Claire Messud on Women Writers

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10 February 2010

Interesting piece by Claire Messud at Guernica about the dearth of women writers on major awards lists:

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:

Sybille Bedford
Dorothy Parker
MFK Fisher
Margeurite Duras
Simone de Beauvoir
Jane Austen
Colette
Margaret Atwood
Isak Dinesen
Elizabeth Bishop

Perhaps this particular writer has not been tapped often enough for awards committees…

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3 Responses to “Claire Messud on Women Writers”

  1. margosita Says:

    “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.”

    I didn’t really see that implication in her essay. I think Messud is making the argument that when it comes to big prizes and acclaim, male writers are often the defualt. It’s a common theme in our culture, inside writing and outside of it. I think her point that if Harry Potter were Harriet Potter no one would have read JK Rowlings novels is true. We don’t ask boys to read about girls and “womwen writers” is still a distinct group from “writers.” Not that we need to feel guilty about loving male writers or feel that the only reason we are drawn to them is because of “mindless preprogramming.” But even the fact that we ask each other about lists of female writers to admire speaks to this phenomenon. We do think of them, but we think of them separately from other writers. Of course it is notable when there is a year when the National Book Award included a list comprised soley of women. It’s business as usual when the list is comprised soley of men.

    I do agree that it is not fair to say or imply that we don’t think of women writers “at all.” I would just argue that we still think of them distinctly from men, and this ultimately does them (and all writers/readers of any gender identification!) a disservice. That’s what I took from Messud.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Margaret, thanks for your comment. I am a great admirer of Claire Messud’s work, by the way. But this particular essay/argument really does not ring true to me. I think the implication is there — maybe even stronger than an implication — that the five women on the international panel she describes somehow failed to nominate women because of “deeply engrained cultural prejudices” of which they were “not aware,” and that, by extension, we all have such engrained prejudices. That doesn’t resonate with me at all, not even a little. I read and praise and am inspired by male and female writers alike. I’d be curious to know if Messud’s notion strikes a chord with other female writers/readers.

      Also, I don’t think that thinking/talking about “male writers” and “female writers,” or even “male writing” and “female writing,” is necessarily detrimental or to be avoided. As in any case, categories that confine should be avoided; but in this case I think in some contexts it can be productive and interesting and expansive to talk about the ways in which male writers and female writers might approach certain things differently in their work — sex, violence, language — or in their writing careers, teaching, what have you. Crude generalizations are never the goal, but rather studies that might illuminate and generate conversation. (This could evolve into a gigantic conversation about what “equality” means when it comes to gender; in my opinion, equality does not mean sameness.) So “women writers” as a term that sections off women when it comes to writing quality is bad; but “women writers” as a way of entering or exploring a dialogue seems to me important. My inquiry which yielded the list in my post grew out of a larger conversation about erotic writing, and it seems to me looking at male writers and female writers in this context is appropriate and interesting.

      As for Harriet Potter, that does seem inarguably true. But, I am hopeful: a friend of mine is currently writing a young adult novel which features a female protagonist, and we talk often about the male appeal of the book (the writer is male).

  2. margosita Says:

    Hi Sonya! I definitely agree with you that talking about ways in which men and women writers approach varying topics is fair and useful and interesting. Taking into account gender and sexuality of authors in discussing their work is something I think should be encouraged and practiced. But I didn’t feel that was what Messud was addressing, when discussing prizes and awards. She suggests “engrained prejudices”, which might be not as accurate as suggesting that often even women need to be reminded of other women. We are used to men winning prizes, I think, because for a long time there simply weren’t many women writing/publishing. This isn’t true today, yet men still win the big awards much more often.

    The essay struck a chord with me, but especially in the context that under-representation of women winning major awards isn’t limited to a single prize or even a single discipline. It’s true in writing and it’s true in, say, physics. Or Congress, if being elected to office can be viewed as some sort of prize. Prizes denote value, so even if we are all personally inspired by women writers, what are we really saying when the prizes we give don’t reflect that?

    But I am hopeful, too! I think it’ll change. We’ll give boys books with girl protagonists (such as your friend’s!) and as more women do win awards we’ll stop remarking on it’s notability. Great post, and thanks for the reply!


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