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If the Product of Your Process Isn’t Cash, Kindly Eff Off.

Does Jonathan Franzen’s anointment as the latest Great American Novelist illustrate unconscious gender bias toward men? There’s a lot to consider in answering that question, but my short answer is that I agree with those you say yes.

Focusing on quantity, periodicals that review books tend to review more books by men. In regard to quality, books by women are commonly sorted into sub-genres rather than categorized as literary fiction. The numbers and discussion about this issue resonate with my experience in writing and lit programs, where the products that served as models of great writing were mostly written by men.

Our cultural failure to identify many women’s books as great literature (I won’t call it blindness–seeing but not acknowledging is not the same thing) is surely related to how great books are written. Simply put, products are the result of a process, and you get out of it what you put into it, based on the resources you have. Meghan O’Rourke observes, “[Writing a book] takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude.” Most of the women I know who are writers struggle to find time to write, even if they have strong support systems.

Because traditional gender roles pervade, women tend to do most of the consistently thankless stuff: cooking of meals, the fetching of children, the fixing of problems, etc. In a workplace with mostly male workers, women still provide the kinds of support they’re expected to provide at home. Writing is rarely one of those duties, unless there’s something uncredited to be written, like a newsletter or press release.

To be fair, in some homes and workplaces, biological sex diverges from gender role, and the people with less power do the supporting. Those situations haven’t become very common yet, but they’re worth noting, because unconscious gender bias probably has more to do with gender roles and social class, i.e., one’s place in the hierarchy.

With this in mind, I’ve got to say that O’Rourke loses me with her next comment. She writes, “I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.” How I wish I could wag my penis and get a few weeks to do nothing but write. That doesn’t happen for any of the male writers I know (except maybe one, but that dude’s going to get that thing cut off if he keeps going like he is).

Regardless of gender–and it would be nice if the debate would get beyond the m/f dichotomy–the process of writing isn’t highly valued. No one but other writers gives a fuck about my inefficient but necessarily idiosyncratic process (conglomeration of processes, actually). Unless you’re making money from the written product or the writing will in some relatively immediate way lead to career advancement, why do it? This situation is arguably as great for any writer, regardless of gender identity (or perceived gender), especially those with children to raise. They should spend time making better livings or spending time with their children, not attempting to make art, the implication being that the writer must be neglecting those two important responsibilities to make time for such a silly activity.

Anyone with other people in their lives usually must negotiate constantly to remind their loved ones of the importance of the decidedly personal work they do as writers. The only people who you don’t need to worry about are other writers and, of course, closet writers (the ones who are living vicariously and cheering you on, not the ones who resent you for trying).

Overall, there’s not a lot of support out there for writers. O’Rourke and I get back on track when she says, “If the world around you reliably reflects a slight skepticism about, a slight resistance to your talent, it’s easy to begin to internalize that notion and to strive for less, or just be turned off by the whole racket.” Damn right. She’s referring to the treatment of female writers, but what she says applies to pretty much all of us without financial backing and an established reputation. And, unfortunately, the dominant culture’s traditional inequity based on gender plays out within the dysfunctional world of publishing.

I believe this problem is connected to the top-down tradition of writers needing approval from publishers in order to gain credibility. Self-publishing isn’t yet viewed as a writer’s self-confident invitation to let readers decide for themselves. Rather, a writer who self-publishes presumably isn’t worthy of publication by a presumably legit publisher, a judgment that ignores the many variables in making decisions about which few books gets published. I’ve lost count of the number of unpublished writers whose work I would buy if a publisher would deem them worthy. Meanwhile, any controversial celebrity with money to invest in a ghostwriter can get a book deal, overcoming lack of talent, lack of interest, and, in many cases, lack of a truly compelling story.

Why should a woman with readers hungry for her work have to wait in line behind David Beckham and Sarah Palin? Why shouldn’t her readers get the chance to label her, rather than an executive concerned more about sales figures than accurately establishing the writer’s reputation? And if she can get readers to buy her work, why is that less prestigious than a gratis blog post for a corporation that really has the money to spend but won’t spend it on writers? There’s so much wrong with this picture, and it’s about as painfully obvious as a problem can get. If you’re like me, you understand why this is happening but don’t know what to do to change the machine.

Two people with some power to do something about this are Oprah Winfrey and the G.A.N. himself, Franzen. I’m not sure of the intentions of their new alliance, but it seems strange. Neither of them needs the other’s backing, right? Franzen’s new book had sold nearly 100,000 copies before Winfrey announced she’d selected his book for her club. And she doesn’t seem to need anyone to vouch for her about anything.

I guess they want to create a blockbuster (duh!), which is great for them, but won’t do much to encourage readers to try out obscure writers of any gender or titles of any genre. By sharing the spotlight, they’re pulling most other sources of light to them. The rest of us will have to live by the glow emitted from our laptops, as always.

2 Responses

  1. This is a really great post (and O’Rourke’s essay was also spot on for me). This line, especially, struck me: “How I wish I could wag my penis and get a few weeks to do nothing but write.” Half because it made me laugh out loud. And half because I found it heartening. There is a long tradition of no one thinking twice when men retreat and shut themselves off. Raymond Carver comes to mind for being notorious for this, despite having a family from a young age. But even men who are not artists are given their “man caves” where they can retreat. So I find myself pleased that perhaps fewer men are believing that message, or assuming there are no consequences for shutting the door.

    And I think you’re on to something in the last few paragraphs. I, too, wish it was an easier problem to consider here in the glow of my laptop.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response. You make a great point about the man cave thing. Makes me wonder if it’s more acceptable for a guy (you know: a real man’s man) to have a place to be alone or hang out with friends simply because he’s earned it by being a guy. Maybe “acceptable” isn’t the right word. Maybe I mean “expected.” It’s interesting you mention Carver. I wrote my master’s thesis about masculinity and power in his fiction, and as I wrote the post was sort of thinking about his writing life. Gardner gave him the key to his office so Carver had a place to write, and he went there often. I don’t know anyone who can shut out their real lives like that, as much as they may want to.

      My partner would probably go along with my devoting a few weeks to writing (wagging or no), but I’d still have to help with laundry, vacuuming, etc. (as in he would expect me to do it and I wouldn’t feel right trying to get out of it). If I could arrange to go to a retreat, he’d be okay with seeing me off for a week or two, because it would be hard to pass up an opportunity like that. We’d figure out how to make it work. Otherwise, I want to live my life AND write. If anything, I’ve been too concerned about alienating my loved ones, but once I started communicating with them, most of them understood (my partner being the most important of them). And those who didn’t–well, they won’t be getting a mention on my acknowledgments page. 🙂

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