As I mentioned in my last post, I had a lot of family visiting last week. While we were all hanging out one night, I did something uncharacteristic and ignored them for a while to read this article: Meg Wolitzer‘s March 30th New York Times op-ed, “The Second Shelf.” When I subsequently tried to explain to my cousin why it was so fascinating and irritating at once, I knew I’d end up writing about it so that I could try to properly sort out my thoughts.

In case you don’t have time to read the entire article (though I recommend that you do!), the briefest of summaries is that Wolitzer eloquently explores the sexism that remains present in the publishing industry when it comes to publishing and marketing fiction written by women, and in particular the critical reception of these works and how it affects women’s careers. Let me be clear: I don’t dislike reading about this subject because I disagree that there’s a problem here. I dislike reading about it because I hate admitting that the problem still exists, and I am alternately annoyed and bored by its prevalence. I suppose the avid reader in me can’t believe that anyone could be mindlessly swayed by the gender of an author or the marketing of a book and end up avoiding an otherwise interesting-sounding plot or well-crafted character. But maybe I’m naive. After all, when I list my favorite novels and books of short stories, I get an almost evenly split male/female author list and an array of subjects from war to domestic farm life. And when I think back to that time in college when I was briefly in love with the Beat writers, a heavily male group (my favorite notable exception: the poet Diane di Prima – check out “Song for Baby-O, Unborn”), I don’t recall having any trouble identifying with their stories or experiences, despite the obvious factor of my being a woman. Okay, fine, so I couldn’t identify with a single thing in Naked Lunch, or anything written by Burroughs, in fact. But I chalk that up to the fact that I was never a junkie. Was I just an arrogant youth who couldn’t admit she might only be a minor character in a story? Or could it be that the only important thing in the end is the music of the story itself, and how it speaks to you at a particular time and place in your own history?

This is part of why the question of men versus women as authors, and the effect their gender plays on their literary success, intrigues and infuriates me: There is no reason why, if the writing is good, a reader can’t put him- or herself into any story. There is no reason to discuss the author’s gender unless it has direct bearing on the book. In addition, paying too much attention to your gender just stymies you as a writer; if your overriding concern is to stay away from “female” subject matter, you’ll end up turning in circles because you’re already anticipating what your audience will think. Also note that it won’t do you any good because some people will never pick up your book despite your efforts, just because a woman’s name is attached to it. So actually, you’d be better off writing whatever you want and then renaming yourself “George” (see George Eliot, George Sand).

There were a couple of points specific to Wolitzer’s article that I found the most telling, not to mention depressing.

  • There is not really any such thing as male or female subject matter; what you do have are male or female cover designs, however. This is something rather obvious that I think a lot of people forget to consider when looking at books. I have noticed it before only when looking at mass-market fiction, but it seems the same often holds true of more literary fiction: Books written by women tend to have softer looking covers – you know, old-fashioned photos of groups of women laughing, or fields of flowers, or an arm artfully draped over a sofa, or something equally ethereal and perhaps mostly unrelated to the crux of the book. Books written by men, unsurprisingly, do not tend to get this treatment regardless of what content they contain. I don’t completely buy that this is out of the author’s control; in my experience, authors do hold veto power for covers they find unacceptable. But I have seen how hard it can be to say no when the marketing machine pitches their girl-in-a-field (or whatever) idea as the way to go in order to sell the most books. And sure, you may end up selling a ton of books to women, but you are definitely cutting your men’s audience down if your cover indicates that your entire novel is a glorified tampon commercial.
  • There is an expectation that women and girls will read books written by men and an expectation that men and boys will not return the favor. Wolitzer says that for a brief period in the ’70s and ’80s, it seemed like there might be a cultural shift in reading, and that men were given what she calls “moral kudos” for reading books about women and their lives; now, that time is past. Frankly, I find this fact, true though it may be, absurd and exasperating. What, you as a male deserve a prize for reading something written by this strange other sex called woman? What could a woman possibly have to say that might enlighten or interest you? This is the same feeling I get when a man wants to be congratulated for successfully taking care of his offspring for a few hours or a day without a major disaster ensuing. Dude, this is your kid, too. Do you really need me to pat you on the head and say, thanks for not accidentally killing our kid? Are you really that incompetent or in need of an ego boost? (Note: This does not describe my husband or many of the men I know, who regularly care for their own children happily and also read articles, stories, and books written by women. But statistically, as VIDA shows, that is not the norm.)
  • Finally, for me the point that hurts the most is Jane Smiley’s comment that “it doesn’t matter how innovative we [women] are” if no one is reading/reviewing/commenting on our work. It hurts because it’s so very true, and there is no way around it. If you can’t get anyone to read what you wrote, unless you are writing in a journal just for your own enjoyment, you’re sunk. If you hope to make some sort of living as a writer, having a large part of the literary community ignore you because you’re female is soul-killing. And this is probably the hardest point for me to hear because it grates the most against my own beliefs and expectations, that if what you are doing is good enough, worthy enough, interesting enough, it will find a home in the world and people will notice it. That is a myth perpetuated by the fact that sometimes, those sorts of miracles do happen in the literary community. (See Zadie Smith, who shot to literary stardom after a few short stories in a student publication garnered her a literary agent and then a bidding war for her then-uncompleted first novel, White Teeth.) But no one can just sit around hoping that life and a career will happen that way.

As both a reader and a writer, I’m just interested in having a world where you don’t look at the gender of the author when choosing what to read because really, that is the last thing that matters. I’ve read books with male protagonists written by women and with female protagonists written by men that were better than other books where each gender wrote about itself. What matters isn’t the gender of the author, but how good a writer he or she is and, when it comes right down to it, how fascinating their characters, plots, and language are. I realize that this is a matter of personal taste, but to have gender enter into it at all assumes that none of us are capable of thinking critically about each other’s lives and points of view. I would hate to think that is true. Aren’t we all, male and female, smarter than that?