Sunday, July 25, 2010

Leah Stewart talks about literary sexism

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.

But really what I want to take issue with here is another implication of her question: that relationships are not one of “the great subjects.” It’s my contention that no one really, truly thinks that. It’s my contention that what that reporter meant, whether she knew it or not, was that relationships are not great subjects when women write about them. (After all, the male writer she was interviewing writes about relationships, a point with which he agreed.)

I sat in a movie theater recently, waiting to see a movie about men, and watched trailer after trailer aimed at a male demographic. One was for a comedy and one a thriller, but they clearly had the same basic story: a hero’s journey inspired first by the need to win the love of an idealized woman and then by the desire to protect her. These are stories about relationships. But because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed. One of the other trailers was for a brothers-in-arms war movie. (Hello? Relationships.) In the movie itself, by the way, were male-bonding scenes as emotional as in any chick flick.

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.”

But men are not alone in this sense of shame. The other day, thinking about my daughter and children’s movies, at least American ones, it occurred to me that what she has to choose between are Disney princesses or boys. If you grow up a girl who doesn’t want to choose princesses, you have to prove you reject that entirely to be good enough to hang with the boys, and the other girls who hang with the boys. Otherwise you’re silly, you’re vacuous, you’re too girly, you’re not smart. Thus the female critic who wrote in a negative review of my second novel that it was essentially what you’d expect from a book about friendship between women. Meaning, basically, that it was dumb. Now she can think my book is dumb all she wants. What really bothered me, beyond the inevitable sting of any bad review, was her assertion that because of the subject matter it was automatically dumb. What about a book about friendship between men? Would that be automatically dumb? Surely not, given that A Separate Peace and Of Mice and Men have been in the canon of high school literature for years.

It’s not that no one ever sees intelligence in representations of certain aspects of the female experience. It’s just that they’re most likely to see it if the person doing the representing is a man. As one of my writer friends said recently, “When is it brave to write about marriage? When a man does it.” Intelligence and ambition—the markers that a writer is striving to make art and not just entertainment—are taken for granted in men. If a woman writer tackles relationships, goes for big emotions, too many assume that must be all she’s capable of, that she’s not deliberately creating effects but making a natural outpouring of her own experiences and feelings. A woman writer has to prove intelligence and ambition. She can do so by use of postmodern devices, by historical sweep, by writing short fiction before she tackles a novel, by writing from the point of view of a man.

I realize there are exceptions to what I’m saying, well-reviewed novels by women writers that are explicitly about relationships. In fact I’m reading one right now. But in most cases these are women who have already proven their intelligence in the aforementioned ways, so they can be assumed, like male writers, to have chosen the subject of relationships, rather than just depicting the only thing on their hopelessly female minds. (If you’re thinking that I have a chip on my shoulder, you are right.)

Being in academia, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the teaching of Jane Austen is often characterized by an insistence on her intelligence, in large part to counteract the idea that her books are tales of romance of no interest to the male reader or the smart female one. I understand this impulse. But that insistence seems largely to consist of the claim that Austen cleverly slips trenchant observations about class and slavery into her romances, as though she’s making her stories palatable to the mass of readers while winking at the rest of us so we’ll understand she’s smart. For all I know that’s exactly what she was doing. I have no idea what her process was. Either way, it’s worth noting our need to justify her place in the canon by insisting her mind moved outside the stereotypically female. Maybe, just maybe, she was a brilliant writer with an intelligent mind and an intense awareness of the nuances of the world around her who wrote (get this) about relationships.


Litsa Dremousis: said...

Trenchant observations, Leah. And Caroline, as always, your insights ring true.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

All I can say is: Agree!

It also bothers me that the culture perpetuates the stereotype of men being disconnected from their feelings, or worse: too stupid to know them, and therefore teaches men to believe that about themselves. I'm married to a man who's very in touch with his feelings, and raising a young son, and I take it personally every time a commercial or a movie insists on men being emotionally stunted...If there was less of that message, then perhaps books written by women about relationships would also be seen as "big" and "worthy."

Tanya Egan Gibson said...

So perfectly put, Leah!

Often, when relationships/emotions do come up in "serious" or "literary" (whatever those terms mean, or don't) fiction, it seems to me that they are approached with a degree of cynicism or detachment, as if a character having a full-on emotion--especially a good one, like love or joy--is unthinkable. (Rage of course--a very "male" outburst--seems to be acceptable.)

Of course, there are exceptions to this--Jennifer Egan's work is smart and uber-literary and always moves me to tears.

But for the most part, when I read about "love" and "happiness" in literary fiction, I'm reading about emotions that have been nuanced and cynicized (yeah, that's probably not a word) and subtle-ized (also, not a word) to the point where I don't recognize them.

But hey, what do I know? I have girly emotions. :-)

Susanne said...

Wow what a great essay. I've always said that if a man writes about a male-female relationship, it's called a love story. If a woman does, it's automatically "romance". Not that there's anything wrong with romance. And as a female writer of historical fiction, I notice the difference between assumptions about historical novels by men and women. With women, the assumption goes toward historical romance.

Let's face it, not many novels work without some element of romance/love in them. It's a basic human emotion, a creator of tension, etc.

And I've always said that Jane Austen writes chick lit. I love chick lit when it's good.

PhDinCreativeWriting said...

Thank you for this excellent and important post. (and great follow-up comments) I was inspired to write an extensive "amen" on my blog:

~ kelcey parker

~Moi~ said...

Great insight! Appreciate the post!!

Kristina said...


I often think men's books are graded on an emotional curve: if they write emotionally, they are praised for their depth. Women write emotionally, and it's like: "So what?" Because that's what chicks do, right?

That's really not fair to either gender, because the assumption is that men are at the core unable to write about feelings and relationships.

Not that this is the fault of male authors. It's way more complicated than that. I love male authors who write about squishy emotions as much as I love the female authors who do.

Kristina Riggle

Molly McCaffrey said...

Outstanding post--all of it completely true. And now I know why I was a tomboy as a kid.

I also think it says something that you--a woman--are publishing this on a blog when this essay belongs in the New Yorker.