Saturday, March 31, 2012
On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women
If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.
This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”
The truth is, women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world, even as young single women are outearning men in major American cities and higher education in the United States is skewing female. As VIDA, a women’s literary organization, showed in February in its second annual statistical roundup, women get shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications. Of all the authors reviewed in the publications it tracked, nearly three-fourths were men. No wonder that when we talk about today’s leading novelists — the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women — we are talking mostly about men.