Beyond the Measure of Men

By

Here we are again.

In the New York Times Book Review, Meg Wolitzer takes up the matter of “women’s fiction,” in her essay, “The Second Shelf.” She does a fine job of addressing the ongoing, fraught conversation about men, women, the books we write and the disparity in the consideration these books receive.

It is a shame that I can point to any number of essays that take up the issues of gender, literary credibility and the relative lack of critical acceptance and attention women receive from the (male) literary establishment, with equal skill and precision. It is absurd that talented writers continue to have to spend their valuable time demonstrating just how serious, pervasive, and far reaching this problem is instead of writing about more interesting topics.

When we look beyond publishing, when we see that we’re in a country where we’re having an incomprehensible debate about contraception and reproductive freedom, it becomes clear women are dealing with trickle down misogyny. What starts with the legislature reaches everywhere. Just this week, the co-creator of Two and a Half Men flippantly said, with regard to women-oriented television, “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods,” and, “…we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation.” The 2012 National Magazine Award finalists have been announced and there are no women included in several categories—reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism, and columns and commentary. Every single day there’s a new instance of gender trouble. Some men aren’t interested in the concerns of women, not in society, not on television, not in publishing, not anywhere.

The time for outrage over things we already know is over. The call and response of this debate has grown tightly choreographed and tedious. A woman dares to acknowledge the gender problem. Some people say, “Yes, you’re right,” but do nothing to change the status quo. Some people say, “I’m not part of the problem,” and offer up some tired example as to why this is all no big deal, why this is all being blown out of proportion. Some people offer up submission queue ratios and other excuses as if that absolves responsibility. Some people say, “Give me more proof,” or, “I want more numbers,” or, “Things are so much better,” or, “You are wrong.” Some people say, “Stop complaining.” Some people say, “Enough talking about the problem. Let’s talk about solutions.” Another woman dares to acknowledge this gender problem. Rinse. Repeat.

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Seriously. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers.  You aren’t compromising anything by attempting to achieve gender parity. Publish more women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers. If women don’t respond to your solicitations, go find other women. Keep doing that, issue after issue after issue. Read more widely. Create more inclusive measures of excellence. Ensure that books by men and women are being reviewed in equal numbers. Ensure gender parity in the critics reviewing those books. Nominate more deserving women for the important awards. Deal with your resentment. Deal with your biases. Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem. Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation.

Change requires intent and effort. It really is that simple.

***

The term “women’s fiction” is so wildly vague as to be mostly useless. “Women’s fiction,” is a label designed to sell a certain kind of book to a certain kind of reader. As writers, we have little control over how our books are marketed.  And let’s be clear—“women’s fiction,” is a marketing term meant to either encompass the subject matter of a book or its author, or both. These conversations are so difficult because we are forced to deal in gross generalizations like, “women’s fiction.” We are beholden to these arbitrary categories that are, in many ways, insulting to men, women, and writing.

There are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special “women’s fiction,” designation, particularly when those books have the audacity to explore, in some manner, the female experience which, apparently, includes the topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood, as if women act alone in these endeavors, immaculately conceiving children and the like. Women’s fiction is often considered small fiction, a more intimate brand of storytelling that doesn’t tackle the big issues found in men’s fiction. Anyone who reads well knows this isn’t the case but that misperception lingers. As Ruth Franklin notes, “The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.”

Narratives about certain experiences are somehow legitimized when mediated through a man’s perspective.

Consider the work of John Updike or Richard Yates. Most of their fiction is grounded in domestic themes that, in the hands of a woman, would render the work “women’s fiction.” While these books may be tagged as “women’s fiction,” on Amazon.com, they are also categorized as literary fiction. They receive the accolades. They garner the respect. These books are allowed to be more than what they are by virtue of the writer’s gender while similar books by women are forced to be less than what they are, forced into narrow, often inaccurate categories that diminish the content of the book.

I recently read James Salter’s excellent short story collection Last Night, a book filled with stories about men and women and marriage and the infinite ways people can fail each other. It is a gorgeous book, one that is often concerned with the experiences of women. In one story, a wife demands her husband ends an affair with his gay lover and the muted agony of the situation is palpable for all involved. In another story, a group of friends catch up on their lives and at the end, we learn that one of them is dying, doesn’t know how to share that news, and so she tells a stranger, her cab driver, who in the wake of her confession, frankly assesses her appearance. A woman meets a poet at a party and becomes fixated on his dog, starts behaving strangely. These stories are not so radically different from stories by, say, Joan Didion.

