Book Review Review: Women’s Edition

Meg Wolitzer wrote a lovely essay in the NY Times Book Review about the gender imbalance in what is known as “literary fiction.” (See my definition below the fold.) I am so glad she wrote it, and it got published, and cited Vida’s annual studies of women’s publication rates in prestigious literary outlets.

I just wanted to add a little bit of reader’s perspective. Of my personal perspective as a book-loving feminist. Yeah, I said it. People are still surprised to hear that. That I love books. Hah, no. That I’m a feminist. I hope that we live in a world where I can publish that online and still get a job! (I used an exclamation point to seem fun! Not dour and self-important!! Did it work??!!)

When I left academia, I felt a surprising craving to read novels exclusively by women. It could have been because the legacy of 70s-style feminism wormed into my brain. It could have been because I needed some comfort, a comfort I felt–wrongly or not–would come more from women writers than men. But I think it was most likely because I spent 10 years of my intellectual life thinking deeply about male writers–and thinking about their masculinity.

Specifically, I was reading novelists David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathen Lethem, and Haruki Murakami as exploring privilege from the perspective of people who, culturally speaking, are not used to not having it.

I don’t believe there’s a “women’s way of writing” any more than I believe there is a “men’s way of writing.” But I believe that their perspectives can be different. I took seriously the masculinity of the writers in my dissertation, which not many scholars do. Some people assume that by thinking about them as men–and talking about their gender, rather than ignoring it–I’m just talking about how they write about women. And yeah, sometimes those guys write about women in a way that I don’t much like. But thinking about them as masculine means so much more. And I wrestled with that for a while.

But now that I’m more or less out of that game, I sometimes want to read from an authorial perspective a little closer to my own. So sue me!

Anyway, I have found myself browsing bookshelves looking for books by women that a) I haven’t read already and b) don’t reinforce stereotypes about women. This is my definition of literary fiction: novels that don’t reinforce stereotypes. In particular, stereotypes that women care most about getting married and getting thinner and getting a bitchin new outfit. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes, as Meg Wolitzer points out, I can tell by the cover if it’s a book that I might like. Sometimes I look past the bare feet in the sand, or the dress in the window, or the ankle in a spike-heeled sandal. But usually, I don’t bother looking past the cover if it has those images. Those images make me presume that the book will reinforce stereotypes.

Pardon my language, but it sucks. Because if I rule out books like that, and books that I’ve already read, I end up with very few books by ladies to browse, borrow, or buy. I have to consult with The Internet to look up all those women writers I missed out when I was studying the dudes so hard. And then write down their names, and put the paper in my wallet, and remember to take out that paper when I’m at the library or bookstore. Or end up reading the New Yorker for a month and live without a novel on my nightstand.

But who wants to live like that?

So publishers, please take Meg Wolitzer’s essay seriously and give more opportunities to women writers and reviewers. And bookstore owners, please buy those books and sell them. And put little notecards in from of them about how awesome they are. And do your social media thing. Give a few tweets. Let’s change the conversation, change Vida’s numbers, and change our attitudes about what women writers are capable of.

I want more than what you are giving us, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Readers who have made your way through the thickets of the Internet to get here: what do you think? Do you think there should be more women writers out there–for books, TV, and movies? How do you think we can make that happen?

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13 thoughts on “Book Review Review: Women’s Edition

  1. George Carr says:

    I think you’re just exposing another facet of the digital revolution. Where 20th-century institutions (bookstores and cover designers) have been unable to bring worthy books to your attention, 21st-century institutions (online reviewing communities and teachable recommendation software) will come to the rescue. Try listing your favorite hundred books at goodreads or Amazon; the suggestions will swarm out to meet you.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hah! You are right. I was being a tad disingenuous about my own failures at the library & bookstore. But on the other hand, it’s hard to parse/filter the reccs at those sites, as well. You get quantity, but not necessarily quality.

      Interpreting your comment more broadly, you could be suggesting that a bottom-up pressure on publishers that way, utilizing the digital media, maybe effect a little more parity at the top?? Could be. I should probably buy more books for that reason.

  2. Melissa says:

    Yes! I love this post, and I wish I had something smarter to say about it than “Heck yeah!”. I will scour my shelves for you, though. Have you read any if Anne Lamott’s fiction (not memoir — women seem to be fairly well represented in memoir). Of course, at this moment I have Swamplandia on my bedside table at your urging. Let’s keep this going, this search for women’s contemporary literary fiction. Have you read Joan Didion’s fiction? I know you’ve read Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson and the like. Ok, I will keep pondering. Big hugs!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Didion–check. She scares me (I mean, her sentences scare me with their fierce perfection). I haven’t read everything though, so that’s on my list, for sure. Anne Lamott–haven’t yet! Any specific recs? Also, yes, memoir is the Women’s Genre. And I love it! You may try Karen Tei Yamashita. I think I have reviewed at least a few of hers on Goodreads. I also think everyone I know should read Eat the Document, but Dana Spiotta. Which I probably also claimed on Goodreads. I would love to keep sharing with you!

  3. Gene says:

    You’ve made me think. And to imagine that I know a blogger…

  4. Babette says:

    Dana Spiotta! Just now wrapping up Stone Arabia with Eat the Document next up. She can write circles around most anyone and, in Stone Arabia anyway, she touches on lots of
    Wallace-ian (?) themes.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yes, I read Eat the Document last fall. It’s amazing. Stone Arabia is now on my list! Looking forward to it.

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