Who’s Afraid of Women Writers?

I’ve just read “On Women Writers and V.S. Naipaul” by Francine Prose in Harper’s Magazine. Prose writes that, “ … the recent controversy about the Guardian interview in which V.S. Naipaul claimed that no woman was his equal and that he too could instantly sniff out that telltale estrogenic ink … has made it clear … that the notion of women’s inferiority apparently won’t go away.” She continues, “Of course, the idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious if the prejudice it reveals weren’t still so common and didn’t have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives.”

And so, I went back and reread Prose’s brilliant “Scent of a woman’s ink: Are women writers really inferior?” (Harper’s Magazine, June, 1998) and, like Prose, find myself just as irritated and discouraged as I was then. Because she’s right. Not much has changed.

What follows is a blog I wrote in Dec. 2009, but never did post:

Books by women … there’s something about them

Mary McGarry Morris

In a piece by Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times reports that Publishers Weekly’s Nov. 2 issue announced its annual Top 10 list of the year’s best books, fiction and non-fiction. The chosen authors are all men. Cate Marvin, a founder of Women in Letters and Literary Arts, as quoted in the Guardian, says, “The absence left me nearly speechless.”

Itzkoff’s column goes on to raise the prickly question: Should gender be considered when such literary lists are compiled?

Probably not. But the reality is that the work of female writers continues to be dismissed, overlooked if not often denigrated by a chest-thumping bias that would seem to have no place in these more sensitive and informed times – but does. It is a prejudice that is both quotidian and well-entrenched, running deep throughout our culture, though like most prejudice is rarely admitted to.

Recently, at a book-related party, I was having a pleasant conversation with a gentleman who told me he was a great reader. Unsolicited, he said he’d never read any of my novels, though his wife had read them all. Sensing some discomfort, I tried to ease him off the ledge a bit by asking if he preferred non-fiction. No, he said, actually, most of his reading consisted of novels. Fine. I smiled, prepared to let it go. After all, there are countless works of fiction I’ve never read either, authors I’ve yet to discover. But then, in that irresistible pull to the edge and all the wreckage below, his eyes widened, as he felt compelled to confide, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t ever read books written by women. There’s something about them, I don’t know, I just don’t enjoy them.”

Okay. I nodded, said nothing, the abyss before me, too vast. For a brief moment I thought, maybe he just hasn’t found the right ones to read. Or, maybe he thinks female authors are all going to sound like the female characters in the books he reads by male authors. Next, I considering telling him that even among the most distinguished, most celebrated male authors there aren’t many who can create a credible female character, while female authors are pretty often dead-on in their portrayals of male characters.

But, no, that wasn’t it at all, I quickly realized. That’s just the way it is.

                         … women … there’s something about them.


  1. Rose Kelleher says

    I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to congratulate you on your restraint. I would probably have said something not worth saying.

    I was appalled when I went looking for a literary agent for my first novel and learned that “chick lit” was a term people were using — cheerfully, without apology — to describe, seemingly, any book with a female protagonist written by a female author.

    As readers, women are used to identifying with male characters and take an interest in their concerns. They had no choice; men were the writers. It’s not that men aren’t capable of appreciating women’s writing, it’s that they haven’t been forced to exercise that particular muscle, the way we have. Their imaginations are out of shape.

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