Prize-Winning Female Authors Respond To Questions About Gender Gap

For upcoming female writers, the Rona Jaffe Foundation is a bit like the Nobel Prize Committee. Each year, they give out six awards to female writers who display both promise and excellence early in their careers. And the best part? The winners each get $25,000.

The latest awards were announced earlier this month. The winners were Melanie Drane (poetry), Apricot Irving (non fiction), Fowzia Karimi (fiction), Namwali Serpell (fiction), Merritt Tierce (fiction), and JoAnn Wypijewski (non fiction). Their prizes will be awarded tonight, at a private reception with guest speaker and award-winning short story writer Edith Pearlman.

The program is now in its 17th year, and has awarded more than $1 million to emerging female writers.

Two of the winners, Merritt Tierce and Apricot Irving, responded via e-mail to our questions:

Merritt Tierce

Do you think female authors are taken less seriously than male authors?

Absolutely. When I saw [an article about a UK book store removing the label "Women's Fiction" from its shelves] in The Telegraph it reminded me of a conversation I overheard in Borders here in Dallas once. I was standing in front of the New Fiction display, and a woman behind me stopped one of the booksellers to ask him why she had to go upstairs into a corner to find the African-American Literature. He pled corporate policy.

I bring this up to make the point that I think it's not as simple as male/female--I think that many kinds of authors are taken less seriously than a few kinds of authors. In fact, the Poetry section was in the same corner as the African-American Literature at that Borders (which is now closed, inviting consideration of the idea that all kinds of authors are being taken less seriously these days). I also think women in many other fields--not just authors--are still taken less seriously than men in those fields.

Why do you think it's specifically important to honor women in contemporary literature?

I don't. I think it is specifically important to honor all the best writing, and to not intentionally, accidentally, or thematically exclude women from examination for that category. Honoring women writers as women writers invites all the trickiness of any other affirmative action-type construction, in that what serves to remedy bias at first eventually converts to become, perversely, a handicap that perpetuates bias. Any category aside from merit is, by the separate-is-not-equal principle, demeaning, unless all works of creativity are equally categorized; but that is an impossibility that arises from the very nature of categorization.

There are also two separate issues of categorization at work: there's interest categorization, by which I mean the categorization of books and artworks based on their subjects, as they will appeal to people who might be interested in them because of those subjects; and there's origination categorization, by which I mean the categorization of books and artworks based on identity-tags we attach to their creators. Obviously there is a great deal of overlap here, as people often create art out of their experiences, and their experiences often are the result of aspects of identity.

There is an equal instance of gap, or exclusion, or non-overlap, in that for some artists there is a taboo against the creation of art outside of the artist's own identity experience (see "The Help" and all attendant discussion). The temptation is to view interest categorization as neutral and origination categorization as "bad," but this is a trap. Any identity-based categorization assumes a standard identity that continues, powerfully uncategorized, unless all possible identities are categorized, and that seems both impractical and ridiculous.

My statements above could be easily construed as ungrateful or plain stupid, since I just received a $25,000 gift for which I would not have qualified if I were not a woman. I am profoundly grateful that this award exists and that it is being given to me. But if my writing could only succeed as "women's writing"--if I didn't measure it by all the standards I subject any work of art to, and expect it to be taken seriously by anyone, if it is, solely because it's good--I don't think the Jaffe committee would have thought it was worthy of support.

Why do you think it's difficult for female writers to gain recognition?

A male writer once said to me that "Men want to be great, and women want attention." Putting aside the basic, preposterous sexism in that statement, as well as the flat falseness of it (plenty of women want to be--and are--great, and plenty of men want attention), the notion may still be worth interpreting for the sake of scrutinizing a perspective that does exist.

What I think he was really saying is that men want the recognition of strangers, and women want the recognition of intimates. I don't think this is true either; but I think he thinks this because of real and systemic cultural prejudice that influences all of us, and to the detriment of both women and men.

As a society we are learning--slowly, and over a long historical curve riddled with plateaus--what to do with our differences. We used to use them to create automatic, simple, and crippling hierarchies. Now we are trying to do something different, but we aren't sure what we're doing, and breaking the old mold is painful. The wonderful thing is that literature itself is the perfect tool for inventing a new mold, and exploring the lives of others.

What needs to change in order for female writers to gain recognition?

Everything. As I said above, it's systemic. Many things must be changed because the disparity is the one effect of many causes. But as I also said, I think that things are changing. I like to think of efforts like the Jaffe awards--and other such prizes, like the Lambda awards--as rocket boosters, that with time and luck will propel these writers into the mainstream consciousness where they can gain mainstream recognition.

And in an ideal future, these awards would thus make themselves beautifully obsolete. Then the question will never be "Did a Jewish man write this?" "Did a black woman write this?" "Did a gay Puerto-Rican write this?" The question will only be "Is this good?"

How long do you think it will take to achieve that?

As long as it takes for men to accept women as human. As long as it takes for any human to accept any other human as fully, equally human.

Apricot Irving

Do you think female authors are taken less seriously than male authors?

I cannot speak for all women, but for myself, I would answer that many of the writers I turn to most often are women--Nadine Gordimer, Zadie Smith, Annie Dillard, Maxine Hong Kingston and Beth Ann Fennelly--and it is difficult for me to imagine these formidable writers being taken less seriously than their male counterparts. I do not believe that women need special treatment, but simply an equal playing field. Progress, clearly, has been made since the time when women wrote under male pseudonyms in order to win an audience, but I am grateful to the women in the U.K. who protested the "women's fiction" aisle in [book store] W.H. Smith, and look forward to the day when "chick lit" will be banished from intelligent conversation.

I understand that there may be economic incentive for simplistic categories, but I cringe at the thought that by writing a memoir I am more likely to end up in the "Self-Help" section of Powell's book store than in the blue room under "Literature."