Women Doing Literary Things: Lilian Nattel
Written by
Niranjana Iyer
June 2011
Written by
Niranjana Iyer
June 2011

Speaking of Soup and Typewriters By Lilian Nattel 

Lilian Nattel is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels The River Midnight (Knopf Canada, 1999) and The Singing Fire (Knopf Canada, 2004). Her third novel will be published by  Random House Canada in 2012. Visit her website at http://liliannattel.com and her blog at http://liliannattel.wordpress.com

"I live in a world of women and gentle men. My husband is one of those, a good guy who won my heart by cooking a nourishing and tasty soup. It was early in our relationship, and he noticed on my fridge a list of foods I was avoiding and foods that were good for me (I was having some stomach trouble at the time). Without saying anything about it, he made the soup with all the good ingredients and none of the bad ones, and brought it to me. All my best fictional men have his shyness, gentleness and consideration. While this is the world that I choose for myself, there are other worlds that intersect and impact mine and they are a part of my universe in life and in literature.

I have had ungentle experiences of men and women which infiltrate my fiction, people who are abusive to children and others in their power. I didn’t decide to write about domestic drama out of an ideological position, but because it was the crucible of my own existence. It fuels my work. It requires a story of me again and again. Why should anyone think that matters less than other subjects? It is the crux of human experience and what is literature if not the expression and the illumination of that? It’s also what I like best in the fiction that I read.

All my publishers, editors and most of my reviewers have been women. I didn’t require it, but that’s how it’s turned out. Based on simple stats, a little under half of them should have been men. According to Publishers Weekly 53% of books read are fiction, and 55% of people who buy fiction are women. Perhaps because my subject is family, friendship, mothers and children, the work they do, the dangers they face, their courage and their secrets, it is relegated to the world of women.

But my favourite review of all time was written by Michael Pakenham for The Baltimore Sun. It begins “From time to time, all too rarely, there comes a novel that so exceeds my expectations of mere excellence that I am tossed into the experience of magic. There is simply no way to explain, in terms of anything I know of conventional criticism, the power of the piece. Such was the impact of reading The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel.” Like my husband’s soup, that gained him a special place in my heart because of its understanding and generosity.

It seems strange to me that the subject of family, which results in the greater happiness or misery of every human being, whatever the circumstance, has less respect than other more remote subjects. I suspect that if women were to stop writing about it completely and were to take up some other genre en masse, let’s say political thrillers, then those would be considered of less worth.

I am reminded of typewriters. Yes—typewriters. Back, oh about 120 years ago, typewriters were considered heavy equipment and therefore inappropriate for women’s use. Being a secretary then was a male occupation. The YWCA held a typing competition for women to demonstrate to the world that women could expertly operate this heavy equipment. The purpose was to open up a white collar job for working women who would otherwise be limited to more dangerous, dirtier work. It worked. And a few decades later, secretarial work was exclusively female, poorly paid, and of low status. In Canada the leading female occupation in 1891 was servant, in 2001 it was clerical worker.

The problem has nothing to do with how well women writers write or what we write about. It is all about how femaleness is regarded in our society. This is changing. Thank God, the universe and everything, it’s changing. My daughters don’t understand why women (as opposed to people) are allowed to get off the bus between stops at night in order to be closer to home. But there’s more to do, much more. Women make 77% as much as men on average in the U.S. In Canada it’s worse—70.5%. In literature the situation is even more dire. The proportion of women reviewing and being reviewed ranges from a pathetically small fraction to a high of about ½ in most large circulation publications. Perhaps this is because prestige is more entrenched and slower to move forward. Then we must push and not be daunted, push together, arms linked."


This post first appeared on the Women Doing Literary Things site.


Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Lilian Nattel

    Thanks for the welcome!


  • Amen. Great post and welcome to SheWrites.



  • Lilian Nattel

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments and appreciation. I apologize for being slow to come back to comments--it took me a while to figure out this site.


    Sussan, you make an important point. We have to value ourselves. I've seen that as a problem, too, in all kinds of contexts. Writers as a whole tend to see what we do as somehow frivolous or privileged, undeserving of the remuneration that, say, a lawyer (?!?) gets. Women more so--we need to change that.


    Jessie, yes--and also I wonder who would be more missed? You can't get by a day without what many women do, you could for a time without city managers and all.


    Judy, that's an interesting piece of social history. I didn't realize that teaching was so male dominated that recently. It's a good thing there is a teacher's union in Ontario or we might be going the way of the U.S. in teacher's pay given that it is a profession that has become feminized.


    Niranjana, I have decided not to read Naipal's comments. I don't want to dignify them with one of my brain cells.


    Jennifer, Sheree and Ann--so good to see you here! Thank you for reading my post.



  • Jessie Burche

    This is a beautiful, thought-provoking piece. I too live in a world of women and gentle men (beautiful sentence by the way). It's startling to come out of that world and go into other worlds where women aren't valued as much as we might be by those close to us. I've always found it infuriating that the professions that are most done by women: secretary, teacher, social worker and day care providers, are those that are paid the least. Yet these are professions that our society is built on. Yes, we do need engineers and city governments, but they wouldn't be able to work at all if there was no one to take care of their children. There would be no future for those professions if there were no one to teach them. We have come very far as well in terms of women being accepted in the arts, but it is also depressing to see how few women are recognized. I hope we all continue to "push together, arms linked." Thanks for the writing!

  • Niranjana Iyer

    Jennifer, Sheree, Ann: Thank you for liking and commenting!
    Earlier today, I was reading Naipul's idiotic comments about the supposed inferiority of women writers, and I recalled Lilian's words immediately--"The problem has nothing to do with how well women writers write or what we write about. It is all about how femaleness is regarded in our society."
    I don't think men like Naipaul will ever get it.

  • Jennifer O.

    wonderful post!

  • Sheree FITCH

    I'm with ANN. Thanks for this. I needed it today.

  • Ann Douglas

    I love this post. Thank you.