Published: March 30, 2012
If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?
Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.
Illustrations by Kelly Blair
Illustrations by Kelly Blair
This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.
I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.”
After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to.
When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”
The truth is, women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world, even as young single women are outearning men in major American cities and higher education in the United States is skewing female.
As VIDA, a women’s literary organization, showed in February in its second annual statistical roundup, women get shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications. Of all the authors reviewed in the publications it tracked, nearly three-fourths were men. No wonder that when we talk about today’s leading novelists — the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women — we are talking mostly about men.
Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called “Women’s Fiction” where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott. (Needless to say, Amazon fits us into other categories as well.) If there is a stylistic or thematic link to be found among us, it’s hard to see.
It should be noted that Amazon puts the occasional man in this category. Tom Perrotta is there, and so is Jonathan Franzen (albeit the Oprah’s Book Club edition of “Freedom”), which should provide yet more fodder for those who complain of his ubiquity.
Both men write about relationships and also about suburbia; is that why they’re included?
Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women “Women’s Fiction,” as if men should have nothing to do with them.
A writer’s own publisher can be part of a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down.
Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.
Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.” Eugenides’s gold ring may appear to be an exception, though it has a geometric abstraction about it: the Möbius strip ring suggesting that an Escher-like, unsolvable puzzle lies within.
The illustration might have been more conventional and included the slender fingers and wrist of a woman, had it not been designated a major literary undertaking.
I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.”
These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!”
I sometimes wonder if book length, intentionally or inadvertently, signals to readers a novel’s supposed importance. Certain novelists who have achieved high literary profiles, like David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami and William T. Vollmann, have all published extremely long books — in the case of Wallace and Vollmann, over 1,000 pages.
With some notable exceptions, women have not published many well-known doorstops since Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook.”
As it happens, we live not only in the era of the abbreviated attention span, but also in the era of the book group, whose members often set a strict page limit.
Yet does the marketplace subtly and paradoxically seem to whisper in some men’s ears, “Sure, buddy, run on as long as you like, just sit down and type out all your ideas about America” — what might in some extreme cases be titled “The Big Baggy Book of Me”?
Do women reflexively edit themselves (or let themselves be edited) more severely, creating tight and shapely novels that readers and book groups will find approachable? Or do they simply not fetishize book length one way or the other? (And for that matter, would most long-form men say they were just letting content seek form?)
All this isn’t to say megabooks are necessarily better; in their prolixity perhaps it’s easier for them to in fact be worse. But they are certainly louder.
Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro.
But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.
My sense is that like most men, most women are writing at the length they want to write — but they’re not always getting the same reward.
Men like Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes have written very short, highly regarded and widely read books in recent years. Yet if a woman writes something short these days, particularly if it’s about a woman, it risks being considered minor. (“Spare” is the oft-used word of faint praise.) Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.
Sure, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is pretty massive, but I suspect that a historical work — one that teaches the reader about a subject (in this case a male one) — is considered more acceptable from a woman than, say, the kind of long “sensibility” novel written more frequently by men.
Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award in 2002 for her novel “Three Junes,” said: “Many readers ask why I write so often from a male point of view. I have theories, but I don’t really know. I don’t game my books toward a male audience, and yet the point of view may help their reception. I think men are more accepting of my books than they would be if the points of view were always female.”
Characters matter to a great extent, and novels that involve parents and young children seem at first glance to be considered the potentially sentimental province of women.
Except, of course, when those parents and children are male, as is the case in “The Road” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” both of which feature father-son duos and have been praised enthusiastically by men and women.
But some of the most acclaimed female novelists have written unapologetically and authoritatively about women. And the environment needs to be receptive to that authority, recognizing and celebrating it in order for it to catch.
It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers.
Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so.
Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies.
But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, the poet and literary critic, says: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”
Cue the thunderous disagreements and the counterinstances, of which there are always going to be a notable handful: Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith, being two current examples.
