Sunday, March 1, 2009
all the sad young literary women
Last week, salon.com had yet another article on the sad state of female writers. This article, examined the book A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalterm, an author who takes on the precarious history of women in the literary world. The article lamented the fact that despite growing book sales, recognition for female authors, in the form of awards and accolades, remains stagnant. While young male authors are deemed literary up-and-comers and heralded as the voice of whatever generation they claim to provide a voice for, equally talented females continue to be qualified merely as commercially successes. The author of this particular article pondered, with existing prejudices considered, if a woman even could write the great American novel?
It's an interesting question and one that keeps getting repeated year after year. How far have female writers actually ascended? For every category of female writer; novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, females are outnumbered and often entirely ignored. Every year, despite small gains, the statistics are disheartening.
In the last 30 years of Nobel Prize for Literature winners only three have been women.
In best lists of short fiction published in the New Yorker, Harper's, New York Review of Books, male names outnumber the female by about 2 to 1.
And the stats for bylines:
Vanity Fair 2.7:1.
The New Yorker 4.1:1.
The Atlantic 3.6:1.
A January 2002 study, conducted by the New York State Council on the Arts, found that only 17 percent of the plays produced in America were by women.
A study from the School of Communications at the University of Maryland, done in 2003, showed that 83% of the 250 top films of that year, had no female screenwriters.
Yet, despite less access to publishing opportunities, women have still found great success in regards to generating readership. When you look at bestseller lists the ratio of male to female authors is even. And as far as regular readers, surveys consistently find that women read more books than men, especially fiction. Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman reads nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. In fact, Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
If female authors sell and women are the majority of book readers, is the problem then male readers? In some ways it is, male readers have been shown to hesitate before reading books deemed too feminine. In fact, a feminine title, cover art, or a distinctively feminine narrative make a book unappealling to many male readers. So men won't read the books, and predominantly male critics won't acknowledge the books. Is it all their fault? If more women rose to the top ranks, would great female literature thrive? Well, that's definitely part of it.
But, in all honesty, I can't entirely blame some of these men. Many of the grievances that male critics have with so called "chic lit", I share as well. Male critics, at least those who speak openly about it, believe that many women's books are too small in scope, too singular in experience. Now this may be partly due to the hegemonic notion that the male experience is the human experience. But I also think it is a fair critique. All writing should have a voice that can move different types of people.
Last summer, I went to see a panel on, what was then, the upcoming election, Joan Didion was the lone female writer on the panel. And in her quiet way, and some would even say, with a feminine subtleness, she held her own and enraptured every one in the audience. Joan Didion, as a writer, has often captured experiences that are not only personal, but distinctively female; the abortion in Play it as it Lays is both a heartbreaking and haunting example of just this. But as an author, she also understands that the personal is politicial. Her characters aren't seperated from their world: they are a part of a time, and a place, they are fragile remnants of a greater culture, a bigger narrative. Joan Didion is a female writer that is not just a woman's writer.
In comparison to these bigger narratives, chic lit does often seem terribly small. Not all female oriented novels are chic-lit, but in many ways perception is reality. Many books targeted at females are narrated by a poor man's Carrie Bradshaw. Often, it seems that more thought has gone into selling these books then writing them. I don't care if it's the diary of a call girl, a nanny, a fashion editor, or a lowly assistant, your story may amuse me on a plane ride, but it doesn't mean anything to me. And I don't care if it takes the form of a movie, a play, or a book, the effect is always disposable.
In the salon article, the author uses a qoute from a Harper's magazine article discussing the male critic's perspective on novels:
" Male critics make a fetish of “ambition by which they mean the contemporary equivalent of novels about men in boats ("Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn") rather than women in houses ("House of Mirth"), and that as a result big novels by male writers get treated as major events while slender but equally accomplished books by women tend to make a smaller splash. Themes central to women's lives -- marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations -- don't constitute subject matter as "serious" and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel.”
While I do think books about marriage, motherhood, and the home can be great novels, why aren't there also novels of great female ambition? In most best-selling books, a female's ambition consists of maybe one day becoming an assistant editor at blush magazine or simply "getting the guy". Women in these novels have jobs, but not passions. There is no romance to their ambition. All the romance is left for the love interest. Why don't these women ponder the places they've never seen or think of the worlds they will never experience? Where's the regret, the vanity, the fatal flaws, where is the poetry of hopes and dreams. Where are the big questions?Where is the being human part of being a woman?
Perhaps, I'm biased because the novels I grew up with, were these novels of great ambition, and I myself have always romanticized the ambition of being a writer. But, I'm also an avid reader, and when I read something I want it to teach me , and if not, at least reach out to me in some way I'm not asking for women to write like men. But I also don't think that international affairs, the state of the world, business, music, literature,art, philosophy and the human ego are merely the domains of male fiction. Or at least I hope not.
When I read chic lit, and yes I occasionally do, I don't have to think. I just passively follow. And in the end, I'm only left wondering, why doesn't this chic every really listen to music, or pick up a newspaper, or vote, or think about something other then her shoes. These characters all seem to live in a void, where there's no bigger issues, and no greater culture, aside from the ubiquitious world of "high fashion."
I've always wished that there was a female On the Road, not because it was a perfect book, but because it forever romanticized the creative spirit and the wandering essence of a writer. At the same time, this book and others like it, have also created the notion that this writer is inherently male. Meanwhile, on the other end, the portrayal of the female writer is either exceedingly tragic or just plain frivolous. The female writer is either a staid concept: confined to the home, and destroyed by this fact, like Silvia Plath or Virgina Woolf, or she is the modern searching single girl: bubbly, quirky, and vapid.
The narrative of the 20-something burgeoning male writer is far more compelling, an author coming into his own with only a pen and a bruised ego. Within the last few years theres been many a slightly akward bookish type, splashed on the pages of the New York Times; Joshua Ferris, Keith Gessen, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Froer, David Sedaris, there's a new one every day. All of them ambitious and all of them incredibly aware of their own mythology.
What is the new face of young female authors? I'm not sure. Over that same summer, that I saw Joan Didion speak, I read All The Sad Young Literary Men, by keith gessen (an homage to the idea of writers, if ever there was one.) and I again had that same wish of replacing the male characters with female ones and just seeing what would happen. For how vain, self-absorbed, and single-minded they were, these characters also had passion, intellect, politics, and a voice. In one particularly telling chapter, a character calls google distressed that his internet presence is slowly depleting, it's a completely self-involved gesture, but it's so true to the times we live in, and our search for relevancy within them. I can connect with that frail ambition.
There are great books by female writers, but so many get lost in the shuffle. And the books that rise to the top of the heap, don't connect to me. I just wish that my experiences and the experience of other women like me were spoken too, in a way that makes these experiences grander and more meaningful then their individual realities. If female writers, especially young female writers, are to rise, it can only be done with great ambition, with guts, and with a belief that the everyday can be elevated through the written word. To be honest, most of my favorite female characters have been written by men. I'm hoping this fact will change. But, as of now, no, I don't think the problem is just with male readers.