Women make up 80 percent of the fiction reading audience in this country. So why, guest fiction editor Claire Messud asks, are women authors so frequently left off the best-of lists, and left out of prestigious book prizes?
The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”
As an American writer of the early twenty-first century, I agree with her wholeheartedly. An artist’s work is in no way limited or defined by her gender. To allot space, then—such as this fiction section of Guernica—to women writers specifically is, surely, to limit and define them—us!—by an irrelevant fact of birth. Why not, at that point, organize a fiction section comprised of blue-eyed Capricorns from Atlanta?
American literature is world literature. This is fiction for a global generation. Here are some fine examples of it, by a diverse group of immensely talented young writers who just happen to be women.
And yet, when given the chance to gather a selection of writers for the magazine, I didn’t hesitate: I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists. This is not a question of the writers’ quality but of our society’s habits, and of a habitual—and primarily lazy—cultural expectation that male writers are somehow more serious, more literary, or more interesting. When awarding laurels of various kinds, it is all too often a matter of who one thinks of first: if one thought twice, things might look a little different.
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. Were there really only eight women writers of major significance in those 100 years? Not in my personal canon, at least. 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 (for Housekeeping) 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. See “Why Women Read More Than Men,” by Eric Weiner.
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 absence of women from lists and prizes leads, then, to the future absence of women from lists and prizes. Now, lists and prizes mean nothing, of course; except that they inform curious readers about who and what to read.
So this is why my contribution to Guernica is devoted to younger women writers: because I’m urging you to read this work, to read these writers, thinking it’s quite possible you haven’t yet discovered them. Obviously, there are lots of brilliant women writers not included here; and these seven remarkable women form no cohesive group. They write from different perspectives and record vastly different worlds: Chimamanda Adichie’s posh Nigerian matriarch wouldn’t converse with Sefi Atta’s hard-up middle class Lagos narrator, even though their sharp observations of their shared society would shock and intrigue one another. The kids from Holly Goddard Jones’s middle school in small-town Roma, Kentucky, would never cross paths with Elliott Holt’s well-heeled Beltway-raised Helen, unless they all became writing students in rural Pennyslvania, in a class taught by Porochista Khakpour’s volatile and eccentric exiled New Yorker, Azita. Lorraine Adams’s Arash, deeply rooted in his family house in Lahore, would be baffled by Hasanthika Sirisena’s American-raised Sunil, a good ole boy suddenly at sea in Sri Lanka. These characters, like their creators, may have few obvious things in common; but they all share a vividness, an immediacy, a force of literary talent, that impress upon us not only that American fiction is vitally alive, but that its reach is wide, its concerns broad, and its understanding of the world complex.
American literature is world literature. This is fiction for a global generation. Here are some fine examples of it, by a diverse group of immensely talented young writers who just happen to be women. I’d like to think that Elizabeth Bishop could not object.
Claire Messud is the author of three novels and a book of novellas. Her most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children, was one of the New York Times’s ten best books of 2006, was long-listed for Britain’s Man/Booker Prize, and has been translated into over twenty languages. She writes articles and reviews for numerous publications including the New York Review of Books, Newsweek, Bookforum, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. She teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College, and lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.