Is there a way to be a bad feminist? How do you survive in the male art world? What does it mean to be a female writer? In conjunction with our Girls Rule issue, some of our favourite writers, activists and artists will be musing on these questions for Girl Guides, a series of how-tos and thinkpieces on the state of modern womanhood. Here, Dazed writer Lauren Oyler asks how you can beat the boys club in literature.
Fuck the numbers
This piece is a hard one to write, not because the sexist obstacles blocking the way of a vibrant and artistically rigorous career in writing seem insurmountable, but because the idea of the specifically woman writer seems, I don’t know, off. Strange. Point-missing.
For one, a vibrant and artistically rigorous career in writing eludes most people; it’s not like a Y-chromosome correlates to the increased ability to accurately and originally articulate existence for low-to-no pay. (Though when you can easily curate your internet consumption to encounter only outraged feminist thinkpieces, it’s easy to forget that what they’re outraged about is actually happening IRL. The only time I’ve ever hit someone was when I was talking to a guy during an event at my university for graduating seniors and he told me, “Women just aren’t as good writers!” Now he runs a startup.)
“How often does the alt-lit community champion a female writer? And when it does, how often is it for her male-centric prose-poems about bad sex and breakups?"
For another, identity-related adjectives feel like qualifiers, however subtle or implied or subconscious. Sure, they acknowledge the systemic struggles of the group they describe; to be a woman writer is to deal with historically unjust/preconceived-notional/pigeonholing bullshit on top of the already difficult task of answering the unanswerable questions: what is the meaning of life, is it too early to go to bed right now, etc. Same for LGBT writers, working-class writers, and writers of color. The only time male writers are referred to as such is when their numbers (average pay, publications, reviews in the New York Times, ratio of gratuitous and poorly written masturbation scenes per 50 pages are being compared to those of women.
Obviously, men get way more. The organization VIDA, for ‘Women in Literary Arts’, is vocal in drawing attention to the statistics: in 2012, so many big-deal publications – the New Yorker, Atlantic, Paris Review, TLS, New York Review of Books, Granta, Harper’s – were not only disproportionately men, but embarrassingly so: as in contributors, interviews and books reviewed by. VIDA didn’t count stats for alt or indie publications, but I’d be interested in those, too; how often does the alt lit community champion a female writer? (And when they do, how often is it for her male-centric prose-poems about bad sex and breakups?) Really, to be noted as a ‘woman’ should signify that a writer is particularly good: she has beaten the odds to a career the appropriately gendered Man has attempted to scoot her away from.
But that’s, of course, not how it is.
Hate Jonathan Franzen (a lot)
Several white male writers of the best-selling blockbuster Bildungsroman have become widely recognised symbols of this injustice – Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike. But none provokes quite the indignant, you-are-a-waste-of-paper-and-air rage as anti-internet antagonist Jonathan Franzen, who counts among his adversaries those most stereotypically woman of "woman writers", Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. (For those who avoid the Waterstones window displays, Picoult and Weiner write "chick lit". Really, really popular, sells-millions kind of chick lit.)
Their opposition originated upon the worshipful publication of Freedom in 2010; they lamented the double-standard that says when men write about family and feelings, it’s "literature with a capital L" and when women write about them, it’s "romance, or a beach book". Now, though, the spotlight is again on this particular gender imbalance, not least because of grassroots organisation VIDA, Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014 project and the December n+1 pamphlet No Regrets, which consists of all-female conversations about reading habits (and those cringe-worthy adolescent masturbation scenes).
“Even if Weiner’s complaints are the result of bitterness or yearning for entry to a male literary enclave that has loudly eighty-sixed her, she’s right"
Citing the VIDA "Count’", Kat Stoeffel for New York Magazine writes that even if Weiner’s complaints are the result of “bitterness” or “yearning for entry to a male literary enclave that has loudly eighty-sixed her”, she’s right: “Women novelists and critics and ‘feminine’ genres are criminally underrepresented across literary institutions, which will sometimes lavish men like Franzen and (Jeffrey) Eugenides with multiple reviews and a profile.”
Weiner’s complaints seemed to get her somewhere: a profile in the pages of what is arguably the most-respected literary establishment today (written by a woman!). Also, last April the New York Times Book Review hired a woman editor whose writing career has included books on the most traditionally female topics: parenting and marriage.
In the New Yorker profile, Weiner acknowledges that her fame and fortune are independent of the institutions she’s attacking, which affords her the, ahem, freedom to talk shit. “If some literary woman were to be known as a gadfly, or a crank, even – somebody who won’t shut up, somebody who is persistent and abrasive – that could hurt her, careerwise,” she says.
While this will ring true to anyone who has read an internet comment, there are also writers who are women but not "woman writers". Zadie Smith. Eleanor Catton. Hilary Mantel, who has always been unapologetically outspoken about feminist issues. Lydia Davis. Lorrie Moore. Donna Tartt and Joyce Carol Oates, who, like Weiner, are sometimes regarded as not-so-literary, but still manage a male audience. Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi has experienced a resurgence in attention for being associated with an explicitly feminist project – Beyoncé’s self-titled album – and she still shows up in the New Yorker and the Guardian. Jonathan Franzen and the boys’ club he stands for have played little-to-no role in their development, either by inspiring vicious hatred or unintentionally sapping up all the time, energy, and word counts of reviewers and readers. Which is, if nothing else, progress.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler