I just read Jane Sullivan’s article “A Woman’s Place,” which I would highly recommend. The article deals with, among other things, the VIDA’s “The Count 2010,” which show the low number of women reviewers and the low numbers of books by women reviewed. What I find interesting about Sullivan’s article is her discussion of education: since we are assigned mostly male writers to read in school, we tend to assume their point of view as the default. By turn the female point of view is often seen as unimportant and, that most condemning of words, sentimental.
Growing up I was lucky enough to have a family and a public library that introduced me to women writers such as Lucy M. Montgomery, Lois Lowery, K. A. Applegate, and Madeleine L’Engle. Still in my late teens, I felt that something was wrong that I didn’t think like a woman should. I was writing, but I wasn’t writing about nature or love or having babies, which I thought was what girls and women naturally wrote about. Where did I get that idea from ? Not from the above list of authors. They wrote about alien invasions—K. A. Applegate—time travel—Madeleine L’Engle— and dystopian societies—Lois Lowery. In fact, Lucy M. Montgomery was the only author who focused on domestic issues at all, yet I still felt that I somehow failed at being a proper girl because I disliked romance.
I was either introduced to those authors by family members or I found them on my own. The books I was assigned to read through middle and high school were all written by men. The only women I read were Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, and most class discussions focused on their neuroses rather than their writing. Outside of the school, culture was telling me what women should like and that their concerns were trivial.
Often when someone says something is for women they are suggesting that it is of poor quality. The sad thing is I see woman doing this too. In passing a woman mentions she likes the Twilight series to which she preemptively say “Shut up! I’m a girl. I’m allowed to like it.” Basically the woman was admitting that the books were of low quality, but it was all right for her to read them because she was a girl. I rather she defend them. Yes a book may be a guilty pleasure, but just say that books is a guilty pleasure.
In my senior year of high school I discovered Jane Austen. While she is often mentioned as one the few female writers read in the traditional cannon, I never once had to read her work for a class. I loved Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. Talking to a fellow classmate I mentioned my love of her work. He did not like her work. Fair enough, we had different tastes. He went on to say that he did not like her because she wrote about unimportant things: marriage and domestic life. He suggested that I read Lord Byron. After all, he wrote about important things—like getting laid. Okay I added the last bit, and I maybe a bit unfair to Byron since I have not read much of his work. However, this interaction is the kind that causes women to question their tastes.
Last year when the VIDA count came out, I was about to earn my MFA. I couldn’t help but wonder what I gotten myself into. How much of uphill battle it would be for me to have a successful career? If I ever published my book would it be reviewed? Would I get both female and male readers? As I’m still at the beginning of my career, I can’t know for sure. All I can do is keep sending my work out into the world, and to never apologize for writing about what is important to me.