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.

Messudbio.jpgClaire 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.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

29 Comments on “Writers, Plain and Simple

  1. Claire Messud-

    I hear you. I agree with you. And I think that there should be no question that Art is Art.

    However, I do want to put in my biggest gripe about all writers — men and women — who end up focusing on one gender in their work to the cartooning or even demise of the other gender.

    I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Sula right now. Not finding a single male so far who is well rounded, understandable in and of himself, and thoughtfully drawn. Men in this book so far (I’m half way through) are foils and parables of pathos…and they die horrible deaths.

    Men do the same to women — all too often even Hemingway paints a pretty basic image of the feminine.

    This is something that happens in books about racial issues too and colonial issues, etc. etc.

    The question is: do we hold our writers up to the standards of given categories, or do we demand that they attempt to speak to the meaning of life in all its futile glory?

  2. The problem you describe has a name: gender-based censorship. And it applies to a lot more than lists and prizes. Like institutionalized racism, gender-based censorship is a structural mechanism, so prevalent it is unseen; it permeates the social locations where voice is an issue: newspapers, the web, the halls of political and corporate power, and systems of literary and intellectual prestige.

    Women’s position in the literary world reflects our position in society as a whole. And if women are still not equal in the US–check out the stats on income–we are even less so in most other parts of the world. Feminist writers have been defining and fighting this problem for the last forty years. (Some of the historical records are on my website: www.meredithtax.org) One of the highlights of this struggle was a protest at the 1986 Congress of International PEN in New York, a meeting billed as bringing together “the best writers in the world,” which had only 16 women speakers out of 117. Norman Mailer, in his inimitable way, explained that the poor representation of women was because this was a conference of intellectuals, not just writers, and while there were plenty of women writers, there was only one woman intellectual, Susan Sontag.

    There is always room within the gates for an exceptional woman or two. But only when a critical mass of women tear down the gates and open up the territory will gender-based systems of value change for good. This may be an unpleasant thought for anyone who thinks literary acclaim is won by merit alone, but in the real world, locations of power and prestige are guarded like fortresses.

  3. This reminds me of when I recently met a literary agent who only deals with women and was surprised to find myself a bit offended as a man. The bestseller lists look fairly split to me (17 of the top 35 in Hardcover Fiction right now are women.) 25 of 51 National Book Award nominees since 2000 have been women, 14 of 30 for the Pulitzer. The two most published writers in the last seven years of the top outlet for short fiction, The New Yorker, are women. There is no doubt that women are a force in today’s publishing world. Retrospective awards (about past decades) reflect a less even split, sure, but at present I just don’t see it. I find it hard to applaud the fact that you deliberately excluded from consideration anything written by a man. Thanks.

  4. I’m with FEELING LEFT OUT. Many of the male authors I know have had to change their name to sound like a woman, or suddenly start writing female protagonists. Like you say, 80% of the bookbuyers are women. It’s hard to believe they don’t make up a similar percentage of award committees. Who is it you’re attacking for bias?

  5. I really can’t believe that three out of four comments on this essay are of the “but what about the men?” variety. (See http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/phmt-argument/ for context — sorry, the comments field won’t let me make that into a real link.) Seriously, guys?

  6. I am a Canadian writer with a small profile in the US, but the phenomenon Messud describes is alive and well in Canada. It is true that women and men are sometimes well represented on our fiction prize shortlists, but younger women writers don’t win these prizes as often as men. Not a single younger (say, under 50) woman writer has won our biggie, the Giller Prize, though three or four young men writers have. I have just come through a literary season in which, out of four NONFICTION prizes, only two books by women were shortlisted–that’s two women to eighteen men. The juries for each prize were predominantly male.

    In nonfiction I find that the split is even worse because a male ethos seems to have co-opted the genre. More women are writing more novels, yes, fine. But, the establishment seems to say, consciously or unconsciously, the REAL world, the world of politics and truth the history of power, is still ours. Pffft on these silly memoirs and collections of essays, who takes them seriously?? . . .

    Anyone who looks at who controls most of the institutions that award these prizes (or at the mastheads or writers of most of our magazines) will see a predominance of men. But if you talk about this publicly or write an editorial about it in a national newspaper, you are branded as a complaining/bitching/sour-graping/feminist/ —– whatever. That’s just a reality . .. So, thanks Claire Messud.

    karen connelly

  7. When male writers review a collection for inclusion of their work and notice that the collection lacks artistic presentation of its stated purpose by omission of any voice – especially a majority of the population – then we’ll know that the next chapter of equality in judgment has begun.

    Meanwhile, there’s no consensus as to the path to get us to that level of awareness (let alone socialized subconscious). Simple statements of truth, however, help and are far too rare. I have been waiting decades to read Messud’s article. Thank you for letting in the fresh air.

  8. Let me take a self-inflicting stab at this:

    As an undergraduate in literature courses, particularly in the survey courses where most reading is of short works, I was somehow able to remember the male writers’ names. I was unable to remember the women. They all “blended together” for me. I could tell you James wrote this and Hemingway wrote that etc etc. I could tell you a woman wrote stories A B and C, but I couldn’t tell you which woman it was. The names are there, floating around in my mind, but they are unattached to their respective work.

    I have a very difficult time believing that is a natural occurrence. Without much evidence, I’ll speculate that what was happening was that my instructors tended to talk more about the biographies of male writers, talk about the way their work related to cultural and political events, and then test me more often on such knowledge. With the women writers, well, we perhaps didn’t do this as often. We definitely didn’t have as much opportunity to attach works written by women to cultural and political events, because the cultural and political events we talk about in literary history courses are Male Events, mostly understood in terms of the Male Writers who wrote about them.

    Now, when I start reading a short story without looking at the authors name, I ALWAYS assume it’s a male speaking. Always. And then I suddenly get a clue that it’s a woman and there is a shift that my mind must make — oh, this is a woman speaking. OK. It’s as if there are Authors, and then Women. My mind has been cultivated to expect Authors, who are male, but sometimes I am surprised to find the story being told by a woman. I hope it’s clear that I’m phrasing it like that for effect. Or Affect. Goddammit.

    This article was great to read. When I heard recent complaints about a top ten list not containing any titles written by women, I thought, “Well, if the selection committee had a fair split of men and women, that’s fair enough.” I figured that could be the only root of the problem. Now you have me thinking a bit more.

  9. Also, J.K. Rowling knew that she should be “J.K.” to make her gender ambiguous. Boys don’t like reading female authors.

  10. Very interesting, thanks. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading literary journals lately and realizing that the newest/hippest still feature a disproportionately large number of men. Particularly surprising given how many women are writing today. Is there something here about how women’s writing lends itself less readily to literary movements? Or is it purely a question of selection bias?

  11. Reading North American women writers in general – from Alice Munroe to Mary Gaitskill – one finds that they almost never write interestingly about men. It is a female-only world. Not always, but mostly. It’s a curious limitation, and should one be tempted to observe that male writers do the same in reverse it would be well to point out that from Flaubert to Colm Toibin, that is very often not the case. Show me a book by an American woman that explores the male world as sensitively as Toibin explores women in “Brooklyn.” You’d be hard pressed.

    Maybe American women writers, by and large, are not writing for the world stage at all. They are very privileged operators in a provincial, insular American culture that is less globally relevant than it thinks it is. They have little connection to anything outside it and mostly they write about themselves. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing very compelling about it either.

    Complaining about a lack of women writers in prize lists is like complaining about the lack of non-Jewish writers in New York media. Does it mean anything? Is it relevant to anything? No area of a culture can or should have proportional representation. If women choose male writers, maybe they do so because male writers in some contexts are better. Possible?

  12. Lawrence, how on earth can you appoint yourself a judge of how well male authors portray women’s experiences? You being a man, things that ring false in a man’s portrayal of womanhood would slip right past you, where things that ring false in a woman’s portrayal of manhood might not. All you can say for sure is that there exist male authors who can write a sensitive portrayal of what the woman’s world looks like from a man’s point of view. I’ve largely given up on male authors, aside from a few, because I’m tired of how incompetent they are at writing women. I don’t doubt that women are writing men just as badly, but as long as I don’t notice, it doesn’t ruin the book for me the way a poorly-written woman does.

  13. @Lawrence: What Meg said, but also it is telling that you call it a “limitation”. To the extent that it is true, could it not be a reasonable *choice*? Moby Dick is all about male experience, yet few question its claim to greatness on that account. I’m not by any means suggesting that women *should* focus on female experience, but if they do, what of it?

    Odd that you would point the finger at American female writers while offering only non-American male writers on the other side. If you’re going to cite Toibin and Flaubert, I don’t see what grounds you have for ignoring, say, George Eliot, or Virginia Woolf, who do as good a job at rendering certain sorts of male experience as any.

    Sure it’s “possible” that those male writers winning prizes are just better. It could also be the case that, when rolling a loaded die, you get the number you would have rolled anyway had the die been fair.

  14. Nobody will ever see the world from any point of view other than his or her own. To describe the internal existence of a woman ought to be impossible to a man (although one imagines Tolstoy did a pretty good job.) However, the job of a novelist does not stop at describing the internal experiences of someone rather closely resembling himself. An objective (or a reasonable approach to an objective) description of people’s visible behaviour with others ought to be possible. Deeply introspective writers tend not to be good at this. Trollope gives us very real and complex women; Dickens doesn’t.

    Neither Jane Austen nor either of the Brontes give us the inner workings of the hearts and minds of men. They give us believable pictures of the behavior of men in society; that is enough.

    In answer to Lawrence: both Flannery O’Connor and Willa Cather wrote some very real men. If you had told me that “Everything that Rises Must Converge” had been written by a man, I would have believed it: and the whole story takes place in the mind of a man.

  15. “Neither Jane Austen nor either of the Brontes give us the inner workings of the hearts and minds of men. They give us believable pictures of the behavior of men in society; that is enough.”

    Well put.

  16. Nice to see this. The writers she’s picked are all writing about exciting worlds I know very little of. Can’t wait to read their work.

  17. Lawrence,

    My first novel Harbor is almost exclusively about men. And my second novel, which came out this week from Knopf, is about the American military in the world.

    One of the problems my books have is that because I’m a woman writing about men I tend to disappear. You, for example, know nothing about my work.

    I don’t know why.

    But it’s been chasing me.

    I just keep my head down and write.

  18. Thank you for writing this. I am a female sophomore in college, and have to admit I spent almost my whole life thinking that women were inferior writers to men – until college, part of me subscribed to a bizarre theory that the absence of women writer’s in western canon was the product of a natural difference in talents, that women were not intended for literary genius.

    Having spent two years studying history, reading hilary mantel and sylvia plath and arundhati roy has changed my mind. And it’s wonderful to see such an eloquent, clear description of a dilemma I think most of us are hesitant to acknowledge.

    So: thank you!

  19. Claire Messud,

    I bought all Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work and have just finished the most talked about “Half of a Yellow Sun.” I have all respect for her, for all the efforts but I must say that from page one to the last, I found the book feminine; it lacked masculinity. You may ask what that was and my response would be that I do not know but it was a feeling that I had, a feeling that the pages left me with.

    Again, this did not reduce even by an inch my rspect and admiration for this daughter of Ndigbo.

  20. Perspicacity.

    You live
    in the world
    with a great
    your delicate
    eyes invent
    in a moment
    a beautiful

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  21. Your article was amazing and true. I am a writer (not a well known one, but a writer, nevertheless) and I am currently writing a novel in which a woman leaves her husband and her ten month old baby. I belong to a writing club — men and women equally divided — and all are quite well educated — and recently I was lambasted by three men because “in real life a woman would never leave her child”. One man has never had any children, another (in his late 40s) married rather late and they have gone to China to find a child to adopt (I am not negating adoption here, please note). The third is a recovered alcoholic/drug addict, who was on the street for many years before recovering. I am certain he left his family (or they left him and I never hear him mention his children). So it’s okay for a man to leave his wife and children, but never for a woman, oh no. There are different rules for each gender, obviously.

    One of your commentators, David Biddle — a man — says “even Hemingway paints a pretty basic image of the feminine.” For God’s sake Hemingway was the most sexist writer that ever lived!!!!!!!!!

  22. Messud’s points are very true, and the comments that follow are very telling!

    Messud’s point is insightful: “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.”

    A later post added that “Also, J.K. Rowling knew that she should be “J.K.” to make her gender ambiguous. Boys don’t like reading female authors.”

    Likewise, the unequal representation of women in the poetry world has been a topic of discussion since at least the 1970’s–I remember reading articles about this in the American Poetry Review in about 1975 or 1976, with many letters in response to the (three male founding) editors in following issues. There was a lot of discussion about this then, at least at Syracuse where I was doing my graduate degrees. All face to face–there was no online communication then.

    Indeed, even now, 40-odd years later, a quick glance at lit mag mastheads, and at print and online ads and web sites for writers festivals and conferences and programs, etc., will show that the majority of positions (paid ones, at least)–executive editorships, directorships of writing programs and conferences and festivals, including those that focus on poetry–are held by men. (The managing editors, associate directors, the day-to-day operations jobs, are often held by women.)

