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female writers, writing, etc

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Following up from the post above about Amy Sohn’s piece: had a discussion last night about why it had been difficult for me to find novels written by females for a specific (but not all that specific) syllabus that I taught from last year – and why it might be the case that that was so. (More specifically, this conversation last night was provoked by the fact that students who took this seminar have taken it upon themselves to run their own seminar / reading group during the summer focused on female authors of the same period as the mostly male authors that we handled in mine… According to reports they’re not unhappy with me, understand why I assigned what I did, we’ve talked about it at length, but still they want to do more – and I’m glad they are.) Some of it may be that the specific aesthetic itself that we were dealing with in the seminar is gendered (and that it was a gender-driven choice on my part to centre on it in the class). This is worthy of discussion – and discuss it we did.

But something else came up that’s interesting too: the institutional, structural reasons why female writers’ careers tend (NB – by tend I mean tend – there are lots of exceptions!) to follow certain paths and not others. There are both active and passive, or positive and negative reasons why women don’t tend to write a certain sort of novel. On the one hand, there are of course roadblocks and prohibitions: old boys clubs – or even young boys clubs, preconceptions about who is suitable to write what, and of course all the psychological baggage that comes of growing up and being educated and everything else as a female rather than a male.

But on the other hand – I think this is just as interesting – female writers careers are shaped (in the context of this discussion, misshaped) as significantly by the carrot as by the stick. In other words – and if you’ve spent any time with a female freelance writer trying to make it on the American scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about – there are paths that young female writers are encouraged to follow by everything from article pitch acceptances to book contracts. The form that this encouragement takes is shaped by a nexus of ideology, taste, readership, but most importantly money and markets. And no one forces female writers to follow these paths – but they often are the paths of least resistance, and in a hard world, sometimes frictionless movement forward is undeniably appealing.

To put it another way. No one, in general, wants a tell-all / roman à clef about a guy’s sex life – let alone to write the sort of Carrie Bradshaw style column that leads to one of those. With a few notable exceptions, there’s not much demand for the “my life as a dad” style book either, where as mommy-centric stuff seems to be one of the true perennials of the book trade. I could be wrong – and in fact I have the slightest bit of evidence that I might be – but I have a feeling that a male version of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation wouldn’t work – or at least receive the PR explosion that it did when it came out over here – if written by a man.

Or to put it again yet another way: take two would-be freelancers in their 20s living in Brooklyn during the 2000s, one male and one female. Perhaps both want to write highbrow pieces about international affairs, the state of American culture, domestic politics, whatever. Both of them receive rejection after rejection when they try to do so. Of course they do – they are too green, there’s lots of established experts in those fields, they haven’t yet built up the CVs and the contacts, whatever. But the female of the pair discovers that yes, there is a market for a piece comparing her life to Carrie Bradshaw’s. It’s a throwaway, but it builds her publication list, so she takes the shot. There’s not really an equivalent slot for the guy to fill, so he turns instead to a PhD, writing a long, recondite literary novel, whatever. Meanwhile, for the female, one thing starts to lead to another – the article to an appearance on television to discuss SATC, the television appearance to a series of other related articles, and one day, after being coaxed into writing a particularly spicy piece by a magazine contact, a book contract about, well, some sort of equivalent of the Sohn thing I discussed in the previous post. The guy on the other hand likely gets nowhere, or becomes an academic, or perhaps, if he’s both good and very very lucky, releases his monstrous tome and ends up a rising light of the “literary fiction” scene.

Super-reductive, all of this, I know. But in practice – with countless variations – I’ve seen it turn out this sort of way lots and lots of time. There are highbrow versions of the same phenomenon: the smart woman who writes smart stuff for the right places, but smart stuff that always requires her to insert herself into the piece in some sort of slapsticky manner, the point of what she’s after constantly receding behind a wall of Cuteness and Funniness. And so on – but for another day.

Please don’t misunderstand. There are both good and bad reasons why these “paths” develop for women, but what I am trying to get at is the way that they can in many cases be formative – shunt talented people into some success, but success that in the long run settles on a plateau of mediocrity or even obnoxiousness. In Cusk’s case for instance – and despite the fact that I liked the bits that I read of Aftermath – one really does wonder if a writer of her talents isn’t wasting her time doing this sort of thing. Making a bit of money, yes, but wasting her time when she could be doing better work. Maybe she will next – or maybe she’ll write a follow-up to this book that got her a full-spread in the culture section of every Saturday paper in Britain a few months ago.

At any rate, and for now, let this stand as my attempt to explain part of what I was trying to get at yesterday – the way that one can feel the interpolative (and ultimately mediocritizing) forces at work shaping a piece of writing like that…. And of course, there are so many things here that need more attention: what I mean by “better” work, the ways that strong female authors game with the expectations I’m describing, what happens to female authors who, to borrow a term, “opt out” of this structure, and the somewhat translucent parallel expectations that exist for men….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 31, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in gender, writing

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting. I’ve not seen that but it looks sympathetic to what I’m saying here. I’ll have to take a look when I get a chance.


    July 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm

  2. And one more data point: a woman who can’t write the sexy stuff goes to grad school, gets bogged down in academia and various purity complexes, puts aside the ambitious novel, and rots. Her talented husband, who got the MFA early and had little luck with publishers, finally finishes a collection of short stories and has it published with a small press. He encourages her to no avail. No one can make anyone else write by fiat. Once a year the woman reads another Virginia Woolf novel, for some reason, and has a massive cathartic crying jag in response to one or two individual lyrical passages. It’s always Woolf, and it’s always a single sentence or two. This doesn’t help either, because it doesn’t solve the problem of audience, or the problem of academia being a godforsaken awful place for artists in the most insidious way, or the problem of unproductive isolation and unrealistic standards, or the problem of the previous drafts of the novel being better than anything she can write now.

    I mean, the above all rings true to me. The biggest difference between my husband and myself with regard to art, though, is that he really, truly feels entitled to write — take time and write, put everyone off, build a sanctuary — and I, to my great peril, do not. That entitlement will get you through the worst of adversities and the strongest conviction that no one wants what you’re producing, because it becomes a straightforward, daily imperative, lifelong lifeline. It may be that this is harder for women to cultivate than it is for men. I don’t know. Or we can divide people up in some other way, the autonomous and the needy, the strong and the weak, till it becomes just tautological. But maybe it is harder for women.

    But behold the ease, the ghastly ease, with which I composed this intimate, self-centered comment! May vomit cake it!


    August 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm

  3. That’s a great point about entitlement. I should have said more about that in the post. Part of the way that what I described works is that, yes, women may be more likely to grab at the sexy (but ultimately dumb) opportunities because of lack of entitlement, whereas men may feel more able to hold themselves back / marshall through toward something better.

    A week or so ago, I was having some drinks with a friend who is also a literary agent. Toward the end, when we were both a bit bedazzled, I said to him, “So what could I do to make a little pot of money without too much trouble.” He suggested that I write a first-person thing about a recent bad run, a recent bout of trauma. Of course I laughed him off – I don’t do trashy things like that! But of course, somehow I also feel capable of holding the subject position of a “literary author” without actually writing anything. Partly, probably, because I’m a guy. Or whatever.

    But yeah: thanks for your brilliant data point.


    August 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  4. to say “they’re not unhappy with me” is an understatement and incorrect


    October 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    • I don’t understand! Understatement in the sense that they’re not just not unhappy with me but actually quite happy with me or understatement in the sense that they actually quite unhappy with me?

      Language is slippery!


      October 24, 2012 at 11:41 pm

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