On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women

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But some of the most acclaimed female novelists wrote shamelessly and authoritatively about women. And the environment must be receptive to this authority, recognize it and celebrate it so that it can prevail. It is no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today – Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson – rose to prominence at an unusual time when the women’s movement felt everywhere. Stories, both long and short, and often about women’s lives, have suddenly gained prominence in cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to some extent the early 80s, initially seemed to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some claimed they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a single woman could be allowed on the so-called male team, literary women began to reach critical mass and become more than anomalies. But while this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, over time it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, poet and literary critic, says, “I think there’s always room for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one at a time. For every woman, there is room for three men.

Cue the thunderous disagreements and counter-pleadings, of which there will always be a notable handful: Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith, being two current examples. “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan, won both a 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2011 Pulitzer Prize and is the subject of rhapsodic discussions by both genders. In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer for her tie-in stories, “Olive Kitteridge,” a collection that book groups love and women would have given to the men in their lives, who sometimes, to their own surprise, adopted. And, very occasionally, a true “event” is made of a novel by a woman, most recently “La femme du tigre”, by Téa Obreht.

These exceptions might lead us to think that we may be headed for some sort of literary idyll in which men and women sit under trees in the sun, eating figs and debating passages from Kiran Desai or Jeanette Winterson. But just as women are suddenly fighting again for access to contraception, VIDA statistics suggest that women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and given as much attention as men’s. The American Academy of Arts and Letters has only 33 women among its 117 literary members. Even prestigious literary prizes do not necessarily change everything. In the past three years, more than half of the National Book Critics Circle awards have gone to women, and in the past two years, the National Fiction Book Awards have gone to women – Jaimy Gordon and Jesmyn Ward – but so far none have made a huge cultural splash.

“I think the awards for men are just highlighting something that already exists for them,” said novelist and short-story writer Lorrie Moore. “In many cases, prices themselves may not have as much independent power as confirmatory power.”

Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for ‘A Thousand Acres’, said: “When I think of my own work, I think maybe it’s between two stools, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s wrong – not to make the money that Jodi Picoult makes, without reaching the status of Franzen or Wallace. Nevertheless, one of the great things for our generation of women writers is the freedom we have felt to write on every topic we want to write about. Are we less innovative than guys? I don’t see that. But if men aren’t used to reading women, it doesn’t matter how innovative we are.

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