Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Serious Work

As I'm a fan of neither lists that rank art or those who deems themselves masters of telling others the lowly masses what art counts as real and serious, it was with much amusement that I read this interview with lady authoresses Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who discussed the New York Time's lady problem and over-infatutation with Jonathan "Genius" Franzen and other Serious Male Writers.

Both women are best-selling authors of novels that are part of a genre that are highly popular among readers but that tend to be "critically overlooked" nonetheless. Weiner sums up her take on the situation early on:

"I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

In perusing major newspapers, I read many op-eds and syndicated columns, the majority of which are written by men. Invariably, I find myself wondering how some people get paid to write what they write, and get paid to write week after week at that. (Will somebody please explain to me why Joel Stein has his own perpetually self-indulgent column in Time magazine?). The same idea is that work in both fiction and non-fiction writing, the comparative overvaluing of the Things Men Say.

And here, some would accuse lady writers of having (being?) "sour grapes," but I think Weiner is speaking to a problem many women are familiar with. Namely, that when men and women engage in the same activity, it is Very Serious Business when men do it and is devalued when women do it.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed in Male and Female that when men engage in certain activities society deems appropriate for men, whether it is weaving, cooking, or hunting, that society deems these activities to be important. When women engage in the same activities, society deems the activities to be less important. Even today, while cooking within the home is largely seen as women's work, society tells us that women don't really belong in the gourmet top chef super-duper serious and important kitchens of restaurants.

Anyway, the entire Picoult/Weiner exchange is worth a read. Weiner's commentary is particularly bold and refreshing, as she doesn't hold back.

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