Thursday, July 31, 2014

Women in Literature | An essay

Over the years I've been involved in literary review, I've said and written many different things about women writers, and particularly in recent months about women writers in translation. I've discussed possible differences in men and women's writing, a young adult literary culture that courts young women so passionately it alienates young men, VIDA statistics about women reviewers, writers espousing clearly sexist beliefs, gendered marketing, and most recently the striking gap between men and women writers when it comes to literary translations into English. There are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation. My thoughts and ideas have evolved with time, often momentarily contradicting each other and occasionally living in an outrightly discordant land. The matter of gender - and gender equality - in literature has fascinated me for years, but never has it been more important to me than now. Nor, I think, more important for the broader literary community.

But numbers alone do not indicate why this is a problem, nor do they reconcile the seeming contradictions between my own arguments against the imbalance, and any reasoning for fighting. Simply put: why does it matter? What difference does it make if - as I claim - there is no tangible distinction between men and women writers?

A brief history of literary suppression

One of the books recommended to me when I began the Women in Translation project was Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in literary gender dynamics, feminism, or literature in general. Russ's premise for the book is that as long as there have been women writers - and she makes a point of emphasizing that as long as there has been literature, there have been women writers - there has been a male-dominated literary culture that has attempted to discredit their works. Her examples are largely Anglo-American and mostly post-18th century, yet they paint a fascinating portrait of a broader culture. Sadly, despite having been written in the 1970s, Russ's academic take-down is still depressingly relevant today. While women writers are now taught in schools and university courses, you will still find that they are taught significantly less, and that the group of women writers who have been accepted into the "canon" is very sharply focused on a handful of Anglo-American women. You'll also still find professors who disparage women's writing, and refuse to teach their works (or works by writers of color).

Russ's arguments hinge on two key points:
  1. Women write.
  2. The initial response by the literary elite will always be an attempt to discredit that woman's writing.
I do Russ a great disservice by whittling her points down to these two generalizations. Russ goes into greater detail about the methods by which academics long attempted to dismiss women writers, whether because of genre, relationships with other men, outright falsehoods (did you all know that Charlotte Brontë wrote only one book? Villette and others clearly don't exist), and a pervasive self-fulfilling prophecy about what qualifies as literature.

Do men and women really write differently?

One of our great claims in the fight against literary sexism is that there is no difference between the writing of a man and the writing of a woman. I have even gone so far as to sarcastically suggest that perhaps "men's upper body strength makes them better suited to describing dew drops on a leaf". On the other hand, we argue that women need to be better represented, because they provide us with dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory claims is surprisingly easy, and apparently critical in this discussion when responding to angry cries about imposed equality.

On the surface, on a purely technical level, when it comes down to letters and words: men and women write the same. There is no difference between when a man writes the sentence "and he slowly lifted his head to behold the sky" versus when a woman writes "and his eyes rose upwards, beholding the sky". Readers cannot actually recognize the gender of an author based on excerpts, and writing as a concept has no gender bias.

But writing as a construct does.

Let me be clear: there are differences between men and women, but these differences are not neatly divided, nor are they explicitly defined. It's much more accurate to look at a spectrum, in which almost everyone crosses the so-called gender lines. This is true of literature as well, in as much as there are certain "traits" that are more commonly interesting and relevant to women, while other fields are more traditionally associated with men, yet neither of these is ever actually exclusive. I'll also point out that while I am writing about gender as something strictly binary, I understand that many do not define themselves in this way.

Today, marketing for traditionally male genres (such as a sci-fi) is occasionally done with an eye for male readers (occasionally), yet it is understood and accepted (and expected) that women will move beyond the marketing to pick up the books. Meanwhile, women writers are ghettoized in their "own" genre ("Women's fiction"). Women are expected to read broadly, by both men and women writers (if they don't, they are haughtily called misandrists), while men can easily read only books by white men (and just be called: sticking to the "canon"). This odd dynamic is important for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later.

These are ultimately marketing choices, but we cannot separate marketing from the larger culture surrounding it. We do not live and do not read within a vacuum. A culture that largely supports men while finding women to be "the exception" will not suddenly embrace books by women. To deny the background sexism that fills our culture and our world is to simply close one's eyes. All of the sexism that we see in literature exists in exactly the same format in film, television, business, science, and just about every other aspect of our society. This means that a great part of the difference between men and women's writing is entirely in how we package our books and ideas. To rephrase the most common and sharply on-point example of this: When a woman writes about the family and home life, she is writing niche. When a man writes about family, it's universal. Another fine example: Women write romances, men write dramas.