“A Visit From the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan, won both a 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and is rhapsodically talked about by both sexes. In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer for her linked stories, “Olive Kitteridge,” a collection that book groups love and that women have reportedly given to the men in their lives, who have sometimes, to their own surprise, embraced it.
And, very occasionally, a true “event” is made out of a novel by a woman, most recently “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht.
These exceptions might lead us to think maybe we’re heading toward some kind of literary idyll in which men and women sit beneath trees in the sun, eating figs and debating passages by Kiran Desai or Jeanette Winterson.
But just as women are suddenly fighting anew for access to contraception, the VIDA statistics suggest that women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and accorded as much coverage as men’s. The American Academy of Arts and Letters counts only 33 women among its 117 literature members. Even prestigious literary prizes don’t necessarily change everything.
In the past three years more than half of the National Book Critics Circle awards have gone to women, and in the past two years the National Book awards for fiction have gone to women — Jaimy Gordon and Jesmyn Ward — but so far neither has made an enormous cultural splash.
“I think the prizes for men just underscore something already there for them,” Lorrie Moore, the novelist and short-story writer, said. “In many cases the prizes themselves may not have as much independent power as corroborative power.”
Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres,” said: “When I think about my own work, I think that it maybe falls between two stools, and sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s bad — not making the money that Jodi Picoult is making, not achieving the status of Franzen or Wallace.
"Nevertheless, one of the great things for our generation of women writers is the freedom we’ve felt to write about whatever subjects we wish to write about. Are we less innovative than the guys? I don’t see that. But if men aren’t much in the habit of reading women, then it doesn’t matter how innovative we are.”
Who reads whom and how were among the concerns raised in Francine Prose’s sharp 1998 essay in Harper’s Magazine, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which employed a blind taste test to show that when you take away the gender label, it’s not all that easy to identify the author by sex.
“Fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” she wrote. In doing so, she illustrated the continuing critical bias against women. “I wish I could say things had improved drastically since my Harper’s piece appeared,” Prose told me. “But it wouldn’t be true.”
Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. [And unable to "relate" to girls, women, and relationships?_NS] But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus. As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.”
Lorrie Moore added, “A female scholar once said to me: ‘I already know what women think, pretty much. I’m more interested in reading books by men.”
The problem with this statement becomes clear if you flip it.
Were a man to say, “I already know what men think; I’m more interested in reading books by women,” he would be greeted with incomprehension.
While there may be no such thing as “male” or “female” writing, to say that the emphases of male and female writers might sometimes be different doesn’t mean that the deepest concerns or preoccupations of women are inferior or any less essential. Literary women novelists can of course do very well without male readers. And some literary male writers have admitted envying women the “femaleness” of the novel-reading (and -buying) community — a community that, from my own experience with book groups and individual readers, I know to be attentive and passionate.
People will remind you that women are the chief consumers of fiction in this country, and some will add that they think men are so hopeless when it comes to what they’ll read that perhaps we should forget about them as literary fiction readers altogether.
More than a few men are understandably offended by this suggestion, and will describe not only their Proust or Pynchon reading group, but also their all-male Edith Wharton book group, or their admiration for Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” I hope that these men help spread the word, and that the word includes a shout-out to other brilliant women writers like Andrea Barrett, Kathryn Davis, Dana Spiotta, Zoë Heller, Carol Anshaw, Bonnie Nadzam, Rivka Galchen, Lauren Groff and Susan Choi, to name but a few among many, many others.
But the top tier of literary fiction — where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.
Will the literary habits of a culture change as younger readers take over?
Will more literary women be able to persuade their publishers to keep that photo of a longhaired young girl in a summer dress facing shyly away from the camera off their book jackets and replace it with a neutral illustration and bold typeface?
Will VIDA’s statistics dramatically improve?
And will “Women’s Fiction” become such an absurd category it’s phased out entirely? Maybe, in a more just world.