November 18, 2013

Women writers on sexism in the industry


Julia Fierro, one of five female writers interviewed.

On Friday, Brooklyn Based published a wide-ranging set of responses from five female authors on sexism in publishing, primarily fiction. Orli Van Mourik begins her piece by briefly covering the last few years’ arguments and hot topics, connecting the dots between Jonathan Franzen, VIDA counts, and Francine Prose‘s “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” among others. “In the intervening years” since the time of “#Franzenfreud,” Van Mourik writes, “what started as an upswell of anger has begun looking more and more like a movement.”

Van Mourik compiles an article that includes five distinct voices, and many more implicit, and which ultimately provides a wide-ranging primer on the subject. “While many of us want to improve access and opportunities for female writers,” Van Mourik notes, “our priorities and passion projects can vary wildly.” Her article—including responses from Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, and Adelle Waldman—manages to web many of these thoughts and opinions together in a small space.

The piece is full of eloquent thoughts from some of our most important working female writers. Here is Roxane Gay on being asked what she feels versus what she thinks, inspired by Eleanor Catton‘s remark that “Male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel”:

I’ve been asked both what I think and what I feel and I don’t really mind being asked what I feel. I am human. I have a heart.

And Adelle Waldman on the same question:

When I first read [Catton’s] interview, I instinctively nodded my head in agreement. It sounded right to me. In my experience, I think people are quick to assume I wrote my book [this summer’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.] to work out issues that are personal to me, a grudge against an ex-boyfriend. I think people generally have an easier time imputing intellectual and aesthetic playfulness to a male author than they do to a female author—they can understand a woman writing from hurt or rage more than from a place of greater dispassion or from sheer aesthetic pleasure.

In other words, male authors are allowed a objective detachment women aren’t. In the next question, on whether there is indeed a tendency in women’s work to be more “feeling” than “intellectual,” Waldman continues:

I’m not sure I agree with the premise of this question. I don’t think there is an inherent tension between the seriousness of the work and its subject matter—I’m not sure writing that is about private life should generate more “feeling” questions, even if the work itself is concerned with feelings. […] I think seriousness is a function of something other than subject.

This applies, too, to the commercial vs. literary fiction debate, particularly addressed in respect to authors like Jennifer Weiner. Julia Fierro admits that most writers would like both worlds, but that male writers are more likely to achieve it:

Many writers (me included, and who can blame us) want to accomplish both–we dream of being commercially successful, selling many copies of books, AND winning literary awards, scoring that review in The New York Times, etc. Few writers accomplish both, and when they do, it seems that they are often male writers (see the Jonathans—Franzen, Safran Foer, Lethem—and Jeffrey Eugenides, Chad Harbach). It’s also worth noting that many of these men are writing about so-called “female topics,” like relationships, domestic life, emotions.

Towards the end, Fierro also addresses possible change in the industry:

We can only work hard, think hard, both with plenty of empathy, on making these discussions more nuanced, so they include women writers of all style, genre, race […], and women writing for all kinds of audiences.

Lydia Millet expresses a similar hope in response to a question about who should call out sexism, implicating all writers in the discussion:

We have a simple but arduous duty: to do the best work we can, to investigate and recognize the best work we can, and to treat others as we wish to be treated.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.