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I’m still asked surprisingly often about “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which Harper’s Magazine published more than a decade ago — an essay in which I tried to understand why and how the work of women writers was not taken as seriously (or read the same way) as that of men. I tell people that I was lucky enough to find quotes from male critics and writers (such as one from Norman Mailer about always being able to “sniff out the ink of the women,” from which I took my title) that were written before men learned it wasn’t acceptable to say such things.
But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Because the recent controversy about the Guardian interview in which V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman was his equal and that he too could instantly sniff out that telltale estrogenic ink has made it clear (in case it needed clarification) that “before” is “now.” The notion of women’s inferiority apparently won’t go away. Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives.
When “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” appeared, it stirred up a storm of debate. I was denounced and discussed in many newspaper book sections that no longer exist. I will always be grateful to Harper’s for hosting a dinner party a few weeks later at which I could be pleasant to some of the editors whose publications, I’d noted, too rarely published or reviewed women—and thus could salvage what remained of my career. Now when the subject of “women’s writing” comes up, as it periodically does, the result is more of a dust devil than a typhoon. Women are distressed and disheartened all over again—and then the subject quietly, politely disappears.
I suppose a writer should be happy when a piece she wrote more than ten years ago seems as fresh and as pertinent as if it had been written yesterday. But in this case, I don’t find it a reason for celebration or self-congratulation. Honestly, I’d rather that “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” seemed dated: a period piece about a problem women no longer have.
More from Francine Prose:
Context — July 31, 2015, 1:07 pm
How American high school students learn to loathe literature
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”