Article — From the June 1998 issue

Scent of a Woman’s Ink

Are women writers really inferior?

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As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, “the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.”

In the end, of course, it’s pointless to characterize, categorize, and value writing according to its author’s gender, or to claim that women writers fixate on everything that irritates gynophobes about our sex. The best writing has as little to do with gender as it does with nationality or with the circumscriptions of time. A novel such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina, a story such as Mansfield’s “Prelude” or Kleist’s “The Marquise of O,” transcends not only the facts of its author’s life but the manners and customs, the superficial gloss, of the era in which it was written. There will always be categories into which fiction falls, standards that have less to do with stereotype and preconception than with originality and revelation, with the ability to translate life—in all its simple and endlessly mysterious complexity—onto the printed page. But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian. If, in the future, some weird cataclysm should scramble or erase all the names of authors from all the books in all the libraries, readers may have trouble (and progressively more trouble, as more women join the professions and the military and more men immerse themselves in the domestic) telling whether Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne were created by women or men. The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing.

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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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