I continue to find that there are more similarities between the writing of men and women than there are differences. Aren’t we all just trying to tell stories? How do we keep losing sight of this?

***

When did men become the measure? When did we collectively decide writing was more worthy if men embraced it? I suppose it was the “literary establishment” that made this decision when, for too long, men dominated the canon, and it was men whose work was elevated as worthy, who received the majority of the prestigious literary prizes and critical attention.

Male readership shouldn’t be the measure to which we aspire. Excellence should be the measure and if men and the establishment can’t (or won’t) recognize that excellence, we should leave the culpability with them instead of bearing it ourselves. As long as we keep considering male readership the goal, we’re not going to get anywhere. We’re going to remain trapped in the same terrible place where we measure women’s writing against an artificial, historically compromised standard.

***

The label “women’s fiction,” is often used with such disdain. I hate how woman has become a bad word. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from, “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write.

I don’t care if my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. I don’t care if men don’t read my books. Don’t get me wrong. I very much want men to read my books. I want everyone to read my books but I’m not going to desperately pine for readers who aren’t interested in what I’m writing.

If men discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, if men are going to judge a book by it’s cover, or feel excluded from a certain kind of book because the cover is, say, pink, the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance and women writers can’t fix that ignorance no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.

This is where we should start focusing this conversation—how men (as readers, critics, and editors) can start to bear the responsibility for becoming better, broader readers.

***

Reading remains one of the purest things I do. As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I derive a great deal of joy from reading—high brow, low brow, I’m into all of it. Nearly every day I chatter happily about the books I’m reading to my Twitter feed and it’s great to be able to talk about books without worrying about all the problems of publishing. It’s great to always remember that reading is my first love.

I don’t want us to lose sight of the joy of reading because we’re all too focused on the bitter realities of how our reading material finds its way into the world and struggles to have a fighting chance.

Two of the best books I’ve read this year have reminded me that when we spend more time talking about publishing than we talk about books themselves, we’re forgetting what matters most.

In Forgotten Country, Catherine Chung tells an inexpressibly beautiful story about a Korean family with a complex history, a family with secrets, a father who is dying, a sister, Hannah, who has disappeared, and a sister, Janie, who dutifully stays with her parents, who follows them back to Korea to watch over her dying father and who must, reluctantly, try to bring her family back together before it is too late. The story builds quietly, meticulously, and Chung does a masterful job of weaving the past with the present, incorporating mythology and memory in ways that both captivate and haunt.

I became so immersed in the sensuous, powerful writing, I found myself holding my breath over and over because I wanted nothing to interrupt my reading experience. The way Chung uses language is lyrical and entrancing. More than once I was moved to tears by the simplicity and the poignancy of how Chung detailed the intimacies of this family.  After the narrator, Janie, is injured in an incident at school, she and her family by “unspoken consensus” sleep in the same bed, find solace in one another. After they say goodnight, and all is quiet, there is this: “I listened to my family breathe, steady and warm. I fell asleep quickly, shielded by the fortress of their bodies, their fragile bones.” Time and again, Chung crafts these lovely phrases that reveal such moments, such moving juxtapositions.

Forgotten Country is also about the difficulties of the world that force people to leave the only home they know. The novel is an immigrant story about trying to find home in more than one place and the price the search for home can exact. When the narrator, Janie, reflects on her family first leaving Korea, she says, “My mother did not want to go to America: this much I knew. I knew it by the way she became distracted and impatient with my sister, by the way she stopped tucking us into bed at night. I knew it from watching her feet, which began to shuffle after my father announced the move, as though they threw down invisible roots that needed to be pulled out with each step.” As her family tries to plant roots in their new homes, Janie realizes, “I had always retained a keen sense of what had been denied our family, of what we had lost.” In this regard, Forgotten Country is also about a family trying to recapture what they have lost, trying to find their forgotten country.

