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The Debate Over Gender Disparity In The Arts — And Why I'm Sitting This One Out

This article is more than 7 years old.

I always thought I knew exactly where I stood on prejudice and discrimination (against) and anti-bias work (for), and that I’d be unequivocally committed to working for greater equality no matter who or what the oppressed group. I grew up in a family where racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, fascism and lots of others “isms” were routinely discussed around the dinner table. And I was thoroughly on board: Marching on Washington, going to NAACP dinners, singing union songs with gusto. In fourth grade, that was me proudly heading off to school wearing my “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” t-shirt.

During the past several years, the issue of gender disparity has received an unprecedented amount of attention in a field near and dear to me: literature. As a writer of fiction, nonfiction and literary criticism, I have — or ought to have — serious personal stakes in how the conversation goes. And yet, I have a confession to make: Not only am I reluctant to get involved, I’m downright turned off by the whole debate.

I’ve wondered whether I’d be more inclined to act if we were talking about writers of color, say, or writers with disabilities: any marginalized group I’m not a member of.

For those of you who don’t happen to live and breathe book news, here’s a short, highly selective timeline to help bring you up to speed:

Franzenfreude Erupts (Summer 2010)

Novelist Jennifer Weiner coins the phrase “Franzenfreude” in reaction to what she sees as the excessive attention and praise Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom” receives in the media. She casts her objections in feminist terms, telling the Huffington Post, “I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book — in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.”

VIDA Counts (Winter 2011)

VIDA, a grassroots organization that seeks to address “the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture,” publishes its first annual Count: A crisply compiled record of how things break down by gender in the book reviewing world — looking at both reviewers and the books getting reviewed. In it, gorgeous pie charts and crystal-clear stats expose the fact that close to three-quarters of authors in the publications it tracks are male.

Whose Fault is it, Anyway? (Spring 2012)

A terrific essay by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times introduces the bias against women in literature to official (though not necessarily welcome) dinner-party conversation. As Wolitzer dryly remarks, “Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt.” She identifies possible factors contributing to the problem: Amazon’s ghettoization of “Women’s Fiction;” publishers unintentionally trivializing their female authors by designing hyper-estrogenized book jackets; school teachers assigning mostly books by male authors so that boys will more easily “relate to” the reading.

Sexism Smackdown (Spring 2013)

In a widely-circulated interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud responds to a question about the likability of the angry protagonist of her most recent novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” with a degree of robust animation that quickly becomes news. Messud’s response, depending on whom you read, is sassy or cranky or kick-ass or exasperated or frustrated or combative or brilliant — in any case, the consensus is once again that women writers are often held to, constrained and diminished by a different standard than their male counterparts.

Given all this, why am I, especially in light of my aforementioned political proclivities, disinclined to be part of the struggle for gender parity in the publishing world? Is it some kind of internalized sexism, a misplaced humility that won’t let me stand up for a group I belong to?

I’ve wondered whether I’d be more inclined to act if we were talking about writers of color, say, or writers with disabilities: any marginalized group I’m not a member of.

Yet I don’t think this is the issue. If we were talking about sexism in any other arena — the right to bodily autonomy, to marital and parental rights, to hold office, to be educated, to get equal pay, etc. — I’d be in there, glad to fight. The stumbling block for me is that we’re talking about art, the one arena in which the notion of equity simply does not compute.

 The stumbling block for me is that we’re talking about <em>art</em>, the one arena in which the notion of equity simply does not compute.

As I understand it, all art, including literary art, is mysterious. Its provenance is mysterious: We don’t really know from whence inspiration comes. Its destiny is mysterious: Once we create something and set it forth, we have little control over how it will be received. And in order to continue making art — that is, in order to receive the gift of inspiration, tend it by practicing the discipline of our craft, and then keep it in motion by releasing the product of our craft to others — we need to avoid the distraction of focusing on its reception. The more we invest in trying to manage its trajectory once it has left our hand, the more attention, in particular, we devote to jockeying for reward — whether in the form of cash, praise, prizes, fame or status — the more we close ourselves off from receiving and attending to the mysterious gift in the first place.

I remain somewhat troubled by my inability to reconcile a belief in social justice and a belief that making art requires us to detach from expectations about what happens to it once it leaves our hands. I worry that I’m being hypocritical, or craven, or maybe just dumb. I welcome being pushed to see this from different angles, shown how I might get a different purchase on the matter. But until such time may come, I cannot bring myself to enter the fray. For now, while saluting the animated conversation and following with interest the robust debate, I can do no other than sit this one out.

Read the follow-upUpon Further Examination: Revisiting The Debate Over Gender Disparity In The Arts (8/16/13)

This program aired on August 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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