Yet we are still left wondering - what is the real difference? Is it all constructed, all society-based, all in our heads? The answer is unequivocally no. If it were the case, there really would be no difference if men were writing or women were writing. The fact that we care, the fact that we fight for this, the fact that we demand this equality is a strong indicator that some distinction exists.

That distinction is different experiences.

Men and women experience the world differently, socially and biologically. Our hormones ultimately determine our emotions, our reactions, our behaviors, and our experiences. To take the most glaringly obvious example, childbirth is an entirely different experience for men than it is for women. These are experiences that shape people, and all of that influences writing. Literature is, after all, deeply personal. The differences between men and women are enough to explain why a balance is needed between the two.

What then is literature?

We have concluded that there are certain differences between men and women, and also that there are bigger issues with our culture surrounding those issues. Some of it has to do with dismissing women's experiences as trivial (for example women writing about raising children is pedantic, or women writing about sexual violence is feminist-niche), but much of it has to do with a long, long history of, as Russ puts it, "suppressing" women's writing. A more accurate description would be, I think, "dismissing" women's writing.

As established earlier, women have always written literature. The very first novel was written by a woman - and a Japanese woman at that. Women have always had important roles in history and culture, yet when looking over lists of "classics" - lists which serve as the basis for many peoples' reading choices - you see that women writers have only recently begun making their way onto these lists, and in my experience rarely comprise of more than 25% (and that 25% is only achieved if nearly every single one of Jane Austen's novels are included...). Furthermore, while you'll see plenty of non-Anglo-American men on these lists (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Dumas, Goethe, I can go on...), you will rarely if ever see women in translation (particularly on Anglo-American lists).

These lists reflect what the literary perception of the "canon" is at this time. This is because the concept of the canon is entirely subjective - fluid, changing and terribly defined. Some lists include Emile Zola and George Eliot, others include Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, others have already opened their gates to J. K. Rowling and Halldor Laxness. The lists are eclectic, often entirely dependent on the country of origin and ultimately do little more than shed light on, again, what we perceive is the canon.

And right now, we perceive that canon as almost exclusively male. We perceive literature through the filter of male experiences and through centuries of defining art in the context of men. We can't ignore that, we can't disconnect that, and we can't pretend like it doesn't affect us. As a result, women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history (Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few).

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to read more "classics", to start reading like a grown-up. It didn't seem strange to me that I preferred for people to see that I was reading War and Peace as opposed to Sense and Sensibility, nor did it strike me as odd that I automatically rated those typical canon classics as more "serious" than those few books written by women that had been lucky enough to get published under the moniker of "classic".

It has taken me many years to reach this point where I can recognize how the canon has shaped my reading. It has taught me that certain experiences are worth more than others. It has taught me that there is an "objective" metric of literature, and how to define good books according to it. It has taught me which books are serious and which frivolous (this largely supported by literary journals, reviews, reviewers and publisher attitudes).

So it is no surprise that the year is 2014, and I am only just realizing that I have been letting other people determine for me what is a good book.

Bring on the pitchforks: Philip Roth is not a good author, but Hilary Mantel is. Javier Marías's The Infatuations is a pleasant enough book, but Yoko Ogawa's Revenge is simply stunning. Young-Ha Kim got all the attention at the London Book Fair, but Sun-mi Hwang blows him out of the water without a backwards glance. Everyone has by now heard of Knausgård, but who knows of his talented compatriot Merethe Lindstrøm? We know Roberto Bolaño, but what of Carla Guelfenbein?

Responses, denial, and why it's important

The above will have rankled some of you. Some will argue that the male writers I have listed here are actually some of the very best, and others will argue that the women here are clearly subpar. These are discussions we will always have and should have. Swap out each of the women's names with those of other men, and we'd have the exact same argument. It's one based on literary tastes and styles and personal opinions. This is great; this is what literary criticism is all about.

But I chose women for a reason. That's because as much as many people would like to close their eyes and plug their ears, there is a clear, glaring problem in publishing right now. And that problem is not the lack of women writers in translation (though that is without a doubt a problem). No.

The problem is the flat-out denial from most publishers. Denial, mixed with sexism, and a hefty dose of elitism.

In today's internet connected age, I can - in 140 characters - link to a review of a book I read, share it with the publisher, and within minutes have it shared to all of their followers. This happens. Constantly. But in today's internet connected age, I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.

