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Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women

Watching the outpouring of grief and reflection over the death of Adrienne Rich last week, I admit, to my shame, that I was surprised. Surprised not because of any judgment about Rich’s poetry, which I barely know, but because I had thought of her as an icon of another era. That era, of course, was the era of the women’s movement, of which Rich was a brash troubadour, asserting the value and distinctiveness of women’s experience and lamenting their—our—submission to patriarchy. But when I came of age intellectually, in the 1990s, this mode of expression had fallen out of fashion. In my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was mentored by male and female professors alike who encouraged me to take my place as a student of the literary canon. But I was never directed to read a poem by Adrienne Rich.

There are two distinct types of equality, I realize now, and women of my generation had achieved only the first. We had gained admission to the world of men. (This was literally true at Columbia University, where I went to college, which had gone co-ed less than ten years before I enrolled.) But there is another type of equality, the type that Rich alludes to in her great poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” in which she imagines plumbing the depths of the ocean as both mermaid and merman, exploring a past that hasn’t bothered to record her presence, “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” That type of equality involves remaking the landscape itself, redefining the terms on which value is assessed, rewriting the book of myths. At this type of equality we have yet to make significant progress, which is why Rich’s poem, nearly 40 years later, retains its immediacy and its longing.

The place of women in the literary world is still as urgent an issue as it has ever been. I worry that other women of my generation, having taken their admission to this world as a natural right, have grown as complacent as I have been. But admission is not the same thing as acceptance. And what the reception of literature by women over the last few decades—longer, of course, but let’s keep to a manageable scope—shows us is that acceptance is a long way off.

This is the lament of Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times Book Review last weekend, in which she argues that women, as fiction writers, are still subject to segregation and prejudice, ranging from book covers that subtly (or not so subtly) hinder women’s novels from reaching a large audience to a literary environment that generally fails to understand that women’s issues are everyone’s issues. Wolitzer was reacting to the latest statistics from VIDA, an advocacy organization that for the past two years has published a tally of the number of male and female bylines in major book reviews to demonstrate that men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications, and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s. The problem in fact goes deeper: as I demonstrated last year, part of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers. (The Huffington Post agrees.)

Regardless of where it begins—are manuscripts by women also submitted in smaller numbers?—it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small, including packaging that primes readers to regard women’s books as less important: Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images. The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women. This is true regardless of the novels’ quality or whether they are judged as important or not. It is the same unconscious sexism that prevented me, as a college student, from seeking out the works of Adrienne Rich: I believed that because they dealt with women’s issues, they were less important than the works of the canon to which I sought admittance.

Interestingly, women who write in the voices of male characters may receive wider recognition than those who write from an exclusively female point of view, as Julia Glass told Wolitzer. Reviewing the Best American Short Stories anthology last year, I noticed that though the balance of bylines was roughly equal, the vast majority of the stories were about male characters. If this is a conscious or unconscious adaptation on the part of female writers, it is a disturbing form of self-censorship.

But the question that remains is why women seem to be writing small novels. (I mean small in terms of size, not in terms of ambition.) Wolitzer believes that this too has to do with institutional bias. “If 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,” she writes. I’d like to know what novel she has in mind, because I cannot think of any such book. What is most striking about contemporary novels by women, in fact, is how uniformly brief they are. What woman writer today, with the exception of Anne Rice and other popular authors, is writing doorstops? Looking at my bookshelves, I find only a handful from the last decade. There was Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (a wild and original book that, though it was about a mother and son, blew the lid off the easy categorization of “women’s fiction”); Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, but she had already published a blockbuster; and, with a stretch, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which also achieves the rare female distinction of an all-text cover.

Contrast this paltry list with the number of epic-length novels by men over the same period, including those by Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Ford, and Chad Harbach, whose saga of a college baseball player, The Art of Fielding, was last year’s big critical success. Implicit but unmentioned in Wolitzer’s essay: High expectations mean a high advance—in Harbach’s case, in the upper six figures. There is a serious financial cost when women writers are overlooked. The fact that a male writer produces a doorstop, of course, doesn’t mean that he’s destined for immediate fame and fortune. In the last few years, at least two young male writers came out with gargantuan novels: Joshua Cohen with Witz and Adam Levin with The Instructions. Both were published by independent publishers; each garnered a few respectful reviews. Still, what woman novelist dares to debut with an 800-page book?

If women are disinclined to write long novels, it may be because they suspect, by virtue of all the signals large and small, that those novels are unwelcome. In “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” her excellent piece in Harper’s 14 years ago arguing against any inherent quality distinguishing women’s fiction from men’s, Francine Prose noted the discrimination that women have experienced from critics who failed to appreciate their writing for its own qualities, and instead insisted that it conform to their expectations of what it ought to be. She notes Frederick Crews, in The New York Review of Books, calling for a “correction” in the reputation of Flannery O’Connor, whose works, in contrast to those of Melville and James and Twain, “for all their brilliance cannot conceal a certain narrowness of emphasis and predictability of technique.” Has anyone ever accused Melville of being too expansive in contrast to Jane Austen? She accuses Richard Eder of patronizing Deborah Eisenberg by saying, essentially, that Eisenberg ought to limit herself to the inner landscape rather than the world at large: “Do we insist that contemporary male writers—Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen—stick to that narrow band of illumination?” There is more, plenty more, but we have the idea.

It is painful to read these blatantly uncomprehending remarks. It is even more painful today to read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s landmark work of literary feminism, published in 1929, eighty-three years ago. It opens with a semi-description of a female writer, who may or may not be Woolf, being shouted at in one of the ancient college towns for straying onto the grass, where women were not permitted to walk; and later being turned back at the door of the library, where unaccompanied women were not permitted to enter. And it delineates many other ways in which women have been systematically denied the resources they require to flourish as writers: namely education and sufficient income to allow them time and space for writing. No less important is the support of critics, whom Woolf charges with having failed to appreciate the writing of women. “It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so,” Woolf wrote.

Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

Yes, we are now permitted to walk on the grass and enter the library. But how fresh these words still sound!

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.