Jeffrey Eugenides had his moment, then Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. But the chair for the Serious Novelist is rarely held for new women novelists -- unless they are from India, Iran, Iraq, China or other newsworthy countries. American women novelists are more often bracketed as genre writers -- in chick lit, romance, mystery or historical fiction -- and quickly dismissed.
Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity (Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer and Kiran Desai come to mind). Of course, there are exceptions, like Annie Proulx and Andrea Barrett. But they tend to write about "male" subjects: ships, cowboys, accordions. There's Pat Barker, who gained the most respect when she began to write about war. Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian and therefore gets a longer leash than most North American writers. And Isabel Allende, a wonderful writer, who has become our token South American female.
But deep down, the same old prejudice prevails. War matters; love does not. Women are destined to be undervalued as long as we write about love. To be generous, let's say the prejudice is unconscious. If Jane Austen were writing today, she'd probably meet the same fate and wind up in the chick lit section. Charlotte Brontë would be in romance, along with her sister Emily.
The problem of valuing male writers above female writers is not any better in England. In fact, it's worse. Canada seems less prejudiced against women, but maybe I only see it that way because I'm not Canadian. India, a very sexist culture, celebrates its women writers -- who are numerous. And Germany takes literature by both sexes seriously in a way we can only wish for here. It is the only country I've toured in (besides Canada) where the journalists really read your book instead of the press kit. In fact, fear of reading may be at the heart of the problem. In countries that don't read but look for the news peg (the U.S. is a perfect example), prejudices against women writers are harder to eradicate. In countries where books are still honored -- even by journalists on deadline -- prejudices can be addressed.
We may glibly say that love makes our globe spin, but battles make for blockbusters and Pulitzers. When writers like Eugenides write about families and relationships, critics marvel at their capacity for empathy. When a female writer does the same thing, they sigh and roll their eyes. Men aren't penalized for focusing on family and relationship. Rather, we wonder at their empathy because of their gender.
Feminism didn't change deep-seated priorities about what -- or who -- matters. I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers. They may grumble about the chick lit ghetto, but they dare not make a fuss for fear they won't be published at all. Their brashness is real enough, but they accept their packaging as the price of being published. My generation expected more. We did not always get it, but at least categorization outraged us. Where is the outrage now?
Feminists used to say the personal is political. I think we need to consider that message again now. We will never give peace a chance until we start paying as much attention to women as to war. Unless we value the bonds of love as much as male territoriality, we are goners.
I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers -- my daughter's generation -- protest their ghettoization. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we'd better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded. Let's celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let's mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.
This piece is re-printed from Publisher's Weekly, April 9th, 2007.