“The most enjoyable read since ‘Jane Eyre.’”
No books by women on the short list for the Libris Prize? If it’s any consolation, the gender gap in recognition isn’t just a problem in the Dutch literary world. In a much-discussed recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, American novelist Meg Wolitzer brought up yet again the question of the divided audience. While women read books by men, many men, consciously or unconsciously, leave out the books by women, as if literature were a checkerboard floor that they could cross by stepping on only one color of the squares.
If Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot,” with its female protagonist and emphasis on relationships, were written by a woman, how widely would it have been reviewed? Closer to home, if a woman wrote about the death of her child (as Anna Enquist did in her Libris-nominated “Contrapunt”), would she be awarded a major prize? A novel by a female author, Wolitzer writes, will seldom “make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men … are prominently displayed and admired.” Books by men, however domestic or small their subject, are always going to appear more significant than books by women. They have status. They have cachet. They’re the squares everyone wants to stand on.
Wolitzer wasn’t specifically unhappy about prizes: in the less conservative English-language literary world, awards like the Man Booker and the Pulitzer routinely go to women writers. She was talking about a whole process of “segregation,” from the images on book covers to bookseller categories like “women’s fiction” that act like a “men keep out” sign. One specific grievance was a set of statistics showing that in 2011 only about a quarter of all books, fiction and nonfiction, reviewed in major English and American publications were authored by women.
The same situation prevails in the Netherlands. NRC columnist Arjen Fortuin wrote that he’d counted his reviews for 2011 and discovered, to his embarrassment, that without noticing he’d appraised five works of fiction by women, twenty-three by men.
Don’t go blaming me. As English literature critic for Trouw I make a point of reviewing at least half books by women. But even then I’m starting to wonder: am I reviewing them right? What do men look for when they look for a book, and am I giving it to them? I reread my recent review of Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!,” a novel Wolitzer mentions as being popular among men. I could have been encouraging men to read it. Instead, I suspect I was subtly telling them not to bother.
I’d pitched the Russell book to my editor because a male friend of mine had said he liked her writing. I’d also been asked to write about Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” Reading the two novels back-to-back, I was struck by the way both used a journey into a tropical swamp as backdrop for an exploration of female sexuality. In Patchett’s book, a symbiotic group of plants and insects in the Amazon rain forest proves the ultimate fertility drug, in a narrative full of nightmare images of childbearing and fraught maternal relationships. (“Womb of Darkness,” I called it.) In Russell’s book, the unmapped waterways of the Florida Everglades stand for the turbid channels of the teenage heroine’s emotions.
Sex and pregnancy as a jungle? Pairing the books in a long double review I wrote,
It’s an old metaphor: the female body that traps men like quicksand. But it’s also one that women writers have taken up again to describe their own experience. German writer Charlotte Roche called them ‘wetlands’: the sites of a fecundity and desire that women themselves must learn to navigate.
Now I’ve never minded being icky in print, especially if it gets people’s attention. But I bet that any men who were still following me at that point weren’t encouraged to go out and read the books. The fact is, there’s plenty in both novels to keep a man entertained. “State of Wonder” is full of action. If it were a movie, it would be David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” crossed with “Avatar.”
“Swamplandia!” doesn’t only deal with a girl’s coming of age. Russell also confronts Florida’s dramatic history of ecological devastation and reflects on fathers, sons, and masculinity in contemporary America.
So what do I have to do to get men to take notice?
When I’m reviewing, I do tend to focus on women’s experience. Sometimes I’m deliberately compensating for the literary overemphasis on men. At other times I’m genuinely excited to read something new about women’s lives. It’s partly a question of ideology. In college in the 1980s, while the characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot” were reading Roland Barthes, I was reading the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey on the female gaze and the feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous on writing from the female subconscious. I read “forgotten” writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Jane Bowles. I read Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” in which she found in domestic arts like gardening a secret history of women’s creativity.
Along with a generation of writers and scholars, I set out to research women’s work and lives. I ended up writing a biography of an unknown woman writer, Alice Sheldon.
