Quick Hit: (Women) Writers

Check out Claire Messud over at Guernica on the ol’ “woman writer” moniker:

The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”
As an American writer of the early twenty-first century, I agree with her wholeheartedly. An artist’s work is in no way limited or defined by her gender. To allot space, then–such as this fiction section of Guernica–to women writers specifically is, surely, to limit and define them–us!–by an irrelevant fact of birth. Why not, at that point, organize a fiction section comprised of blue-eyed Capricorns from Atlanta?
And yet, when given the chance to gather a selection of writers for the magazine, I didn’t hesitate: I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists. This is not a question of the writers’ quality but of our society’s habits, and of a habitual–and primarily lazy–cultural expectation that male writers are somehow more serious, more literary, or more interesting. When awarding laurels of various kinds, it is all too often a matter of who one thinks of first: if one thought twice, things might look a little different.

See also:
Celebrating Black Women Writers and Artists for Black History Month
What’s in a pen name?
Mad Men, brought to you by women
An Entourage of Their Own

Join the Conversation

  • R. Dave

    Shorter Messud: “This great poet I totally respect thought it was insulting to segregate writers by gender, and I totally agree! But here’s a fluffy rationalization for why I’m going to do it anyway.”

  • Comrade Kevin

    Well, it’s a balance. Sexism cuts both ways and unfortunately often men’s conception of femininity is a reflection of the women who reinforce the same unequal standard.
    Being more involved in Feminist circles has encouraged me to incorporate more of my thinking to actively seek a balance between male influences and female influences. It’s easy to be angry at the discrepancy and the inequality, but to me I’d rather aim to examine my own concepts and proceed from there.

  • barefoot

    I’m conflicted about this.
    I’m currently writing a PhD on an 18th Century female writer, Mary Robinson (http://great-writers.suite101.com/article.cfm/mary_darby_robinson) and if it wasn’t for the academics who insisted on focusing solely on women writers in the 70s and 80s – those who are now accused of ghettoising women’s writing – we would not have access to her’s or any other women’s work at all.
    Of course it is important to look at these women as writing within the same culture and society as their male contemporaries, rather than completely cutting them off in their own “domestic sphere”, but at the same time, literary criticism is so historically MASCULINIST that the terms of traditional literary critique often frame any ‘feminine’ writing as less important and less skillful than that of their male contemporaries, except in the few cases where arguments can be made that women have escaped their gender and learned to write like men.
    Perhaps in order to change the terms of this critique and to finally incorporate women wholly into our appreciation of “literature,” we do need, first, to look at them in isolation, in order to begin to understand what it is that women writers of the past were doing (or had to do) differently to express themselves. Without first doing this, how can we truly examine the shared topics that men and women were negotiating in their writing?
    After all, as much as we can and should reject essentialism and the notion that men are women are essentially different, it is a fact that we must recognise the women’s LIVED EXPERIENCE will be necessarily different from that of men, as a result of patriarchal structures and society, and that as a result women not only have historically had to battle to get their voices heard, but they were also forced to speak from within a very different cultural space.
    I suspect that it is only once this is realised that we can begin to recognise that our understanding of ‘great literature’ is stunted by masculinist criticism and the canon, and open up its boundaries to acknowledge the greatness of women writers alongside men, both despite and because of their gender.

  • kandela

    Certainly lived experiences will be different. I don’t think that is a good reason to separate men and women writers though. Rather, I think it is a good reason to put them side-by-side. To fully understand the position that women were writing from context would be important. What better way to get context than to put men and women writers of the same period in the one collection?
    Furthermore, if there is a perception that women’s writing isn’t as valuable as men’s then that can be countered by placing them on an equal footing in a collection. That says to the audience, that although these writers are writing from different experiences, their experiences are equally important. When you segregate writers however, you give the potential audience permission to regard those authors writings as lesser.
    The OP says:
    I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists.
    If women are amongst the authors whose work thrills and surprises her, then absolutely she should showcase them. If she wants to showcase writers who are good but overlooked then showcase them. But, if there are men who fall into that category too, then don’t exclude them, we are all individuals first. Maybe for the OP, the writers who met those two criteria were only women, fine then only showcase those women, but she shouldn’t then say that she is showcasing women writers but rather showcasing writers who just happen to be women.