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I don’t really follow literary news. I don’t read agents’ blogs and I rarely read book reviews, and when it comes to the most talked-about books of the year, I’m about eight years behind. I’m so far out of the loop that I doubt I’d recognize it if it came up and encircled me. As loops are known to do?
That being said, I’ve heard a lot about gender inequity in writing lately. First there was Franzenfreude, in which several female authors took on the New York Times for the gender/genre imbalance in their book reviews. Then Franzen’s new book, Freedom, was chosen by Oprah, which called to mind how he spurned Oprah nine years ago, apparently because he felt The Corrections was too literary for the Oprah crowd. He said to NPR:
I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.*
Oh, women. We contaminate books by merely reading them!
And, apparently, by writing them. Shortly after I learned of Franzen’s latest Oprah annointing, a poet friend sent around a list of book awards and “Best of” designations. In some places, the exclusion of women is pretty stark.
That same day, I was asked to sign a petition asking the committee for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize (a $25,000 award given each year to a promising female playwright) to reconsider their decision to forgo honoring anyone with the prize. Apparently, none of the nominees had written a worthy script. Said the playwright Michael Lew in a letter of protest: “This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work…and the message it sends to the theater community generally is that there aren’t any young female playwrights worth investigating.” The committee has agreed to revamp their selection process and try again.
The message seemed clear: women don’t write as well as men. Particularly when it comes to literary fiction.
Then came the news that Jaimy Gordon had won the National Book Award. This unfurrowed my brow a bit. How nice to see a lesser-known author recognized, and for a risky book that came out through a small press! There was a record number of female nominees this year, so that was also encouraging. But I couldn’t help but notice that one of the nominees in fiction—Lionel Shriver—is a woman using a man’s name. She ditched Margaret Ann as she felt its girlishness didn’t match her personality. And while I don’t see anything wrong with changing one’s name (I sometimes use initials myself) I can’t help but wonder if Shriver felt professional pressure to do so, or how her career might have differed if she had remained Margaret Ann.
Because even in the most enlightened circles, there seems to be a quiet, half-concious expectation that men are more talented, intelligent, and capable of big ideas than women. Nathaniel Hawthorne was not impressed with what he called the “horde of scribbling women.” Norman Mailer said, “the sniffs I get from the ink of women are always fey, old-bat, Quaintsy, Gaysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic.” (I don’t even know what half of that means, which probably wouldn’t surprise Mailer). But more often, this gender-bias expresses itself with more subtlety, in the unconscious selection of men over women for reviews and awards. It happens in other fields too—the use of blind auditions has increased the number of female players in American symphonies by more than 30%.
This bias also exists for readers. This from Chris Jackson, in a recent post on The Atlantic:
I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and [a friend] cut me off and asked, when was the last time you read fiction by a woman? And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss (I eventually remembered that I’d recently read the luminous and terribly titled Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peele), but also because I’ve spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world…and apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.
Jackson’s revelation prompted me to review my own reading habits. Unlike him, I’m well aware of my memory loss, so I keep a list of the books I read. Of the last twenty, and only five were written by women .Five. And—full disclosure—one of these was written by a friend.
Eeek. And ugh.
But I guess it should come as no surprise. When I entered an MFA program at the age of twenty-three, my work was described as “muscular,” my prose “masculine.” I understood this to be a compliment, even as I was a little bewildered by it. I had no idea what I was writing, or how, and listening to critiques felt like watching someone divine the future by reading rat entrails. I couldn’t see what they saw. But in my eagerness, I made a mental note: writing like a boy = impressive. Writing like a girl = embarrassing. In this way, writing is no different from throwing, hitting, and screaming, I guess. My calculation was reinforced when the other women in the workshop were criticized (by one now-critically-acclaimed participant in particular) for writing that was too personal, too indulgent, too autobiographical. My work, the male students argued, eclipsed that of the other women because it wasn’t about me.
But they were wrong. My stories were about me, or at least about the people and places in my life. And, as I got to know the men in the workshop better, I saw that their stories (and later, their novels) were about their lives too. So why, I wondered, was it okay for boys to write about their lives, but for girls it was self indulgence?
