Durham Book Festival: A Room of One’s Own


October 2019 marks the ninetieth anniversary of one of the 20th century’s most important works of non-fiction, now regarded as a seminal essay on feminism and on women in literature – Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. To commemorate the occasion, the Durham Book Festival hosted a panel of remarkable female writers, chaired by Clare Malcom of New Writing North, and asked them to reflect on what Woolf’s philosophy means to them today.

Woolf famously declared that, in order to write fiction, a woman requires two things: a basic income and her own room. Panellists Elif Shafak, Kerry Hudson, Suzanne Moore and Eley Williams all took this iconic statement in different directions, exploring their own relationship with writing and the journeys they have taken in order to write professionally.

Exploring their own relationship with writing and the journeys they have taken in order to write professionally

Author Elif Shafak, who had to appear on video because her Booker Prize nomination had called her elsewhere, focused on a specific part of A Room of One’s Own, namely Woolf’s idea of Shakespeare’s Sister – that is, the bard’s fictional female sibling who had all the same talents as her brother, but was unable to make it as a playwright for obvious reasons. She emphasised that older girls are taught to behave so carefully that they lose interest in creativity, and urged us to spend less time worrying about what people think, and not let social convention get in the way of ambition.

Kerry Hudson’s talk was more sobering: ‘Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then I’ll talk about money,’ she began. She constructed a truthful tale about the painstaking process of building a literary career for oneself, of the jobs she did and did not take, about the fear of being homeless in a week, and about how lucky she feels to be financially stable now. She emphasised that wanting money does not make a writer less of an ‘artist’, but is just a realistic element of any professional career. As an aspiring writer myself, her words offered a stark reality that comes with working in the arts, but also presented her own existence as proof that it is, ultimately, possible.

No one gives you power freely, you have to take it

Suzanne Moore is a journalist with experience in a range of political publications, and as one might expect her advice was uncompromising: ‘you’re only as good as the last thing you wrote’; ‘I wouldn’t advise anyone who wants to be liked to write for a living’; ‘compare yourself to the mediocre men who flourish everywhere’. Her talk was framed as a series of tips to the aspiring female writer, reflecting her own experience as a woman not always taken seriously in her profession: ‘no one gives you power freely, you have to take it’.

For me, it was Eley Williams who made the greatest impression. In her essay responding to Woolf’s own work, she offered a stunningly articulate dissection of what we really need in order to write. From snatching time in the digital age to what having your own room really means, I was entranced by Williams from start to finish. At the end, it was revealed that every audience member would be given a copy of A Room of My Own, a new anthology of essays (including Williams’ own) from the Royal Society of Literature. From David Almond to newly-crowned joint Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo, this collection offers various views on what a writer needs to work, and how these literary giants made it to where they are now.

I came away feeling uplifted, invigorated and motivated

I didn’t know what to expect from this event, but I came away feeling uplifted, invigorated and motivated to pursue the literary career I’ve always wanted. The Gala Theatre was by no means at full capacity, but seeing an audience largely comprising women (including, I noticed on my way out, the literary legend that is Pat Barker herself), watching other amazing women discuss their trials, tribulations and experiences, was a very real pleasure. I sincerely hope to see a similar event next year but, as Clare Malcom pointed out, hopefully in a few decades’ time there won’t be any need for a discussion about obstacles facing female writers, because there won’t be anything left for us to overcome.

Image via Pixabay

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