In 1908, H.L. Mencken declared, “Nine-tenths of our readers of books are women and nine-tenths of our women get their literary standards from the Ladies Home Journal.” Mencken may have been onto something. Women read more than men. They buy more books than men. But what, precisely, is being offered to today’s female reader? And what “literary standards” are in play?
Nearly 100 years after Mencken’s snide comment, the American publishing industry has demonstrated a mounting fixation with literature that panders to a certain triptych of “women’s issues” — men, Manolos and martinis. A summer display in the window of Atticus, one of New Haven’s bookshops, boasted pink and black “DIVA” letters arcing over a motley collection of fiction reverencing this Holy Trinity. Among them: “Shopaholic Takes Manhattan,” “The Dirty Girls’ Social Club” and “The Best Things in Life are Draped in Blonde and Wrapped in Pink.”
Ahem. This epitomizes the much-vaunted “chick-lit” genre that, by all accounts, is sweeping the universe. While I will not claim to have read each of these books and thus cannot conclusively judge them on their merits, the content of works like “Pushing 30” and “Bergdorf Blondes,” also in the display case, seem crushingly geared toward reductionist perspectives on the modern woman.
This woman is fabulously dressed and does fabulous things, preferably in London or New York City. She is white. She is well-off. She is a shopper, a dater and sometimes a worker, though inevitably holds a glamorous, undemanding job that allows her to embark on a series of shopping, dating or work-related mishaps that the blurb on the back will describe as “uproarious.”
This admittedly simplistic assessment should serve as a general warning sign. The post-feminist movement has failed in some critical way. The women in these novels (and who write these novels) are “empowered” and “independent.” They have come so far that they can now revel in the frivolities that fostered stereotypes of weakness in the past. But the joke is on them. The preponderance of female writers who stick closely to such content betrays the storied history of female authorship. From Sappho to Mary Wollstonecraft to Jhumpa Lahiri to Rita Dove, women have written well, and about socioeconomic, cultural and situational realities far broader than the narrow world of the Chiclet chewers.
A handful of early women authors used pseudonyms for greater access. George Eliot and George Sand were Mary Ann Evans and Aurore Dupin; the Brontë sisters wrote as Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell. Thanks to them, some consider the novel itself to be a feminine literary form.
So why write as a man? Eliot chose her pseudonym, she claimed, not because it was unheard of for women to publish novels (many did), but because she did not want to be catalogued as a writer of romance, piety and the retiring feminine affect. In an 1856 Westminster Review, she wrote a treatise on women in literature called, ironically, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Stifled by the realities of her own time, she took women writers to task for the frivolous and narrow territory they had staked out for their sex. Mr. Eliot, it would seem, had a problem with novels “determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them — the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.” This statement can be accurately mapped onto the litany of titles observed in Atticus’ window. How disappointing it is that a century and a half of feminist discourse later, popular literature seems no different from the environment Eliot sought to escape.
But who is attacking the devolving state of “female” literature today? There were a dozen chick-lit titles in the window display and dozens more lurking on the shelves of the store itself. Why? The industry’s return to titles that barely deviate from the often-ridiculed bodice-ripping genre cannot be attributed to any one simple reality.
Firstly, the diminishing voice of the female author in the circles of literature comes at the hands of a willing audience. Danielle Steele, Janet Evanovich, Sophie Kinsella and others are fabulously wealthy and successful writers, buoyed by the gusto with which female readers devour their faithfully written, ritually published pop novels. I will not begrudge these women the same success as Steven King or Michael Crichton. Nor their readers a quick Jimmy Choo fix. But the perceived demand for such books squeezes out those female writers interested in more “serious” literature. A publisher takes a chance on a work like “The God of Small Things;” “Life, Love and the Pursuit of Hotties” promises greater returns.
This reality forces a segregation of content–and of gender. One need only look at the Modern Library’s list of the Best 100 novels of the past century to see the damage that has been wrought. Two women break the top 50, of only nine in total. This is a representative injustice.
The segregation goes further. Each sex is an enabler. The ever-quotable Mencken later defined a misogynist as “a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.” His maxim translates well into the field of literature. According to its wisdom, “silly novels” by women allow men to freely ignore the efforts of an entire sex.
Eliot concurs:”The most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form, because it tends to confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of woman. When men see girls wasting their time in consultations about bonnets and ball dresses… they can hardly help saying, ‘For Heaven’s sake, let girls be better educated; let them have … some more solid occupations.'”
For at heart, the publishing world does not ask men to read “silly” works by women; no one expects a man to reach for “Blondicapped” or “In Her Shoes.”
Equally to blame is a phenomenon I’ll refer to as the “cult of the young male author.” This cult, devoted to the promotion and glorification of male writers, has operated perennially. In their turn, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Truman Capote, Phillip Roth, Paul Auster, the Bret Easton Ellises, Dave Eggerses and Jonathan Safran Foers of our climate have benefited from the cult’s worship. This has little to do with the merits of their work (which, in many cases, is quite fine). Rather, the literary world trusts these men; it values the gender behind the words and pushes for their success. Flameouts notwithstanding, these men are inevitably described as “brash,” “intelligent” and “incisive” by various reviewers. For this cult reveres the first novel, the 20-something male who just might be on the verge of genius.
With few exceptions — Carson McCullers and Harper Lee in their time, Zadie Smith and Marjane Satrapi in our own–women get the critical short shrift. But these literary darlings are older, fewer and far between, and often the woman behind a staggeringly good first novel is rarely ushered into the hall of “personalities” that so clutter male literary circles. This decades-long trend has left behind a popular readership unaccustomed to hearing critical praise for women writers.
Ask any male reader of today (which includes many of my colleagues at Yale) which books by women he has read recently, and one is likely to draw a confused stare. Ask him which female authors he has read ever, and he may mumble something about Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf. If he has been subject to a properly progressive secondary education, he may cite Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan. Members of this last set (and many others) are frequently trapped in both their femaleness and their minority status. Their writing is presumed to hold more gravitas; their color drowns out the woman writer alarm. Straddling two or more genres, they are placeholders meant to “round out” the casual knowledge of a largely male, largely white literary world.
There is hope — perhaps Oprah is the new Ladies Home Journal. Chicklit.com is a site enthusiastically not about the shoe-shops-and-weight-loss genre; its primary focus is “women who love words, and books, and reading, and writing.” How about that. For all of the women worldwide who couldn’t access a book to save their lives, let alone live the chick-lit “cosmopolitan dream,” this new definition is heartening. “Chick-lit” ought to grow into this new meaning, one that does not presuppose a separate audience and fluffier content.
So, enlightened reader — what’s the last book you read by a woman? How far back do you have to go? Five books? Or fifteen? Double points if it wasn’t for school.