So pay close attention, because these are the publisher responses I've gotten to this project:
  1. Nothing
  2. Sexist rant
  3. Nothing
  4. Nothing
  5. Nothing
I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers, and finally told, and I quote directly (though obviously somewhat out of context): "The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women." And all this in the single email response that a publisher deigned to send me.

At this point, I will praise the wonderful response from And Other Stories. After my tweet to them about the project, they acknowledged their gender imbalance in translation and have made real efforts to improve their catalog. This is the sort of publisher response we deserve.

No more

So this is where we stand. Armed with the understanding that a problem exists and ready (I hope) to do something about it, the inevitable question remains: What can we do?

We do this. We discuss.

We do not boycott these small, independent publishers because of their imbalance, but we make our voices heard. We do not point fingers (even when we'd like to), but we hope that by discussing the problems, they might understand them as well. We do not scream, but we shout. We do not kick, but we fight.

We do not impose, but we ask. We do not demand, but we challenge.

We do not pretend like this issue is black and white, or like it is the only battle. We do not act as though it's the simplest matter in the world, or that the solution we think is obvious will work for everyone. We do not belittle, we do not simplify, we do not dismiss. But we say, "No more."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where is literary criticism? Everywhere.

Some of you may know my dislike for inflammatory "death of" statements - I have little patience for authors (usually old men) who declare that the age of literature is over, and bemoan the loss of our literary culture. Statements like those drip with disdain for younger readers, as well as an outright snobbishness in regards to the definition of literature. In general, I take great issue with any critic, writer, reader, reviewer etc making grand claims about the state of literature today, mostly because those statements are usually stereotyped-based, wrong, and ultimately counterproductive.

It was, then, with some disappointment that I read Mark Thwaite's post on the Guardian book blog a couple weeks ago. Thwaite - who I used to follow as a blogger back in my early days - laments the loss of "literary blogs", writing:
Many great blogs focus on genre fiction: the love of vampire epics or raunchy romances, SF or historical fiction. My focus was on "serious literature" – the scare quotes are in place because what is contested as such was also part of the reason to get involved in the fun and the fray of blogging. My hope at the time was that countless blogs would emerge that would prove an untested thesis to which I'd long cleaved: that the attempt by the mainstream media to contain the intelligence of the average reader by trivialising their seriousness could be resisted, and that blogging would prove that readers had far more sophisticated tastes than the broadsheets presume.
Thwaite pins some of the blame on Twitter as the source for the loss of intelligent, longform literary criticism. But of course, his entire premise is built on a shaky definition of literary (and an even shakier definition of longform), and a healthy dose of elitism. Thwaite is trying to present literary criticism as a field with a clear definition - the blogs/journals he links to are certainly heavy-hitters, but they are absolutely not the only ones. What became of literary blogging? Well, it's here. It's always been here. And it doesn't necessarily have to be about your so-called literary fiction, and it doesn't have to be characterized by dense articles.

Which leads me to Kelly Jensen's recent post at Stacked Books. Jensen's post looks more specifically at young adult literature than anything else, but the question posed is much the same: where are the critical reviewers? It's a question that's interesting in the context of young adult literature, largely because that field has distanced itself from the rest of literature (young adult is now viewed - bafflingly - as a genre, and not simply as a designation), and also because much of the nature of young adult book blogging has been in response to critics like Thwaite - young, untethered and populist.

Here's what I think is important to take away from both pieces: fine criticism is not easily defined. Jensen looks at specific blogs and specific blog-traits as one she prefers, but what's important to note is that Thwaite in all likelihood wouldn't ever call those blogs "literary". Jensen defines criticism in a way that is much more in line with my own opinions:
Some of the best critical reviews are entirely positive, but what separates them from a lot of other reviews is they offer a huge slice of the person behind the review. They're often more personal than a personal blog post because they let in opportunities for vulnerability that the reviewer doesn't always know they're opening up: their biases, their preferences, their world views, their passions. These reviews allow me as a reader to really get inside the book and inside the head of another reader.
This sort of definition means that literary criticism is never defined by genre. It means that it's not defined by age group or designation. Jensen throws out Thwaite's idea of an elite culture by demanding a personal investment - something I wholeheartedly agree with. Reading, after all, is never objective - we take into account every book previously read when starting a new one, and there is no vacuum in which we can separate between our real lives and those we read on the page.

