This essay was originally posted here
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:
- Women write.
- 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:
- Sexist rant
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.”