written? Isn’t objective criticism negatively affected by being a part of a group?

VC: I don’t review books written by my friends. This is a problem, because the more time you spend in the literary field, the more friends you make. But there are not many of such cases yet.

JT: That’s true, being a part of writer’s society and reviewing each other’s texts sometimes feels like a continual pressing of the like button.

VC: This is a normal. The more followers you have, the more attention and security you get. This is also an easier way to get published, as you become friends with people working in the cultural publications, and it’s simpler to publish a book – you know whom to send a manuscript and where to. But as a critic by profession, I really cannot combine being in the society and criticising it at the same time. On the other hand, if you don’t belong to the society there are lots of things you don’t know about it, you’re not invited to important events. It’s rather difficult for critics to work it out. By the way, have you ever taken part in women’s readings or festivals?

JT: I’ve read with my girlfriends several times, three of us, but I’m not sure if those readings were identified as women’s, specifically.

VC: I’d often see you with those friends – all three of you participated in the literary field. I thought of you as congenial, as a group of women writers. For instance, I read a poem by one of them that’s dedicated to you...

JT: Yes, but I never related it to gender. Besides, we met before we were writers. And now you made me nervous (laughs). Perhaps I made my debut with the support of strong female company and it’s only now that I came to realise it?

VC: Here’s a psychotherapy session for you (laughs).

JT: What are the sexist works you have read by acknowledged contemporary Lithuanian authors?

VC: This is a difficult question, for sexism in literature and sexism in life are two different things. I know not everyone will agree with me. With regard to high quality literary texts, sexism, pedophilia or violence are not an end in itself, they function as a way to reveal other contexts and planes of meaning. Tomas Vaiseta’s new novel, where he depicts a nameless woman is a fine example. Critics had different interpretations of this. One of them stressed that the character is a spineless, pointing out psychoanalytic indicators showing a fear of women, while the other took the namelessness to be a sign of universal femininity. Even if I see cookie cutter female characters in a novel that’s apparently first-rate, I can’t go on to claim that the text is meaningless and sexist. Can we talk about male imagination and phobias then? Of course, everything is quite different if from literature, sexism moves to real life.

JT: We can then express a wish, as a conclusion of this conversation, for sexism that’s still prevalent in the literary society to be transformed into skillfully-devised texts.


Translated by Kotryna Garanasvili

Virginija Cibarauskė

is a literary critic and poet.

Jurga Tumasonytė

is a prose writer.