e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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It Ain't Equal 'Til It's Equal...

A friend's Tweet pointed me to this article on gender bias in NYT book reviews.   The article is spot on, IMO, in its general intent--to point out that what women write is judged differently than what men write.   Since I am just a few days out of learning that an Austin paper wrote the annual pre-convention article about ArmadilloCon and once again (as in past years) did not mention any women writers attending.  Despite having had the problem pointed out in previous years, and the reporter having been put in touch with a number of prominent women writers.

The comments to that article made it clear that the same attitudes of gender bias about writers in the 1950s and 60s, when I was in school and college, are still alive and kicking.    There are writers (who are men and need no qualifying adjectives) and women writers (who are a separate class, expected to be less suitable for academic study except in specialized "women's studies" programs, although a few Queen Bees have been brought in as proof of non-bias.)

I posted the following there (but am not sure it actually showed up) in response to that article:

As someone who writes both science fiction and fantasy, I have to say this article hits the center of the target.  Although there are many outstanding, award-winning female writers in both fields, a newspaper article about the upcoming regional SF convention near here mentioned only male writers (some of them dead, and some of them with no fiction currently in print.)   In a discussion of this incident,  Vonda N. McIntyre, Hugo and Nebula-winning SF author, commented that articles usually mention women only if about women-writers.

The situation with publishers has improved somewhat...but isn't equitable yet, in that women have had concepts (important in SF) rejected for being "too crazy" while the following year the same concept from a male writer was promoted as exciting and brilliant.   Reviewers of SF/F often concentrate on what they see as "touchy-feely" elements in women's work and not on the "hard" elements that are also present.   Some reviewers clearly feel that women's writing should fit their concept of what women write--apparently so they can dismiss it.

More generally, the notion that most men cannot be interested in the inner or personal life of women--that they cannot connect with a female POV--has resulted in a consistent review and study bias against women's writing.   Willa Cather, for instance, was stigmatized as "merely regional" ( an excuse given in the 1960s for her exclusion from the academic canon for American literature) while William Faulkner, even more "regional" in topic, was always on the list.   Writing by women was excluded from general (lower-level) college courses in the '60s; women were expected to "get" the sexual insecurity of adolescent white suburban males and the angst of older ones; the reverse was certainly not true.

The reasons people give for not reading books by [name the group] say more about those readers than about the books they won't read. 

Adding to that for this LJ post:  women make up half the human race.   What interests women should interest men as much as what interests men should interest women.  Obviously, some men are interested in fiction by women (I have many male readers) but the perception that men can't be expected to be interested in a female protagonist--can't be expected to get inside the head of a female protagonist, even attempt to grasp that POV, those interests--suggests that men are innately inferior (since women are expected to, and do, read male POV characters and "get" what interests them and why.)    When it is possible to dismiss women's interior lives and interests (even those limited interests recognized by sexist reviewers) as irrelevant to men (who share the planet with women, and depend on women for the continuation of their own genes), something is very, very wrong.  

Reverse that and imagine the howls of outrage.   What if women--even a substantial fraction of women--treated books by men as a special category, if they worked from the concept that  writers = women, and men who write = "men's writing?"   If they refused to read books by men, or with male protagonists...if they regarded all such books as a limited subset of 'real' fiction?   If 90+ percent of the books taught in college lit classes were by women; if books by women were preferentially reviewed in major review venues?  If they heaped critical scorn on books for any sign of "male-centric" topics or attitudes ("But, as usual, X writer clutters an otherwise modestly competent novel with typical boy-toys as Shawn, the protagonist, spends far too much time thinking about his motorcycle, playing games on his computer, and the boys at the tavern..."  "Women can't be expected to waste their time on a book that has no rounded female characters in it and a male protagonist  who sees women only as sex objects..."  "Yet another book showing that men simply cannot cope with the emotional complexities of real life..." )    

But instead, most women read and enjoy books by men as well as books by women, and some women go the whole Queen Bee way and defend male-written books as "more serious" than books by women.  I would like to see anyone say that New Zealand writer  Keri Hulme's Booker Prize-winning The Bone People is "less serious" than any book in the world....like it or lump it, it's a brilliant work...but was rejected by major New Zealand publishers before being published by a women's collective.   Hulme is both female and part-Maori.   I just struggled through a highly praised NZ literary trilogy, by a highly praised and awarded male writer, that was published by a major publisher (Penguin.)   It is dull, repellent, and predictable (especially in landing hard on all the lit-crit checkpoints)  and though it contains all the elements of a woman-written family saga, it manages to make them...well....boring to this woman reader.   (It's taken me 2 1/2 years to read this thing, and both my husband and a female editor friend have refused to dig into more than a few pages.)

For their mental health and character growth, persons of both genders should read widely in  fiction by persons of both genders.   Where the attitude of another gender feels uncomfortable, it's time to stop and ponder--is this really how that gender perceives reality?   Could that be a heretofore unrecognized reality?  What circumstances make that perception of reality, that set of values, reasonable?   (If the reader says "Nothing!" the reader needs to ponder longer.  Maybe study some relevant nonfiction about how that gender is shaped by that culture.)  It is not necessary to agree with any character, of course, but coming to terms with fictional characters--play-acting someone else's life--is one way to prepare to engage other peoples' reality in daily life.   (The ability to "play-act" is considered essential in the development of social awareness in children, for instance.   It's used a specific therapeutic technique with autistic children and others who have social difficulties.)    Fiction can help develop a more accurate "theory of mind"--a more accurate understanding of how other people think, how they are likely to react to situations, and what shapes those reactions.  

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in one of her essays that she had been asked by a male reader how she was able to write realistic conversations between men.   She was, she recounted, astonished that her questioner was so unfamiliar with women's conversations as to think men's were completely different.   Men and women are both human.   Both genders have legitimate interests in everything that touches human lives.  

Including fiction. 

Tags: gender in writing, the writing life
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