    But many women have stepped up and participated more fully in literary citizen activities–founding magazines and presses, directing programs or starting programs if they don’t get hired to edit or direct any magazines or programs already in existence-–to make their own places in the world of literary decision-making. Literary citizenship, or literary entrepreneurship it could be called.

    For inspiration, I look to Tree Swenson, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, and to editors like Chase Twichell, Kate Gale, Mariela Griffor, Christine Holbert and Rebecca Wolff (to name a few) who have started independent presses and/or magazines, many of which focus on poetry. Most of these editors are poets themselves.

    If one puts onself out there, takes the initiative to start magazines and presses, volunteers and applies for positions of literary citizenship and decision-making, and persists in her efforts to contribute, and is still not chosen, then she has at least called the bluff of those who say that many women aren’t willing to take on these roles.

    We women writers must cultivate normal cordial relationships with male writers, and support their work; but always to be sure to support the writing of other women. Will such support even out the (perceived and / or actual) imbalances? Who knows, but not to support each other certainly won’t help.

    The situation is far better, of course, than in England in the 1840s, when, fearing that “authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, 1311), *Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell* sent their novels to publishers from the parsonage on the Yorkshire moors; and since the 1850s and 1860s, when Marian Evans, even with a supportive common-law husband and an admiring circle of fellow intellectuals and readership, published as George Eliot and is still known by that nom de plume.

  23. Are we leaving out here that readers somehow expect to without fail, find their own stories reflected back to them in the fiction they read? I for one am not the least bit interested in reading my own story in fiction (if I were I would read my own unwritten memoir) which is why I steer clear (mostly) of say, Nick Hornby. But given that its only human that we expect to see ourselves in the novels we write, it does not surprise me that men do not wish to read stories about failed pregnancies and girlfriend bonding anymore than women do not wish to read the novels of say Richard Price which are all about boys being boys. But yet, female readers do. How do we explain that? I think cultural bias is a bit overblown. Perhaps lack of curiousity about how the other half lives?

  24. I love Toibin’s _Brooklyn_ and found his portrait of Eilis very compelling. But having just had a chance to hear him read from the novel, I can say with some certainty that his very construction of the character relies on some fairly sexist assumptions which challenge the idea that his writing is a paragon of verisimilitude. You see, after the reading, I asked Toibin whether the absence of certain cultural markers of Eilis’ movement in the Irish diaspora was meant to suggest something about the her isolation; he replied, with mild irritation, that he hadn’t written the novel “sociologically.” To understand how disingenous the statement, it’s necessary to note that he had already spent quite a bit of time explaining how he’d researched the sociology and history of Brooklyn itself. What’s more, he doubled back and explained that if his character had been a man, he would certainly have found a pub, “mates,” and sport, and in that case, we would have seen him circulating in the diaspora. It was with his next and final card, then, that Toibin missed the “river,” as it were: he allowed that the novel was really a study of the psychology of Eilis and thus it was necessary to not get caught up in sociology. His account was classic: women don’t really belong to the social and political world and thus women make excellent canvases on which to explore psychology. Woman as tabula rasa! My point is that when we say men write women better than women write men, we need to consider what counts as apt representation in each case.

  25. I have always gravitated to the central voice of female writers. I feel they come from a selective point of view, after being told for ages, of selective charachters both male and female, what there values would be, or could be with regard to facts and then some fictional accounts that life throws out. Parents with out resources affect many choices both male and female. There are errant facts that underline difficulties in reaching and attempting to challenge society and other ideals, that are not about a person, but a instituition.

    People are always redefining who they are in contrast to their goals, the goals that others who are kind and unkind to them as well. People have many ways in which to approach a subject such as writing, are males dedicated to the sense of how a woman has influenced his life for the better or the worse? Is a woman writer enhanced by male that has been a center figure for life?

    Thematically it may be harder to compare central figures giving shape and hoping to illuminate comparisons in both failures and successes. There needs to be a central belief that writing is all buy a creative process, but really should be a essential therapy for both personal resoulution and familial disputes and dispostions.

    Since many men are and will continue to be in male dominant roles, even with feminist that provoke and share common grounds in ways of fiances, school, careers, there is still much evidence that the there are differences in resolving personal issues with regards to fiances, as to what one sees as necissity and the other sees as necissity. So there is always evidence that the two sexes think differently and therefore continue to share different ways of cohabitating, cooking, sharing responsibilities, and ego related aspects. I would hope that writers share their stories with love and meaning. People need to be understood, and understanding those that are most flat, most unsubmitting to facts, to evidence, only show that the ground under their feet is stated. That person, needs to walk and know that not everybody stands on the same ground.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *