The female pen

7 Apr

The other day I went to my local big box bookstore, I had felt the urge to take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. I couldn’t find it, so I asked a worker for help. Her first question was “Alexander?” Her second, upon hearing the writer in question was a woman,  was “Is it a romance?”

Several years ago, at my favorite Bay Area independent bookseller, I was in search of a particular Luce Irigaray title. I looked all over the philosophy section, but to no avail. When I asked as to where her many books, with their varied foci on philosophy, critical theory and psychoanalysis might be located, I was directed to the women’s studies section. Don’t misinterpret me here, I am a vociferous supporter of women’s studies. However, if every philosophy title written by a woman is housed in women’s studies there will be zero titles by women in the philosophy section.

I bring up these two divergent anecdotes because I was reminded of both while reading the recent essay by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times Book Review last weekend:

Wolitzer begins “The Second Shelf” by considering the marketing of and cover art decisions regarding books written by women; specifically, she arrives at some pretty dire conclusions concerning how works of fiction written by women are considered by reviewers, readers and awards committees. Drawing on the Francine Prose essay published in Harper‘s in the late 90’s, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Wolitzer finds that, too often, assumptions are made about female-written texts that often have little to do with the works themselves.

What matters is the sex of the author. Prose goes so far as to provide several examples of pieces that, when first provided as anonymous examples, are rarely written by the assumed sex. Further, when the sex of the author is revealed, reconsiderations concerning its literary, emotional and stylistic weight are nearly immediately made. In light of Prose’s study, Wolitzer’s declares that while a drawing of a wedding ring adorning the cover of a fiction by a woman will likely be relegated to the pink ghetto of rom-com, chick lit or mass-market, this very same circle covers the award-winning recent fiction by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.

Are these issues merely literary quibbles on my part? I think not. Here’s another example: several months ago, I was listening to a literary critic on NPR’s “All Things Considered” review the very postmodern, streamlined and sardonic novel by Ben Lerner, Leaving Atocha Station. In her conclusion, she states:

“It also, I must say, feels very much like a ‘boy book’ to me — all this thinking about thinking; all this meditation on language. Maybe women — so socialized into constantly scribbling ‘to do’ lists — don’t tend to write meditations like this on the instability of words.”

Really?!? Lydia Davis anyone? Siri Hustvedt? The great Helene Cixous?

I could go on, but then I would be succumbing to the very condition with which I have a problem. In both the Prose and the Wolitzer pieces, the writers attempt to ameliorate the chauvinistic structures of literary culture with examples upon examples of women writers who don’t fit the stereotypical “feminine” model, and who also can be described within the much larger categories found within the “masculine” model. For each speculative reason as to why fiction written by women might be less acclaimed, have fewer male readers, is generally more pigeonholed, Wolitzer cites authors that do not fit within these norms.

But how do these “exceptions” work with or against these norms? Might they instead beg their destruction? Might not the lists of exceptions and great women writers generate a tiny feeling of desperation, reaction, too much protestation, or even a conformity to the ridiculous way of thinking that forced all these lists and feelings?

As Prose describes, readers turn to or reject gendered generalities of the writer according to their preconceived positions. (“Oh yes, I thought her sentences looked feminine/Her sentences are not feminine, that is why I like her.”) Setting up lists and exceptions and examples does not tear down or successfully critique these myopic ways of reading and reviewing; by providing exceptions, the rules remain intact, the generalizations stay general.


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