‘You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us.’
Sappho, 560 BC approx.
Marshall McLuhan presaged the digital commons and it seems true that the nature of the codex, its status, economic as well as aesthetic, is changing, and not necessarily in a good way. Ironic or causal, take your pick, that just as women finally flood into the literary domain of influence, the bottom falls out of it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a woman reaches an equivalent position to a man, she gets paid less. And it is only down to the obstinate commitment of writers and publishers of small magazines and journals such as this one, that new writing can continue to find its readership in a marketized literary world. New technologies have changed the nature of writing as they have restructured the modes of production, crucially, the capacity of ‘linguistic machines to weave absolutely unprecedented webs of horizontal communication.’ (Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language) The outcome, however, for most writers is that a living is no longer to be made from their writing.
Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929) made the connection between financial independence and the development of a voice for the woman writer: ‘It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry ’, Woolf wrote. As women are now being swept up into the great acceleration of the tech revolution they are finding themselves digitised out of economic viability. The gig economy is greatly underwritten by women who have also borne the brunt of austerity cuts, eighty per cent of cuts in the UK. The ‘new precariat’ currently talked about is no different from the old one – characterised as it is by chronic uncertainty and insecurity, it is made up of those most easily stepped upon – overwhelmingly women. Marketization delivers a reversal of women’s rights once competition tightens between the sexes. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a foretelling of such an end, with much of the US now coming to resemble Gilead in its ‘return to traditional values’. When technology intersects with totalitarianism it is essential that the authoress fights not to be digitised out of literary existence. Not least because women’s writing tends to be dispersed rather than accumulating towards a strongly identified entity; a consequence of the publishing industry favouring the male. Despite women buying more books, women writers are still greatly under-published and under-reviewed, as the infamous VIDA pies continue to illustrate each year (I have written about this issue in The Irish Times).
So in my story, ‘Morning Glory’, I wanted to take an unsentimental look at female friendship and reuse the cast off of a day in South London to contrast two lives against a background of death’s harvest cut into stone. And for me that is the unique capacity of writing that makes its worth – its lapidescence. This is famously seen as a weakness by Socrates; Plato has him find against the new-fangled tech of writing, because of what he saw as the rigidity of words once set down on the papyrus. The irony often pointed out is that it is only because of the written word that we can know he held this view. And for Xanthippe too, Socrates’ scold of wife, the written word is her only marker of existence; she is one of very few to stand out from the great anonymous tribe of her ancient sisters, because words were etched to recall her tipping a piss pot over the great philosopher’s head.
My story, taking place in a Victorian cemetery, tells of friendship through the lens of economic realities and the sharpness of their effects, or affects. There is also the reality of the written and how it can define lives. Laws and amendments (such as the 8th currently being challenged in Ireland), can seem adamantine: invincible – in this case a written indictment of woman as uterus. The gravestone as ultimate signifier also puts me in mind of Ireland’s lost sisters: the girls and women of the Magdalene Laundries whose only claim on life can be read off the stones over their mass graves.
Fiona O’Connor, a former Hennessy Short Story Award Prize winner. Recently shortlisted for a Luke Bitmead Award for her novel, The Group, winner of Galway Rape Crisis Centre/Cuirt Festival Prize 2016, Kilburn Literature Festival Short Story Prize 2015, Shortlisted for Mslexia First Novel Award, 2015, Fish, Ambit, Asham Short Story Awards 2014, Highly Commended in The London Short Story Prize 2014. Regular contributor to The Irish Times Books Section.
© Fiona O’Connor, 2017.