Because, one of the men told me, we’d sublimated the material. (Again: rat entrails.)
Things got even more confusing when I began a novel about a couple who lived, quite literally, in a hole in the middle of the desert. The novel was referred to as “domestic fiction.” The men in the workshop were writing about people who lived in cities and held jobs and bathed regularly, and yet their novels were not domestic. They were idea-driven. Here’s Percival Everett on the subject:
I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic, as if the male life within a family and household necessarily transcends the bounds of the family home, means something more profound about life itself perhaps. I have had conversations with young women writers about their fear that their novels will be considered “Chick Lit”. They are concerned about whether their titles will doom them to the category. What is the male equivalent? “Rooster-Lit?” “Dick-Lit?” And who fits the category? Who would want to? There used to be “tough guy” fiction, “hard-boiled” fiction, but somehow those are not pejorative…It goes to the larger question about how women writers are viewed and treated on the American literary landscape…my biggest wonder is how it is that, with women being seventy percent of the book buying audience, women writers receive only twenty percent of book review attention.
Everett goes on to discuss the language used to review women’s work:
Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy? Not that I would mind, but you understand my point. As an African American, I understand this sort of backhanded compliment. You see, we are articulate. This is not an insult on the face of it, but the subtext is that our intelligence is a surprise.
Which reminds me of a review I saw last year in the New York Times that scared the bejeezus out of me. Here is Janet Maslin reviewing Miriam Gershow’s debut novel The Local News:
Ms. Gershow has been a teacher at the University of Oregon, where some students’ online ratings of her sound like a continuation of [her protagonist’s] high school nightmare. Being regarded as neither popular nor hot seems to be territory that Ms. Gershow knows well, maybe in the classroom and certainly on the pages of her unusually credible and precise novel.
Egads! To write an unusually credible and precise novel, and to have it judged by the snarky comments of college freshman? That’s the stuff of nightmares. I made the mistake of looking at one of those prof-rating Web sites once and learned a student I’d failed (a half-sober frat guy who told me, smirking, that he hadn’t done any of the coursework and didn’t intend to) said he wanted to shoot me in the face. Does this mean I can write with authority about murder? Does the fact that he called me a bitch mean that we can assume I am a bitch? And while the author’s failure to strike her eighteen-year-old students as “hot” might have some bearing on her fiction…it also might not. Have any. Like, none.
The question nagged at me: would a male author have been subject to that particular brand of scrutiny? Or would the review have been more focused on the author’s intent, his “work” as distinct from himself, his appearance, his likeability?
I’ve got no answers. (Only rat entrails.) And more questions. Shall we all change our names to Bartholomew? Shall we aspire to write as much as possible like Don DeLillo? Shall we give up writing and get into a more egalitarian line of work, like, um, I have no idea?
I’m going to start by balancing my reading list, by buying, reading, and discussing more books by women. Said Vita Sackville-West: “I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.” I love the work of men; I survived the 6th grade on Larry McMurtry and James Michener, and I’ll never forget reading Moby Dick during a Cape Cod winter. They’ll have to pry my signed copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing from my cold, dead hands. But there is strength in women’s writing, too–of the kind that is sanctioned by the list-makers and award-givers, and of the kind that is not– and it’s past time for us to fully recognize it, in the pages of the Times and at our desks.
Not that anybody is still reading this, but if you are, post the women writers who have most influenced you in the comments.
* I’m a little sorry to dredge this quote up, as I sympathize with Franzen, who has called his response to Oprah’s first invitation “stupid,” and who has been gracious about Franzenfreude. I was once interviewed by a newspaper, and I know what it’s like to spout off, say stupid things, have these things taken out of context so that they’re even stupider, and spend the next three days stunned, drinking malt liquor. So, sorry man. Just to balance things out, here’s a good thing you said that pertains to the confluence of domestic-fiction and idea-fiction: “It’s not surprising to see in my own work, looking back, and in the work of some of my peers, an attention to family. It’s nice to write a book that does tend toward significance and meaning, and where else are you sure of finding it?”