This is a novel of layers, where each layer reaches toward the novel’s satisfying conclusion. There is the mystery of why Hannah has removed herself from her family. At first you don’t even realize how that mystery is unfolding and then, suddenly, you do realize the immensity of what has happened. That moment takes your breath away while it breaks your heart. In its own way, Forgotten Country is about the unfortunate things that happen to girls and young women and the far reaching effects. Throughout the story, we also see how sisters can be cruel to one another before they can understand the magnitude of that cruelty. We see the burdens sisters carry for one another and how certain bonds are indelible. The novel seems quiet but when you consider the complexity of the novel, the intricacy of the layers Chung has crafted, Forgotten Country is anything but quiet. If you read one novel this spring, let it be Forgotten Country. I cannot overstate the joy this book brings.

The twelve stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, are, at first glance, stories that reflect anxieties about motherhood, marriage, and mortality. In many of the stories, women are more willing to commit to themselves than the men in their lives and in that these stories reveal women who possess both vulnerability and a fierce, uncompromising independence. This makes for a refreshing combination. The stories are deceptive, though, because each story also engages the natural world in some way and reveals the natural world for the violent, uncontrollable place it often is. Each story reveals how we are all animals surrounded by animals, how we can barely manage to be tame together.

At first, you don’t realize what has befallen the narrator in, “Saving Face.” Lila, a veterinarian, has two things to accomplish—a visit to a prison farm and dinner with her fiancé, Clay. And then we learn that a wolf hybrid “had taken most of her lip.” She was beautiful and then she wasn’t and in the aftermath of the accident, Lila has to make sense of moving through the world with her new face and she had to make sense of her relationship with Clay when she no longer looks like the woman with whom he fell in love. When Lila reflects on what happened with the wolf hybrid, she realizes, “There were no promises, no obligations between living things… Not even humans. Just raw need hidden by a game of make-believe.” This lack of promises or obligations between living things is revealed in some way in each of these stories. Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a fine example of writing that is both intimate and vast in cope. There is always more to each of these stories than meets the eye.

The collection explores not only the world as it is but the world as it might soon be. The year is 2050 in “The Artificial Heart,” and the place is South Florida, the Keys. Through subtle details we can see how the world has changed and not for the better. People mostly avoid the sun. There are few fish left in the polluted waters. And yet. While the environment suffers, a daughter is caring for her elderly father who is being kept alive by an artificial heart. He is looking for love even though he is losing his mind and his girlfriend is more interested in his daughter’s partner than her own boyfriend. It’s a story that reveals how no matter how the world might change or fall apart, some things will remain the same. The human heart won’t change.

In “Yesterday’s Whales,” Lauren learns she is pregnant and struggles with what to do. Her partner, Malachi, believes in the extinction of the human race, believes that through the extinction of mankind, nature can reclaim the earth. At the same time, he is a vegetarian who eats bacon. He is a man, it seems, who is selective about his unwavering principles. As Lauren tries to rationalize her pregnancy, she thinks, “Maybe the universe was making an example out of me: You are an animal. You are a mammal. This is what your body wants.” Lauren tries to figure out what she wants and how that fits with what she believes and what her partner believes. The tension of the story builds slowly with Malachi insistent about his most fundamental beliefs and Lauren realizing that perhaps her belief in herself, her body and the child it could produce, is the most fundamental thing of all. The story ends with Lauren facing Malachi to have the difficult conversation. “I looked down and saw the hope within my body as I began to explain, my raw and stupid hope.”

Despite the dark edge in these stories, an edge that reminds us of the baseness of the world, of the difficulty of having to share the world with other animals, the writing in Birds of a Lesser Paradise offers the reader so much, “raw and stupid hope.” This collection, in tone and content, reminds me of ecology, the study of how living organisms relate to each other and their environment. Within the book itself, Mayhew Bergman has created her own ecology. Each story belongs to the book as a whole and could not exist as successfully without the other stories, could not exist as successfully in a different ecology. Most impressive of all is how Mayhew Bergman’s writing is unflinching but tender. She allows that unexpected combination to coexist and in doing so, she has written one of the finest short story collections I’ve read.

***

Here we are again.

I have to believe we keep having these difficult conversations about gender and publishing, no matter where we stand, because we carry a raw and stupid hope that someday we will have acted with enough intent and effort, we will have created enough change, we will have created better measures. I have to believe we continue having these conversations so someday there is nothing left to talk about but the joy and complexity of the stories we write and read. I want that joy to be the only thing that matters.

Can you just imagine?

***

First image credit.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →