Claire Messud on Women Writers
10 February 2010
Just over ten years ago, the Modern Library compiled a list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century: only nine of them were by women, and Edith Wharton accounted for two books… When, in 2006, the New York Times ran a list of the best American fiction of the past twenty-five years, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was pronounced the winner; but she and Marilynne Robinson (forHousekeeping) were the only women out of twenty-two titles (and that’s counting Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and McCarthy’s Border trilogy as a single book each). Just last September, when the international literary magazine Wasafiri solicited responses from twenty-five global writers about the work that has most shaped world literature over the past quarter century, just four women—Elizabeth Bishop, Mildred Taylor, Toni Morrison, and Quarratulain Hyder—were on the list. And this is in a world where women account for 80 percent of fiction readers[...]
Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men. It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.
And we don’t change our spots when we grow up. Last year, I was one of nine judges awarding an international literary prize for a writer’s body of work. Each of us nominated a candidate, and five of us were women; but only one of our nominees—only one out of nine—was female. (I myself enthusiastically nominated a man.) Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.
The stats are indeed shocking; but Messud’s explanation doesn’t sit right with me. First, the implication that my passion/admiration for the work of a number of male writers is rooted in some kind of mindless pre-programming strikes me as off-mark, even a little preposterous.
Second, we “don’t think of women at all”? I can’t think of any women writers or readers to whom this applies. So I really can’t say why Messud’s group of judges nominated only one woman.
A counterexample to Messud’s argument would be the case of the notorious 2004 National Book Award, where all five nominees were women; that year, the panel of judges was comprised of 3 men and 2 women, chaired by a man (Rick Moody). There was indeed hoopla over that, but as I recall, much of it had to do with the fact that the five writers were not “celeb” writers, i.e. none of them were household names with big sales numbers. (All of them were/are superb novelists.)
I recently had an interesting email exchange with an elder male writer whose work I admire a great deal. I asked him which female writers he admires; he provided the following (wonderful) list, “in no particular order,” which I share with you, I suppose, as part of the Yes We Do Think of Women campaign:
Simone de Beauvoir
Perhaps this particular writer has not been tapped often enough for awards committees…