Recently, in most interviews I've given, the question keeps popping up as to whether women writers have an especially hard time publishing serious literary fiction that also takes risks with either content (graphic violence or sexuality) or style (formal innovation). This is a difficult question for me because, whether naively or accurately, I've always tried really hard to think of the literary world as one of the few in which sexism has become a less rampant problem. I'm not sure why I've clung to this belief--perhaps it's as simple as the fact that most agents and editors in the corporate publishing world ARE women, and therefore it's hard to believe the publishing industry could be a sexist industry. Perhaps it's because so much focus has existed in academia on moving beyond the Dead White Male club of canonized literature, and in graduate school women writers often dominated in contemporary American classes: Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Louise Erdrich, Mona Simpson. Maybe it is because the common wisdom--and statistics--tell us that women are the main consumers of books (if smoking is also increasingly the domain of women, so is reading--I'm not sure what this says about American culture.) Given all this, how can it be true that the book industry is prejudiced against women?
The truth is that it doesn't make sense--it doesn't, and yet there it is, a truth all the same. As Elizabeth Merrick points out, far far fewer women have short fiction published in top venues like the New Yorker; the New York Times Review of Books covers far fewer books by women than by men. And increasingly, any woman who writes a story or novel in which dating or relationships plays any role at all is accused of writing "chick lit." (Apparently prior to the rise of chick lit, no one ever wrote about love and relationships.) A friend in my writing group was recently pressured by her editor to retitle her linked short story collection so that it would SOUND more chick-lit-ish, even though it is, in fact, quite literary, because editors are concerned with selling books, and chick lit sells. Many smart, literary fiction writers who happen to be women bemoan this cultural development and have become self-declared enemies of chick lit--feminist bookstores here in Chicago hold panels to debate the validity of its existence and heavy-hitting writers like Cris Mazza and critics like Jessa Crispin turn out to have their say against this dumbing-down of women's writing. And a part of me agrees with them.
But another part of me wonders if chick lit can really be the problem. After all, male writers like John Grisham, Michael Crighton, Dan Brown, etc., dating back to my childhood when it was Sidney Sheldon, have been writing certain "types" of literature for decades without it threatening male literary fiction. Does the fact that the world loves a good Grisham court drama (that's what he writes, right?) mean that Brett Easton Ellis and Michael Chabon and John Updike are going to be encouraged to write courtroom thrillers, or that the publishing industry will convince itself that no one wants to read EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED anymore? Well, certainly (despite the success of the odd literary title like the former), more people DO read Grisham than read, say, Ian McEwan. So how come young (usually white) male literary writers continue to be all the rage in certain corners of the publishing industry? Why has no one declared that what men really do well is write thrillers and horror stories; why are there no panels on how Dan Brown has threatened literature by men the way Helen Fielding has apparently threatened literature by women?
It seems to me that the truth here has far less to do with books and more to do with the fact that, like it or not, women are still viewed as the "other" or "alternative" to the norm--that norm being men. Therefore, while men can be multiplicitous in their interests, talents and achievements, women continue to be herded like cattle into one small corner labeled "women's writing," and apparently with the rise of all Bridget Jones' followers, there is no longer much room in the corral for the followers of Margaret Atwood. If men can write books about war, family, work, love, murder, politics, sex, crime, conspiracy, etc., then women must CHOOSE what we write about, and if we are not choosing correctly or quickly enough then the publishing industry (remember, most of them are women) will choose for us. If book clubs like Oprah's have a penchant for plucky heroines who overcome great odds to triumph in the end, then that is what we should write. If the reading public has a predilection for chick lit, then any woman not writing chick lit is no longer "marketable".
This is a threat to literary fiction in general, to be sure. But it is an even greater threat to a certain type of literary fiction--the kind that, like Corrina Wycoff's (the author of the second OV Books collection) takes emotional risks with unpalatable, graphic material and dares to freak the reader the hell out. Because if women are still going to be "allowed" to write literary fiction (and it seems we are still being permitted to publish serious fiction, albeit in smaller and smaller numbers) then these books should be, dare I say, the literary equivalent of chick lit. They should be inspirational, at least at the end. They should feature a conventionally sympathetic heroine to whom the reader can relate (not a requirement, apparently, if you are a dude and have just handed your editor the manuscript of FIGHT CLUB.) The writing should be pretty, restrained and subtle. Less is more. Never mind that there was a time in which Kathy Acker (house mother of the more-is-more school of thought) was finding publication with large houses, only a decade or so ago--those days are over. New York has its eye constantly peeled for the next THE LOVELY BONES, in which something scary may happen, but our wounds are salved by a heaven that resembles summer camp, by grade school sweethearts who end up married, by a mother who leaves but comes back, and by a villain who's impaled by an icicle in the end. Enter a writer like Wycoff, where redemption is hard to come by and heroines never learn to love themselves (or even their own daughters) and doors start slamming pretty quickly.
Male writers can write about bastards, assholes and killers--even literary male writers. Think AMERICAN PSYCHO (albeit that book might have a harder time today than it did when first published, and if the writer weren't already famous he would probably have just found himself on a very short list of people to be investigated by the government.) Women writers . . . well, one of my professors in graduate school, Chris Messenger, used to say that women writers "write about pie." He was referring to a very specific scene in LOVE MEDICINE, and he was being ironic. But if women writers don't exactly write about pie, and maybe don't even write about women who know how to bake pie, then they are supposed to write about women who WISH they knew how to bake pie.
Pam Houston once said to me that the most a reader can ask from a book is that it shake her to the core. How many books by women thesedays are being allowed to adhere to that imperative? Surely there are women out there writing such books, but the industry is increasingly afraid to touch them. And the more books by men ARE allowed to unsettle, frighten, worry and challenge their readers, while women's books are supposed to calm, amuse or inspire them, the more literary fiction will become the domain of men--because literature, real literature, has always been emotionally challenging and fraught with risk. If we no longer permit women to give voice to risk, we are ghettoizing them, if not to the domain of chick lit then at least to the domain of pie.
I laughed my ass off at Bridget Jones' Diary when I read it in Amsterdam in 1998. I even sent it to a friend who reminded me of Bridget, and she loved it too. Now, I find myself feeling guilty. This was pre-Bush, pre-9/11; who could have guessed a cultural revolution was coming to the United States? I was under the mistaken impression that Kathy Acker and Helen Fielding could both exist--that the universe of fiction was big enough for them both. In the past 5 or 6 years, it seems I am being proven more and more wrong. I just wonder, by the time the cultural pendulum swings back, how many promising women writers of the next generation will already have been silenced.