The irony is that Sheldon didn’t find her way as a writer until she started working under a man’s name. In the late 1960s, she began writing as “James Tiptree, Jr.,” using a masculine tone and settings. She didn’t adopt a male pseudonym just to be taken seriously; it was more complicated than that. But the effect of the pseudonym, and of the masculine voice she started using in her fiction, was that she was taken more seriously.
It was surprisingly simple for her to get men reading. She invented male characters who liked to fish. (Her husband liked to fish.) She gave them a hard-boiled voice and let them talk about machinery. For men, instant comfort zone. Even when she started writing about feminist subjects, men kept reading.
When I was working on the book, I got to know some of Tiptree’s male friends and colleagues. fans. I felt them looking over my shoulder as I wrote, and I tried to make the story accessible to them. I didn’t want to claim Sheldon for the women’s side. In the end, the book I thought was a feminist project found its way to a many-gendered readership. It’s something I’m proud of, that I was able to speak across and in between the lines of sex.
One thing I conclude from this is that the difference between what men read and what women read is actually much smaller than we think. I suspect men are actually pretty broad-minded when it comes to fiction. As Alice Sheldon discovered, it might take nothing more than a subtle shift of eye and voice to make them feel at home.
I looked back at my tone of voice in recent reviews. I know I tend to be cautious in my enthusiasm and stingy with my praise. I don’t like to go around saying that this or that book is a masterwork, the most enjoyable read since “Jane Eyre.” Sweeping statements aren’t my style. Frankly, life-changing books are few and far between; and besides, I like to give readers room to judge for themselves.
When I wrote about Lydia Davis, I see I talked about her “gentle yet penetrating insight”—weakening that masculine “penetrating” with a girlish “gentle.” I probably should have put more emphasis on her knockout prose style and the way she lets emotion carom off the obstacles of the intellect, as if she were constructing, not stories, but pinball machines of the soul.
What about Ali Smith’s “There but for the”? “Powerful thoughts about decency, kindness, and connection.…Profound, whimsical, and irresistible.” Rats, I probably knocked it out of the running with that “whimsical,” not to mention “decency” and “kindness”—definitely not the characteristics of a high-status read. I should have put more weight on the book’s outspoken politics, its enigmatic male central character, its Joycean intellectual fireworks.
An air of authority, that’s what I need. Here’s veteran critic Jan Donkers in NRC on David Vann, a much-acclaimed new talent who searches for his themes not in fetid swamps but in hard, cold Alaska. Donkers writes, “To this generation’s list of talented American writers, we can add a new name.… Vann again reveals himself to be a masterful writer whose precise prose seems carved from blocks of ice.”
This book is Big, is what this type of review says. (It’s amazing how that word “American,” as in “Great American Novel,” lends authority all by itself.) And there are clearly men for whom this kind of status matters. The same way they’ve got to drive the best car, drink the most expensive wine, or have the latest gadget, they have to read the newest, most advanced book, the one they heard about on last night’s talk show. Whether it’s about politics, money, football, family, or love, they’ll read it if the alpha male tells them to.
I’ve thought at times I wanted women to write differently. In an essay last year on Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” I wrote that one response to that book, among women writers, might be to go out and “dream bigger dreams, write in an ambitious style, quit wallowing in the comforting miseries of the domestic.”
But the truth is, the big-car, expensive-wine books by women are already there. Lionel Shriver, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Téa Obreht; and in the Netherlands Charlotte Mutsaers, Marjolein Februari, Marente de Moor, Renske de Greef, to name just a few—they all write books that entertain, impress, reveal secrets of contemporary life, and are guaranteed to add to your status if you mention them at parties.
Pretend I’m male, just for a minute. Pick a new byline for me: John Phillips? Julius? Stick a mustache on your mental image if that helps.
Ready? For all the ambitious women who have been dreaming bigger dreams for some time now, here goes. “Swamplandia!”: great American novel with tense scenes of wilderness survival. Ali Smith: devastatingly acute social criticism. Zadie Smith: the voice of multicultural authority. Alice Munro: sentences as polished as a butter knife—and your brain is the butter. Jennifer Egan: her musical taste is even better than yours.
Read them. They’ll make you a better man.
Trouw, May 25, 2012.