sing it sister

This woman should speak her mind more often. Here’s the beginning of an essay by Erica Jong originally from Publisher’s Weekly, just showed up on Huffington Post. And here’s a link to the whole thing.

Just for the record: Fear of Flying came out when I was seventeen, and I read it almost right away. It was one of those books that changed the way I looked at the world.

Ghetto (Not) Fabulous

Jeffrey Eugenides had his moment, then Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. But the chair for the Serious Novelist is rarely held for new women novelists — unless they are from India, Iran, Iraq, China or other newsworthy countries. American women novelists are more often bracketed as genre writers — in chick lit, romance, mystery or historical fiction — and quickly dismissed.

Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity (Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer and Kiran Desai come to mind). Of course, there are exceptions, like Annie Proulx and Andrea Barrett. But they tend to write about “male” subjects: ships, cowboys, accordions. There’s Pat Barker, who gained the most respect when she began to write about war. Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian and therefore gets a longer leash than most North American writers. And Isabel Allende, a wonderful writer, who has become our token South American female.

But deep down, the same old prejudice prevails. War matters; love does not. Women are destined to be undervalued as long as we write about love. To be generous, let’s say the prejudice is unconscious. If Jane Austen were writing today, she’d probably meet the same fate and wind up in the chick lit section. Charlotte Brontë would be in romance, along with her sister Emily.

7 Replies to “sing it sister”

  1. Thankyou. This was a priceless link – fun for the whole family. Daughter laughed over “Soooo many fingers.” I still use your link to Longmire does Romance for a pickmeup.

  2. At some point, it feels futile, then other times, like a rallying call. Do we just need more female reviewers/critics/lit instructors? When will the tide turn and men will be saying that war matters too? Hopefully they’ll say it when no living generation has experienced a war, and it’s completely irrelevant. But love? Some sci fi writers make it out to be irrelevant. No answers, just humanity, eh?

  3. I agree about Canadian women authors, however it’s still a small club, not easily broken into by talented newbies. Also, I was wondering do the American’s (excuse my ignorance) have the equivalent to the Gilly Awards?

    I agree with Pam that perhaps we need more female critics/reviewers/lit. instructors. But, then again, there are many women writers out there and it’s the publishing house that decides what is best and not so much the author.

    I recall once looking for a Diana Gabaldon book and actually found it under Sci-Fi at my local used book store, I felt that was small progress but progress nonetheless.

    As I was reading this, my first thought was but you’re being published and that’s better then not being published and that’s when I continued to read and saw this

    Feminism didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what — or who — matters. I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers. They may grumble about the chick lit ghetto, but they dare not make a fuss for fear they won’t be published at all. Their brashness is real enough, but they accept their packaging as the price of being published. My generation expected more. We did not always get it, but at least categorization outraged us. Where is the outrage now? …Damn! She’s right.

  4. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we’d better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded.

    There’s a lot of frustration in this statement, and I share it on some points. But it’s also passing the buck, and seems to imply that I and every other female presently working in the industry aren’t doing anything to improve the way women are treated by Publishing.

    I beg to differ. We haven’t given up. I think we’ve learned from the mistakes of the old wave of feminism, and are taking more subtle and subversive routes. Hostility is great for calling attention to a cause, but if you really want to make effective, long-lasting changes, you have to infiltrate the existing system and work from the inside. Which is what women have done on every level of publishing over the last thirty years.

    I also think there’s a big difference between working to make conditions for women in the industry better, and wanting our girl-cootie-covered butts kissed by male critics while they assure us that we’re just as good as the guy writers.

    We don’t need their approval. We need to take their jobs away from them, become their bosses, buy their companies, and dominate the industry the way they have since Gutenberg cranked up the first press. When we run everything, then we’ll talk respect.

  5. I rant about this all the time, and was pleased to see in the longer version that Jong’s thoughts match mine almost verbatim in places — just because it makes me feel like I’m not crazy. Especially the part about how when men do it — write about the concerns women have been writing about forever — it’s treated as some significant development. I would substitute the word “domestic” for “love” in terms of the category of writing, but one thing I’ve noticed is that when men write what gets called “Domestic Fiction,” by some critics, in reference to female authors, it’s usually called “Suburban Fiction” instead. Why? Maybe “Suburban” fits more seriously into a picture of “the American tradition” of fiction as practiced by… men. Cheever, Updike etc. Richard Ford writes Suburban Fiction, though Robb Forman Dew does not. A more recent example that CHAPPED MY A**: Tom Perotta. I liked “Little Children.” Domestic fiction. It fell right into a long tradition of writing, largely by women, but that didn’t get mentioned, much. His book was not called “Domestic,” but “Suburban” in whatever major review I read — NYT? And as such, was more salesworthy, and more movie-worthy than, oh, 50 other just-as-good books I’ve read in the past 5 years or so. And: Can we talk about “Plainsong?” Harrumph!

  6. Lynn — I probably should have said that Jong wrote this piece in response to an editorial by Jane Smiley. Taken together the two pieces are interesting. I do agree that women have to be proactive on their own behalf inside the biz, but I also believe that basic respect is where we start, not what we aspire to.

    Stefanie — oh, wow. I never thought that through, the sububan vs. domestic. Right in my face, and I didn’t see it. That kind of peripheralization of things important to women is so insidious and so universal, you get numb.

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