Article — From the June 1998 issue

Scent of a Woman’s Ink

Are women writers really inferior?

What a glorious time it is to be an American woman novelist! Oprah Winfrey has only to say a writer’s name—so far, most of her book-club choices have been novels by women—and hundreds of thousands stampede the bookstores in search of the lucky author’s work. Most books are bought by women, who tend to read novels by female authors. One of our two living Nobel laureate novelists is an African-American woman. Women edit major magazines—The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Review of Books—aimed at readers of both sexes. Women are top decision makers at America’s ten biggest commercial publishing houses. And male editors, writers, and academics will be the first to tell you that they read and publish and teach writings by women as well as by men.

So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year—which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson—most of the book award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.

None of this, presumably, is a source of psychic—or financial—pain to a writer such as Danielle Steel, or to the authors of the mostly middlebrow books on which Oprah bestows her lucrative blessings. Commercial fictions—those that traffic in clichés, in titillation, in reassuring conventions, in suspense, gore, consumer and romantic fantasies—have, as it were, an autonomous existence, a trajectory with almost no relation to the more cerebral book-review pages and the literary prizes. But as any publisher will tell you, and many frequently and volubly do, writers of so-called serious literary fiction—work that is tough-minded, challenging, eloquent, disquieting, and demanding of its readers—depend far more heavily (indeed, almost entirely) on reviews to ensure that their books will break even and earn back their advances; this, in turn, enables their editors to convince wary marketing departments to publish the writer’s subsequent works. A major prize frequently translates into a drastic increase in sales, which can firmly establish an author’s formerly shaky career—though (perhaps needless to say) it is the same book that has sold weakly before the award and more strongly after its recognition.

Meanwhile, every writer knows that the desire for stronger sales has little to do with a craving for luxe apartments or racy cars: what writers buy with money is time—that is, time to write, time that would otherwise be spent in activities (teaching, waitressing) required for economic survival. To ask what effect critical neglect has on the careers of women writers is rather like inquiring into the health of the female population in cultures that place girl children at the bottom of the food chain.

And yet there are women writers of literary fiction: the species, however endangered, has not as yet been eradicated. Perhaps this recent batch of book awards was simply an anomaly? Perhaps our apprehensions about the ways in which fiction by women is received are merely symptomatic of some feminist dementia?

In fact, as so often happens, the statistics outdo one’s grisliest paranoias. In last year’s New York Review of Books, twenty-five books of fiction by men were reviewed and only ten books by women—in essays written by three times as many men as women. In 1997, The New Yorker printed thirty-seven stories by men, ten by women; Harper’s Magazine printed nine stories by men, three by women. Since 1992, the Editors’ Choice lists in The New York Times Book Review, arguably the most powerful voice in the book-review chorus, have included twenty-two books of fiction by men and eight by women. Since 1980, sixteen men and two women have won the PEN/Faulkner Award; and fourteen men and four women, the National Book Award. No works of fiction by women were included among the five finalists for the Los Angeles Times book prize last year (though the Los Angeles Times’s winner in a category for “first fiction” was a woman, the short-story writer Carolyn Ferrell, who took the prize with the appropriately named collection Don’t Erase Me). And in 1988, when none of the New York Times’s ten best books of the year was by a woman, the editors (who bypassed, for example, Mavis Gallant’s In Transit in favor of “a circus of storytelling” by Milorad Pavic) published this disclaimer: “In case anyone has failed to notice, none of the books on this year’s list is by a woman. Among more than 40 volumes originally nominated by individual editors were many, both fiction and nonfiction, by women. But none remained among the final choices after two months of weekly discussions.”

How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write? Diane Johnson—herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy—observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear—especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women—or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.

Of course, unlike small boys who don’t yet know better than to say that girls’ books are “sappy,” serious readers, male or female, would never admit to thinking that fiction by women is inferior. Male writers and critics have learned not to express every demented thought that crosses their minds, and besides, in most cases, they sincerely believe that they don’t esteem writing according to the writer’s gender. So one searches mostly in vain for current ruminations on the subject of “why women can’t write.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, the writers of the past were only too glad to express such ideas. If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.

Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a “hyena in petticoats” to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Brontë as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that “this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers. . . . ” More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, “Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,” and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s “bitchiness” and “relentless cattiness,” terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by “lack of range—in subject matter, in emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor. . . . the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; lyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God. . . . ”

In view of these persistent attempts to put female writers in the “creepish” pigeonholes they might not have chosen, one can’t blame George Eliot, George Sand, and the Brontës for hiding behind male pseudonyms. Certainly their fears would have been confirmed by the college students in Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog,” who were shocked to learn that a writer with the sexually ambiguous name of Flannery O’Connor was female. An intelligent (female) student promptly reconfigured her opinion:

“But I could tell she was a woman,” she insisted. “Her sentences are a woman’s sentences.” I asked her what she meant and how she could tell. “Because they’re sentimental,” she said, “they’re not concrete like a man’s.” I pointed out whole paragraphs, pages even, of unsentimental, so-called tough prose. “But she sounds like a woman—she has to sound that way because she is.” . . . [I]t rapidly developed that the whole class now declared that it too, even while ignorant of the author’s sex, had nevertheless intuited all along that this was a woman’s prose; it had to be, since Flannery was a she.

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is the author, most recently, of the novel My New American Life (HarperCollins, 2011). Read her blog post on “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” and V. S. Naipaul here.

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