Thursday, January 14, 2010

Of Girl Writers and Men

In general, it is annoying when "best of" lists of literature, or anything subjective really, are released. Because all human beings who read have their own set of personal preferences when it comes to literature and because determining the quality of literature is a highly subjective endeavor, any set of rankings ultimately says more about the audacity and sense of entitlement possessed by those who create the ranking.

Nonetheless, those who fancy themselves the arbiters of artistic hierarchy like to rank subjectivity all the time, whether they're informing us as to what the Bestest Science Fiction Ever is or which novels are the best of the year. Naturally, and despite the existence of the feminist hegemony that runs everything in the entire world, the majority of the "winners" of such lists often turn out to be white men.

To some, this representation just speaks to the obvious and self-evident truth that, like most other human endeavors, women suck at writing compared to men. To others, the over-representation is a sexist reflection of the greater value our society ascribes to the stereotypically masculine. Predictably, the Arbiters of Artistic Merit, as a reaction to any backlash by feminists and people of color, often react by claiming that their list isn't racist or sexist or anything, it's just that white men write about Universal Things Of Great Importance, whereas women and people of color tend to write about little things of special concern.

Perhaps earning her some sort of pat on the head, for instance, writer Lydia Netzer speculates on the "most viable" reason that best-of lists favor men:

"Too often feminists and other axe-grinders reel around shaking their little fists and saying 'This is bad! Bad list!' Then they totter away, ending the train of thought in comfortable outrage....

The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books....

We're not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books. Girl books are great; I like to read them and write them. But if we're writing girl books, we're not getting on 'Best of' lists, and that is the reality."

It's an interesting perspective, coming as it does from a woman writer. Personally, I've always thought that colluding with those who perpetuate notions of male superiority is a pretty piss-poor strategy for, you know, subverting notions of male superiority. I fully understand, though, that some women have little interest in countering the notion that Men Are The Awesomest Humans Ever. Given the extent to which male-centrism is invisible in society and some women are dependent upon men for access to resources and status, I somewhat understand the unfortunate phenomenon of ladies against feminism.

Moving along, the way Netzer trivializes the wittle fists of feminists and wittle books of wittle "girl" writers is noted. Infantilizing adult women is a common way to minimize and devalue women's competence and achievements. It is belittling. It is patronizing. For, linguistically transforming women into "girls" serves to contrast adult females with adult males, who are almost always referred to as "men" rather than "boys." Referring to books written by women as "girl books" places female-authored books in a category that is to be distinguished from grown-up books, as though female-authored books are less important than Man Books. Indeed, as Netzer writes, "girl books" are "neither culturally nor historically significant," unlike Man Books, which are of course Real Books.

It's unfortunate when women adopt this tendency to belittle women and denigrate our contributions to culture, arts, history, and well, life in general. Of the many books I have read by female authors, almost all of them have been significant to me in some way, most often because they have provided me with a female point of view, female protagonists, and important female actors in a story, something that Great White Male Canon novels rarely do well, if they do so at all. I wonder, why aren't books that are meaningful to women "culturally" or "historically significant." Ain't we humans, too?

Secondly, Netzer accepts as truth the notion that the themes men tend to write about- "war and adventure"- are universal, whereas the themes women write about- "emotion and motherhood, love and feelings"- are not.

That too, is interesting, isn't it?

The experiences of more than half of humanity are dismissed as specific, while the experiences of the other half are aggrandized as universal. Are "emotion and motherhood, love and feelings" really issues specific to women that do not concern men? In a world that insists the love between a man and a woman is so very special that two people of the same-sex simply cannot get married, is the argument now suddenly that "love and feelings" are the realm of women only? Did I miss the part where we are suddenly living in a lesbian utopia wherein men are not involved in those endeavors?

Similarly, it is highly questionable as to whether the oh-so-great-and-universal "war and adventure" books that men write are really truly universal. Or, rather, I question the assumption that male writers write about these manly universal topics in ways that are universally applicable to all people. War, for instance, does not always affect women in the same way that it affects men. Do male writers generally acknowledge that the freedom won during wartime has historically meant something very different for women than it has for men? What did independence from Britain tangibly mean, for instance, to a white Lady American in 1783 who had no public role to speak of and no right to vote? Think the experience of a black woman was any different? Why is the white male's narrative of "freedom" the universal norm?

In a world in which, for reasons of safety, women have limited mobility compared to men, does a story about a male protagonist's Great Adventure truly speak to women in the same way that it speaks to men? What was, for instance, Tom Sawyer's twin sister doing whilst Tommy and Huck were galavanting down the Mississippi? If a "girl" writer wrote about this fictional sister's life, perhaps mentioning her fear of some man raping her whilst on her grand adventures, my guess is that that story would be considered a "woman's story" and not universal in the way that Tom's story supposedly is. Why is that?

Most importantly, this has been a long-winded way of saying that, unlike Netzer, I do not believe that women should forego telling stories that speak to women and instead choose to mimic the male-centricity of Universal Greats, all for the sake of ending up on somebody's subjective, arrogant Best-Of list.

The problem isn't what women are and are not writing about, it's (a) the audacity of even knitting together "Best of" lists from inherently subjective material, (b) that we collectively pretend that these lists truly represent a statement of objective truth about artistic quality, and (c) that we likewise pretend that books about and written by white guys truly represent "piercingly brilliant insights about the human condition" that "girl" books tend to lack.

For, it is a truth not at all universally acknowledged that books touted as Universal Greats often really only bother to concern themselves with the male condition, which has been defined as the Default Human Experience.

So here's another tale.

When the emperor wasn't wearing clothes, it was the villagers' fear of looking stupid and incompetent that kept them from stating what was readily apparent to all. It took a child to state the obvious. It took a child to ask aloud why all the grown-ups were playing make-believe and acting like the emperor was wearing great new clothes, something other grown-ups were wondering too but dared not say. For, children do not yet fully understand the role that intellectual snobbery plays in quieting those small voices inside us that say something's not quite right.

As "girl" writers, our role suddenly becomes very clear.

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