This leads me to what I feel is the answer to both Thwaite and Jensen's questions: critical literary review is still here, it's just less obvious. The book blogging world has grown tremendously over the past few years, spawning subgroups, subniches, and entirely new mediums (BookTube, anyone?). Today, finding blogs is largely dependent on which community you belong to. While there is significant overlap (thanks, I have to admit, to sites like BookRiot, which blend together many different groups), most bloggers still seem to identify as something - "literary", historical fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, young adult, etc. These niches make it easier to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests, but significantly harder to find anyone else. My own blog is a fairly good example - I have resisted the urge for many years to fit into any niche, and yet circumstances have led me to be a part of the literature-in-translation group. I hardly post about sci-fi and fantasy anymore, even less about young adult literature or plain old fiction. Niches are easier, but they ultimately make the literary community feel... emptier. There are literally thousands of book bloggers currently active today - the problem isn't that these quality critics don't exist, it's that they're hard to find in the maze of the current community.

With so many blogs isolated, it's hard to see that literary criticism really does cross genre borders. It's hard to see that it's a field that's still thriving. Thwaite-style blogging still exists in many corners (many sci-fi blogs have some of the most probing, intelligent reviews I've ever read, while reviewers who delve deeply and personally into the heart of the books they read still exist for Jensen (lots of literature in translation blogs definitely fit this category). Having difficulty in finding these blogs and bloggers is fair enough. Implying that they doesn't exist is problematic. And attempting to lock in the definition of quality criticism - as Thwaite attempts - is simply wrong.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A bullet-point post

I am finding myself with many posts I'd like to write, but no time in which to write them (right now). So instead: a bullet-point update and random issues post.

WITMonth stuff:

  • August is coming! If you haven't already heard (and who are we kidding, if you're reading this post, you've heard...), August is Women in Translation Month here on the blog, on your blog, on your phone, in your favorite reading nook... wherever!
  • One of the ideas we had for WITMonth was guest posts and blog exchanges... Since I'm entirely inexperienced in this "hosting" thing, I'm really not sure if this is going to happen/if there's an interest - I'd love to get feedback from you guys on the matter.
  • I know I keep saying this, but spread the word! I think it'll be really amazing to see a WITMonth that spans the spectrum of the literary community, from lit-in-translation bloggers to YA to mystery to sci-fi... If you know someone who might appreciate just looking into the matter... I give you my blessing to bug them about this.
Other stuff:
  •  I have a lot of thoughts about Ruth Graham's "young adults should only be read by young adults" thing, and after having read many response pieces (most of which, I felt, completely missed the point), I want to respond even more virulently. The original article is so absurd for so many reasons, but so are many responses that claim to "set the record straight". For me, there are so many levels on which I just do not agree with the idea that books ought to be dismissed by who they are written for (or often, who they are marketed for). The age of the protagonist has nothing to do with the age of the reader - goodness, can't adults read To Kill a Mockingbird? Or should children not read books like The Count of Monte Cristo, because all the characters are adults? And what should the elderly do? Obviously reading "middle-aged" books is out, they're 30-40 years removed from that, it's just embarrassing! They can only read books about old people, because that's how literature works. There are so many issues with arguments about age-designations as "genres" that I find myself truly... angry, I suppose. As soon as I have the time, I'd like to carefully explain why I don't think that any of this really matters.
  • I also had a fairly unpleasant response to the "What happened to literary blogging?" piece by Mark Thwaite from a couple weeks ago - like Graham's piece from above, there's a level of utter disconnect. It's a  piece that doesn't both to do its research, and defines a huge field very, very narrowly. Literary blogging is, for Thwaite, his sort of blogging, about the sorts of books that he reads. He describes a yearning for long-form criticism, but his definition of criticism is... bad. Coming from a community where I can pointed to literally hundreds of fantastic literary blogs (in every genre, yes, even in SFF and young adult!), this sort of article comes off as even more pretentious than his actual blog (which I follow) ever did. The whole piece left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I think that it deserves a more careful and explicit response piece.
  • Hebrew Book Week this year resulted in a lot of super amazing things (many related to the Women in Translation project) - I'm not sure I'll have time to get into all of them, but I had some fascinating one-on-one conversations with the heads of four different Israeli publishing houses while browsing for books, and also some really eye-opening discussions with booksellers and translators. Like every year, the experience was truly wonderful. But I think it might have been surpassed this year by the level of discourse and the fact that I actually was able to reach some of the publishers. Plus, they handed out free chocolate slabs. So...