Though I’ve always prided myself on being a Feminist—I admit that there has always been a chink in my Woman-Pride’s armor when it comes to writers of the female persuasion. Maybe it’s because in middle school I had a teacher who forced girls to read Charlotte Brontë, while the boys read Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea was a book that I desperately wanted to read and discuss with my teacher and friends, but Mr. Sharkey said I “wouldn’t get it.” What an asshole). Maybe it was because when I was a baby-child I thought women only wrote books with heaving bosoms on the cover (Thanks, Granny!). Maybe it was because in school I was made to read Austen, Dickenson, and the Brontës (again + again + again) as if no other woman had ever picked up a pen before or after them.
In light of the whole Donna Tartt ridiculousness that has been raging on in the literary world for the last year (some of which is blamed on her gender), I began to think of women with pens. Before this—I kid you not— the last book I had read by a woman was Fifty Shades of Grey. As you can imagine— that’s enough to put anyone off pudding for a while. But before that! I had read Swamplandia! so it’s not all bad.
Of course I’ve read and greatly enjoyed many works of literature by women. I would rank Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and Carson McCullers as chief influences on both my inner-self and my writer-self. It’s perhaps a lack of willingness to talk about it. I don’t want to have to discuss what makes a woman’s book different than a man’s, though I think there is a profound difference- and to ignore it is ridiculous.
Women’s Literature. What the hell does that mean anyway? I certainly wouldn’t lump Sappho in with Dickenson— though, of course, they have things in common.
And where do I stand and who am I as a female-identified-writer? Do I write like a woman? Could you tell? Is it empathy? Or the purplest prose? The kind of violence? The lack of violence? Cruelty? Etc? How I write relationships? How I write the different genders?
The worst creative writing professor I ever had always asked me why I wrote so many stories about men. Of course, I hadn’t really thought about it. Generally- that’s how they came out. I asked him if they weren’t compelling examples of males. He said it wasn’t that— just—why? Why did Tolstoy write about Anna Karenina? Why did D.H. Lawrence write about Lady Chatterly or all those Women in Love? Why was Septimus added to Clarissa’s story? I’m sure the professor had good intentions. Perhaps he was attempting to get me to consider my characters more carefully. That would be clumsy, but ok. I really think that he had been sitting on his brains and laurels for so long at a women’s college that he forgot how to read something that was more challenging to him, which is one of the many, many reasons why he was (and continues to be) a terrible professor.
I think Southern Literature tends to play nicely with genders. Most (maybe not all) Southern Lit aficionados would probably consider O’Connor, McCullers, Hurston, and Whelty along with Faulkner, Warren, and Williams. You have to. They are the equally important two sides of the same Dixie coin.
I feel so foolish now for choosing one gender over another at all. If a piece of literature is great- who cares who wrote it? It doesn’t become better because of chromosomes. A failing of my education is that they were separated at all. I admit that I fell prey to reading Little Women and Gone with the Wind in middle school because all the other girls and none of the boys were reading them. Because- you know- those are the books I’m supposed to read.
In any case- this summer I really bulked up my women’s literature consumption by reading a random allotment of writers to fill in the ignorant gaps. Before— I felt like if I didn’t read women writers then I wouldn’t have to talk about being a woman and what makes me so different. For some reason— I was never comfortable defending the fact that words, when written well, can evoke feelings no matter who is behind them.
I felt plenty of feelings when I was going through my summer reading list (see previous post). I finally got around to reading the following writers (all of whom happen to be women) ::
Annie Dillard (three books!)
Claire Vaye Watkins
There were also myriad other short stories from anthologies and a book called The Madwoman in the Attic by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert. I don’t feel any more feminist or feminine. I feel smarter and more worldly (Anaïs Nin’s erotica will especially do that to you). I’ve learned more about what I like and what I don’t like. I don’t have anything to prove and have fixed the chink in my feminist armor.