Leah Stewart, author of Husband and Wife, previously posted on my blog about literary sexism, and she got so many replies, and so much interest, that I asked her if she'd write more about the topic. Like Leah, I get really annoyed at the way women writing about family or home are somehow diminished for it when men writing about the same thing are acclaimed. Thanks, so much, Leah.
Recently a male writer I very much admire asked me what I thought of a question posed him by a female reporter. Why, she asked him, do male writers tackle the great subjects, while women write only about relationships? I told him what I thought, which was, among other things, that her question arose from a false premise, as Francine Prose proved so effectively in her “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” way back in 1998. In that article, which ran in Harper’s, Prose quoted from male and female writers and defied readers to tell the difference. You would think that by now we’d all take for granted that women, as a group, write about more than relationships and that men, as a group, write about relationships. Clearly that’s not the case.
The issue isn’t that there are no relationships in male stories, and nothing but in female ones. The issue is that it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men. Certainly many people, male and female, believe that men are only interested in the things that happen to men (unless the woman in question is scantily clad and sporting a machine gun). I’m asked all the time if men “would like” or “can read” my books, and often when men do tell me they liked one of my last two books they’ll say they “actually” liked it. Despite what? Well, despite the female protagonists, and the women’s-fiction covers, and the preoccupation with relationships. Many men resist, or feel expected to resist, inhabiting the female point of view because they’ve internalized the belief that to do so is shameful. (Of course, when men who show physical weakness or emotional vulnerability are constantly accused of being “little girls.”) Thus the student who responded to a short story I’d assigned, one of my favorites, by saying, “I might like this story if I were a girl.”