I. Two moments in May
May 2, 2011. The novelists Siri Hustvedt and Céline Curiol are giving a talk at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The shop is filled to bursting, and the audience spills onto the sidewalk outside. The topic of their discussion, they announce, is the ‘strange bias against fiction in general and fiction by women in particular.’ Men don’t read books by women, they lament; women’s writing seems only to appeal to other women. ‘Would you have written the same book if you were a man?’ Curiol reports having been asked on numerous occasions. The question, she implies, has become so banal as hardly to be worth answering: ‘Yes, no, maybe,’ she says. Both authors dismiss the idea that men write as men, and women write as women.
‘Novels do not have a gender,’ says Curiol. One audience member, an emissary from the French feminist group La Barbe (‘The Beard’) berates them, quite aggressively, for turning literature into a battlefield. Hustvedt protests: ‘You’ve misunderstood entirely what we were trying to say.’ Meanwhile the bookshop’s owner, Sylvia Whitman, shakes her head in bafflement as she’s asked to account for the actual ratio of male to female authors on the shop’s shelves.
May 20, 2011. I’m at an academic conference in Paris. A graduate student gives a paper on a novel about partition by the Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa, making what seems to me to be an innocuous yet perceptive argument on the vexing ways in which gender and colonialism intersect in the novel. During the discussion period, the student is dressed down by the two (female) faculty members chairing the panel. ‘Do you really think Sidhwa has anything to say about partition that’s different from Salman Rushdie just because she’s a woman?’ The student is silent. ‘Don’t work only on women’s writing,’ one professor, a placid blond with an immobile page boy haircut counsels her. ‘That goes for all of you,’ she says. ‘It’s been done, and by people much older than you. It’s over. Find something else to work on.’
I’m gobsmacked. I’ve just defended my PhD on British women’s writing of the 1930s. My advisor, Jane Marcus, helped found feminist literary criticism in the US. Neither she nor any other feminist scholar I’ve encountered has ever said to me Our work is done; why don’t you work on something else? I’m suddenly terrified that I’ve been pouring my heart and soul and all my time for nearly a decade into a field that is considered wrong-headed and irrelevant by the rest of the academy. By concentrating on women’s writing, had I effectively locked myself up in a room of my own, out of touch with the world?
For years I accepted unquestioningly the value of what I was doing. I had gone to a women’s college, found an abundance of feminist professors with whom to work in graduate school, and was awash in secondary source material on subjects like mine. But in those first few months after I received my degree, I began to seriously think about whether or not it was worthwhile to study women’s writing for its own sake, or whether the concept of ‘women’s writing’ was still useful and important. I found myself uncomfortably nostalgic for a time when feminism was unquestionably useful. Today, especially in the supposedly enlightened groves of academe and the literary world, many people are complacent about gender and inequality; they think that at least in North America and Western Europe those questions have been answered, that to prolong a discussion would be to split hairs, that a prize for women’s writing is pointless (or, hilariously, sexist).
I thought of a passage in the prominent feminist critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s book Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work:
In 1971 it washed over me … that all of culture from the very beginning would have to be re-seen with feminist eyes. Everything would have to be remade – all cultural products, all fields – name them! In a millisecond, far beyond drowning in the enormous sea of this, I lifted up as on a gigantic green-blue-gray wave. Riding the “second wave”? A long march through texts and institutions is more like it. Everything! Remade! Ever since, I have been doing what I could. It’s not euphoria or fashionableness. It’s more like Conviction.
I admired DuPlessis’s Conviction, but my own was shaken. How valid was it, in 2011, to keep trying to re-see through feminist eyes? The seeds of doubt were sown.
II. Writers, Pure and Simple
Women’s writing is a subject that really gets people riled up – see brouhaha in early 2013 over the all-girl Costa Prize shortlist, the ongoing debate over whether the Orange should still exist (it doesn’t, Orange having withdrawn its funding; in 2013 it was awarded as the privately-funded ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’; the liqueur producer Baileys has now stepped in to lead its name and its brand to the prize), the statistics revealed by the VIDA count (which year after year shows a disturbing imbalance in favour of male reviewers and authors amongst many prominent magazines and newspapers), or 2010‘s Affaire Franzenfreude (that is, ‘taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen’ in the wake of the publication of his novel Freedom). Writing by women simply isn’t read, received, or written about in the way writing by men is.
It’s also a subject that gets very knotty very quickly – are we talking about writing by women writers for women readers, writing by either sex that is written for women readers, or anything written by women? ‘Women’s fiction’ tends to signify not only low literary standards, but small domestic subjects, or as Virginia Woolf put it:
Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, “trivial”. … 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.
Freedom was billed as the Great American Novel, while similarly ambitious novels, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, were considered really good books – she beat Franzen to the Pulitzer – but not revelations of who and what Americans are. Never mind that in an overlarge, diverse country like the US, the idea that one novel could speak for a quintessential ‘American’ experience is totally devoid of meaning; no, Franzen’s novel did not speak for us all. ‘It takes the authority of a male voice to write from the centre of culture,’ Hustvedt said in Paris that night in May. ‘As women, we’re just barking from the margins.’