Are women artists inferior to men artists?

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…
Woolf has a thing or two to say about this. Just look at that smirk.

Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)

Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?

As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.

Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.

It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:

Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”

It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.

This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.

Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.

I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?

And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.

So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)

Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.

Week 6: Writing and editing a short story

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Week 6: Writing and Editing Stories

Deep down, every journalism and English major just wants to be the next great American novelist. Journalism is a particularly helpful disguise for this rosy ambition, because it at least carries with it some tinge of respectability (although perhaps not anymore). You get a job as some underpaid slave to the newspaper industry, staying up till ungodly hours just to finish that paragraph-long story about city council that won’t even have your byline on it, and for what? For fulfilling the dream of someday writing your masterpiece and making it big.

I walked away from my university with a degree in journalism and English, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. I’ve loved words since I was practically a baby; according to my mother, I apparently taught myself to read when I was 3 (although I might have just been memorizing those Lady and the Tramp books). I remember my grandmother asking me when I was 6 what I was going to be when I grew up. I stood at the top of the staircase and shouted, “A WRITER!”

Today, however, I don’t think I’d call myself a writer. I am a zealous reader and work currently as a copy editor/publications assistant, but I’m not really a writer. I don’t believe that I ever could be a novelist, much less a great one, and so I half-heartedly start dozens of these short stories and then abandon them after I get discouraged. I squirrel them away on my laptop and don’t show anyone, ever. (Especially not my brilliant husband, who IS a professional writer and a very gifted one at that.) These stories that litter my hard drive feel like my shameful indulgences.

However. Thanks to encouragement from a few blind, loving souls (Guion, Angela, and Emily), I decided that my challenge for this week would be to give those stories some much-needed attention. I have no starry expectations for them. I still don’t plan on sharing them with anyone. But, for me, a large part of the joy of writing is finishing. I haven’t finished a story in forever. So, I think it’s about time.

A Fake Writer’s Diary

DAY 1. As we were cleaning up dinner, I asked Guion what he did when he hit a wall. He shared some advice from his sage professor, short story writer and affirmed genius, Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg says that when she’s trying to get to know a character better, she will write little adjacent stories that describe something that happened to that character. The little story never makes it into the larger work, but it is an important effort in getting to know the people that live in her pages. Tonight, I tried to do this with my stubborn characters. It felt a little bit like cheating, but I think it helped.

DAY 2. Today my lesson to myself was to write focus on dialogue, even if I was producing terrible dialogue. I was thinking particularly of Franzen, who I most recently read, and his impeccable grasp of dialogue. His characters’ conversations seem effortless and believable and yet essential to the movement of the story. I don’t know how he does it. One of the realizations I’ve come to today is that fictional dialogue does not necessarily have to be a verbatim replica of how people actually talk. Characters are, after all, naturally hyperbolic and we need them to accomplish things with their speech that we may not otherwise accomplish in real life. Today I’ve decided that I am going to be OK with that.

DAY 3. I wonder if it’s a problem if my protagonist is totally unlikable. Do all protagonists need to be sympathetic?

DAY 4. It’s really dreary to hear writers talk about their writing. I don’t think I call myself a “writer,” though, so maybe this won’t count?

DAY 5. Today I taught myself the lesson that there is nothing sacred about the beginning of the story. Even though this was the first thing I wrote for this piece, it does not necessarily mean that it must stay. Especially if it’s bad. Beginnings can change. So can endings.

DAY 6. Writing by hand is difficult, but I like it. I think I write better on paper and edit better on a computer. I didn’t bring my laptop on our Triangle trip and so I am happily relegated to the good old-fashioned notebook and pen.

DAY 7. OK, so I didn’t write today. Too busy. I will forgive myself.

Despite my somewhat sporadic attention to this task, I made more progress with this shabby little story this week than I have in months. I will count that as a successful weekly challenge.

Next week, I will undergo what is by far the easiest challenge of them all: To wear the same necklace every day for a week. This is largely inspired by Catherine, who would wear an accent piece with everything for a month. Except that she always looked great and I might not.