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The Continuing Conversation About the Marginalization of Female Writers

by Melissa Silverstein
April 4, 2012 10:53 AM
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women's fiction

I opened the NY Times book review this past weekend and lo and behold there was an essay by the divine Meg Wolitzer called The Second Shelf about how books written by men and women are treated differently.

It was a brilliant piece and I commend the Times for running it especially since we know the numbers of women working and being covered across all areas of that section are unacceptably lower than their male peers.  I loved her anecdote when speaking with a man at a party where when she told him she was a writer:

Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to.

She hits the problem on the head and the problem transcends literature, it pervades our culture.  The problem is the fact that issues related to marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, children, relationships and oh so many others ...are seen soft or womanly i.e. not important to the culture, especially when a woman writes about it.

Wolitzer smartly talks about the reception of the writing of Jeffrey Eugenides whose Middlesex is one of my favorite books ever.  He also writes about marriage, families, sex, desire...and yet his books are literature and Meg Wolitzer's books are, well, not seen in the same way. 

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More: Books/Literature, Sexism

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  • Guest | April 16, 2012 12:29 AMReply

    Hey, did anyone on this thread catch what some Indian dude (I've never heard of him, so I don't really care) said last summer about female writers? I just linked to it below from the NYT. (Apparently he never heard of Jhumpa Lahiri?)

    I've never read this guy but I bet his stuff is pretentious B.S. like Franzen craps out. I'm an aspiring novelist myself, and I don't really care if my work is "literature" or not. I hate literary fiction because it's so infinitely boring. I write to entertain, to tell the best story I can and to be creative and imaginative and have fun while doing so. Not trying to run for political office or issue some TL;DR philosophical manifesto. Just to warm readers' hearts and open their eyes, to give them a good laugh and a great read.

    Stephen King said J.K. Rowling is a terrific writer, btw. I believe he wasn't as favorable towards Stephenie Meyer but at least he was judging each based on the quality of their work and not on whether they have Y chromosomes or not. I seriously don't think Rowling set out to have Harry Potter earn the Nobel or Pulitzer. The series and its characters, the whole world of Hogwarts and Diagon-Alley will remain an important and memorable enough part of our culture that she deserves "mad props" for delivering to us all. :-)

  • tina | April 5, 2012 1:21 PMReply

    "We need to figure out a way to stop categorizing topics as either male or female" . You hit the nail on the head Melissa! Interests are not necessarily determined by gender. I thought "The Descendents" was a chick flick, engaging but not academy award winning material...but it happened to be written and directed by men. Therefore it was treated with the appropriate reverence. I'm always surprised by the number of men who like romance movies. I'm like really you don't find this boring...I'm flipping for the action channel.

  • Kathleen Cromie | April 4, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    One problem is women who write are often assumed to be relating a story about themselves. We are seen as relate-ers while men get to be creators.

  • Patrice Fitzgerald | April 4, 2012 2:02 PMReply

    Yes. This. It's been going on for a long time.

    I write about women with lives, families, desires, and yes... sex lives! But they are also in positions of power in the world. My current novel is about two women vying for the presidency, and a campaign in which race and gender (and sexual desire) create a national controversy. There's even a schlock radio guy who calls the Vice President a slut.

    We women, like the other half of the human race, are interested in things in the domestic world and beyond. And we write about them.

    Women have been marginalized because we were tied to the home for millenia. The advent of an age where women can choose when and how often to procreate (assuming we can hold on to that!) is finally bringing seismic changes in female preeminence in everything from the creative arts to governance to great wealth. We're here and we're not going away.

    And we're writing about it...

  • Maria | April 4, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    The cocktail party anecdote is a situation I am all too familiar with. Having just written, directed and produced my first feature film (The Wine of Summer, shameless plug), I have often been asked the question, "So what's it about?" Recently I was asked this by a small town television personality, male, early fifties. I gave him my quick one sentence answer, "Uh, well, it's a character driven drama that takes place in Spain, about five central characters whose fates intertwine." He looks down at me, smirks, says, "Oh a chick flick."

  • Maria | April 4, 2012 6:16 PM

    I know, seriously? I gritted my teeth, said no, and then later came up with fifty snarky zingers I wish I would have said instead.

  • grrljock | April 4, 2012 2:53 PM

    So, Maria, did you slug him?

  • Linn | April 4, 2012 12:20 PMReply

    This may not be useful, but sometimes I wonder if it's less about women and men's issues, and more about how we approach it. For example, with the man at the cocktail party, if Ms. Wolitzer had responded early in the conversation with a question of her own, "What kind of books do you like to read?" then she would know how to frame her responses to him. If he says "I don't like to read, but my wife does," then we know it's less about him judging her material and more about he's not a good reader or some other reason. If he says "non-fiction," then we now know he prefers that over fiction, no matter who the author is. If he responds with names of fiction writers similar to her style, then she could explain I write like so-and-so, but with more humor (or less). This can help translate the tone of her writing to him, similar to how when we pitch new movie scripts, we say it's like "Hunger Games" meets "Point Break". Perhaps people just need a better way to introduce themselves, find a better way to communicate (both men and women). Especially new writers. Brand yourself by helping explain why I should bother picking up your book (again, male or female writers). Oh hey, it's kind of like Netflix's - if you like this movie then you may like such and such.

  • heatheradair | April 4, 2012 1:33 PM

    Actually, I think that *is* useful.

    Interestingly, I thought the anecdote of the man extricating himself had more to do with the fact that a woman dared drop the word "sex" in a conversation. He may not have been comfortable embarking on a conversation about sex and desire (even in literature) with a woman he just met -- simplest way to deal with that was to replace himself with his wife, where the conversation would be feel less uncomfortable (for instance). American discomfort with sex.

    Anyway -- this made me think that the conversation would have been more successful if they'd both framed the conversation differently.

    Less of a gender issue, more of a communication issue.

  • EMH | April 4, 2012 12:14 PMReply

    This is really backward thinking. Most of my friends from journalism school are off doing great things. In fact, one woman I'm friends with is reporting in Cairo now and just moved into a new apartment with her bf. I would think journalism and fiction book writing is where women dominate and are given more of a fair shake than in the scripted TV world.

  • Bes | April 4, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    Well since this is a site that covers movies I will just point out that Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games were some of the most profitable movies in the last 10 years and they were all stories written by women writers. Ignoring women writers is ignoring potential profits. It is probably a waste of time to try to convince the old men who currently run Corporate Media of this instead it makes more sense for women to set up their own Media companies and make their work available to the audience. With the internet it is no longer possible for Corporate Media to gatekeep women's voices from audiences.

  • Ruth Harris | April 4, 2012 11:19 AMReply

    Same old, same old. It really gets depressing. Since the 1970's, I've been writing about women's—and men's—lives against the background of the massive social and cultural changes of the 20th Century. If a woman writes it, it's fluff. If a man writes it? Ooooohhhh! Literature!

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