by Rhian Sasseen on May 24, 2012
An answerable question, of course – on the bookshelf. But though we may have gained our rightful place alongside our male brethren in the bookstore, still we languish. Once on the bookshelf, what happens? – A shelf life of being forgotten.
Three recent events have caused me to believe this. First, the Orange Prize for Fiction, annually awarded to a women author writing in English, has lost its longtime sponsor. Soon after I read this, I happened upon another article concerning gender and writing, this time focused on Esquire‘s recent announcement of a new eBook series, starting in June, titled “Fiction for Men.” (Because, of course, the history of Western literature hasn’t been a history of men.) Finally, while reading stories like these, I cannot banish from my mind the annual VIDA count, which has proven that while the literary world might pay lip service to gender equality, women are still being looked over in the pages of our literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Where are the women? – In the minds of men. But I am a writer, not a ghost, and this is not good enough of an existence for me. When I look at the online profile of a man, I judge him by his taste in books, movies, and music – don’t we all? But my judgement goes a step further; I look for women writers, artists, and musicians, and I almost always come up short. It is disheartening to learn that the men in my life – liberal, well-meaning, and blind to their own inconsistencies – regard women, however unconsciously, as subjects, objects, not creators in our own right. And then I always wonder – will they ever care to read my words?
Esquire claims that “Fiction for Men” will focus on “plot-driven and exciting” writing, “where one thing happens after another.” To that I say: welcome to the canon as we know it. Phallocentric “logic” is enjoying a critical resurgence these days, too, if it ever really left, thanks to the dull posturing of writers like Jonathan Franzen, whose slavish devotion to old-fashioned realism belies the transformative powers of forward-thinking fiction. Free indirect discourse and realism have had their day, of course – the nineteenth-century. And though I love Henry James and novels such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, literature must also continue forward, not backward, in order to create an art worthwhile and reflective of the issues of our day.
I am also simultaneously frustrated by the shape in which the literary gender wars have taken. Why is it that I, as a woman, am pressured to support and validate quote-unquote “chick lit” in an effort of solidarity? While I admire the money that commercial writers such as Jennifer Weiner, she of In Her Shoes and #franzenfreude fame, make for their books, I also find these same books to be utterly banal, as unexciting and intellectually bereft as “male” genres such as fantasy or detective potboilers.
“Am I a snob?” Virginia Woolf once wrote. The answer, when it comes to literature that I actually like and appreciate, is: probably.
So this is why I am so annoyed by examples such as “Fiction for Men.” “Serious” fiction has always been for men – female writers are regarded, to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” I am a serious writer and a serious reader and, because of this, I want my work to be regarded seriously, as well. To be regarded seriously, we need bylines, prizes, and books – rooms of our own, even in the twenty-first century.
But contemporary American literary fiction has also grown stale. How are we to move forward? – Perhaps it would be best to forget “plot-driven and exciting” writing, which has been reduced to tired tropes. What about a continuation of what Hélène Cixous calls “écriture féminine?” Logic is boring. Write the body, Cixous advocates, and I agree: literature has for too long been male-driven, male-centered, male-bodied. Cixous argues that writing mindful of the feminine is available to men, as well (James Joyce being an example), and I agree. I suppose the question that comes after where are all the women writers is, whatever happened to modernism?
I suppose this is my own regurgitation of the past, and yet: it hasn’t been fully explored. It hasn’t been fully dispersed. There is more to write, a more-perfect vision of fiction writing to be continued, and the purely-male as we know it is not it. Too static.
Art cannot be truly revolutionary when it mimics the politics of the mainstream. Female writers, continue writing, continue fighting. And male writers – ignore us at your peril.