How to suppress women’s writing – the latest go-around

It’s really that time of the year. Not only are we having our annual literary versus genre fiction debate and the annual “science fiction is dying” debate – no, it’s time for the annual misogyny in publishing and the doublestandard of content debate, too.

Jeffrey Eugenides kicked off the debate this time around in this lengthy interview at Salon. He talks mainly about writing, first sentences, abandoned novels and his latest novel, The Marriage Plot. But towards the end, he also offers his opinion on the latest go-around of the misogyny in publishing debate, wherein prominent female writers like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complained that their books are stuck in the “female only” ghettos of women’s fiction and chick lit, while male writers like Jonathan Franzen or Eugenides himself are praised for their literary work, even though they write about the same subjects that would get a female writer stuck in the women’s fiction ghetto.

In short, Eugenides doesn’t quite understand where the problem lies. After all, he likes and admires women writers and he does give us a handful of names (probably the same names that every other male author is literary fiction gives). What is more, Jodi Picoult writes a different sort of book than Jonathan Franzen, genre instead of literature. And besides, he doesn’t know why she is complaining, because

She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.

Sigh. And I actually used to like Eugenides. So why does he have to resort to the same tactics that come up in every other discussion of misogyny in publishing? “Oh, but I like women and just to prove it, let me give you a list of women writers I like. As for those other women, the ones who are complaining, well, I don’t know what they are complaining about, since they obviously write a different and inferior sort of book, so they can’t really expect to be taken seriously. And really, why are they complaining, considering their inferior books sell like hotcakes?” Replace Jodi Picoult with Stephenie Meyer or Charlaine Harris and Zadie Smith, Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates with Kelly Link, Catherynne Valente and Theodora Goss and you’ve got every statement from every (male) SFF reader/writer/critic dismissing urban fantasy and paranormal romance ever.

Linda Holmes responds at National Public Radio and makes a similar point, namely that we’ve heard replies like Eugenides’ way too often before and besides, Jodi Picoult’s and Jennifer Weiner’s actual arguments were quite different from what Eugenides thinks they said. Apparently, he ignored half of Meg Wolitzer’s argument as well.

Jessica Grose weighs in at Slate and also touches upon the problematic connotations of the term “chick lit”, though she does seem to be a bit confused about what the term actually means. Because “chick lit” has never been a catch-all term of any fiction written for and by women, but rather it designates a specific type of book about young professional women, usually but not always in the big city, juggling career, life and romance and trying to find themselves.

Of all the attempts to define what chick lit actually is, my favourite is this one by Marian Keyes, after all one of the pioneers of the genre, from this 2008 article in the Guardian:

For Keyes, it is about the “dissonance between the self we present to the outside world and what is inside – the hopes, memories and longings that are rarely exposed”. Chick lit, like Sex and the City, she argues, has grown out of the socio-economic fact that women are not their own bosses but always subordinate to a more powerful man.

In a recent post at Omnivoracious, Beth Orsoff also defines and defends chick lit.

In the end, we’re still dealing with the same mechanisms that Joanna Russ already outlined so brilliantly in How to Suppress Women’s Writing almost thirty years ago now. And sadly, that book is still as relevant as it ever was.

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