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April 12, 2012

So I am required to support stupid women writers now?

I am confused. Meg Wolitzer writes an essay about how “women’s fiction” gets lumped into one big bucket of dross. Essay gets writers talking. Writers begin taking offence to distinctions being made in that big bucket of women’s fiction, dross and all. Apparently we’re supposed to embrace the bucket. “Support Women Writers!” becomes a rallying cry, caveats forbidden. Jennifer Weiner tweets, “Thing that drives me crazy: essays re: women’s lit that begin, “now, I’m not talking about ALL books by women, just the ones I approve of.”” But isn’t the problem in the first place that too many people are talking about ALL books by women like it’s just one thing? Someone else makes a video called “Support Women Writers! (But Not The Stupid Ones)”, and I’m thinking, “Right on! Oh, wait. This is supposed to be sarcastic?”

So I am required to support stupid women writers now? The ones whose stupid books are the reason women writers get such a bad rap in the first place?

I support women writers not out of a knee-jerk sisterhood reaction, but because I know that our literature is richer for the inclusion of female authors and female characters in the canon. I know that our magazines and journals (which, incidentally, are not exactly part of a thriving industry, so perhaps they might heed a bit of advice) will be better when they cease to neglect work by half the population. I support women writers because for reasons related to prejudice and marketing, so many great ones are being passed over by the other half of the population who themselves are losing out on essential reading experiences.

“The difference of value persists,” wrote Virginia Woolf (and also wrote me), but the commercial/literary divide wasn’t the difference we were writing about. This argument keeps getting hijacked over and over again.

UPDATE: A line from this wonderful post about “girls books” and “boys books” is applicable to the women writers issue: “The secret is that it simply has to be a good book.” And while I agree that dividing children’s books by the gender of their intended readers is bad for everybody, it’s complicated because I do acknowledge that there is such thing as a woman’s book in terms of adult fiction: “…it would be a fallacy to pretend that all fiction is universal; worse, to demand universality as a quality standard is to say that drawing-room women are insignificant, that sisters, wives and daughters do not matter… [But] I can’t help but wonder where the onus lies in the failure of women’s writing to achieve universality – what is it that lets us down, the stories or their readers?

The point is that the gender line (sometimes) exists, but as readers we all have to be fearless and open to challenge enough to keep on crossing it, to teach our children to cross it too. The secret is that it simply has to be a good book.

4 thoughts on “So I am required to support stupid women writers now?”

  1. m says:

    You know what’s crazy? That we live in a world where you have to write this sentence, that it isn’t a given: “I support women writers not out of a knee-jerk sisterhood reaction, but because I know that our literature is richer for the inclusion of female authors and female characters in the canon.”

  2. Nico says:

    I’m not sure I’d agree that there is such a beast as a “woman’s book” in adult fiction. Is there a man’s book? It sounds like the old adage that a man’s experience is universal, while a woman’s is particular, and that grates.

    1. Kerry says:

      I’m uncomfortable with it too, but my understanding of it is qualified and mutable. As I wrote in my CNQ essay: “Women’s literary fiction” is often distinct from literary fiction in general, either because it reads as such (with the squirting nipples, breaking water and placenta on a plate – if a man had written this book it would be surprising), or because it’s come into the world via a woman’s pen and is therefore received differently from literary fiction in general (which is to say, men won’t read it). Sometimes both of these things are true, sometimes one is, and sometimes neither.” And I do think there is such thing as “a man’s book”. Also, I think there are books by men and women which are neither, which is not to say that they are “universal” or “better”. The problem is the value judgement that comes with all things feminine/womanly, which is a bigger problem than just in literature.

      Anyway, I understand your problems with these ideas. I’m not certain of them really, and I’m grappling with them all the time (which is better than certainty, actually, I think).

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