"The Second Shelf," "domestic" writing, and who gets to be the literary darlings.

First, if you could stop what you're doing and read these articles by Lili Loofbourow and Meg Wolitzer (the former is new, the latter is an oldie but a goodie):



Both touch on how the artistic works of women are viewed differently (less seriously) than those of men. They present good examples I won't rehash here. I have seen this happen before: I have read a novel by a male author who is a darling of the literary community and thought, "Really?" Not that it was a bad book, but definitely a "meh" book. (This is not to say I haven't ever been underwhelmed by female literary darlings). But a book written by a female author that focuses on plumbing the depths of familial and romantic relationships is treated as "only" writing about relationships or is labeled as "domestic;" a male writer of the same book (say, Jonathan Franzen) is praised and danced around with critics bowing wildly for a masterful portrayal of suburban relationships in modern day America. I recall reading an interview with a (female) editor at a publishing house where she said she was less interested in women writer's novels because they seemed "small." I don't know what frustrated me more: that she said this, or that the interviewer (or any of the commenters on the article) didn't think to question it. 

I was in a peculiar situation a couple years ago. I had written a literary novel that very much focused on a romantic relationship. Politically, I find myself bristling at the idea of "Women's Fiction." I get that the industry uses the term because it serves a purpose in terms of understanding the market and the fact that women buy more books. But I agree with Meg Wolitzer's commentary about women's fiction being relegated to a second-class shelf, one where on the covers, women in wispy dresses walk in fields of flowers or sassy fonts tells us what sort of book we are in for. My peculiar situation was that my novel was through a male POV--which automatically disqualifies it from women's fiction and puts it into literary. I'm a literary writer--so this wasn't weird--but had I written about the same exact relationship from the POV of the female love interest I could have either pitched the book as literary or as women's fiction (and also run the risk of pitching as the first and being relegated to the second.) It's the same quality of writing, the same writer, the same relationship. Why is one more treated as qualitatively different than the other? 

Because I love gossip, trash, and comment's sections, I was following some of the drama about male writers behaving badly in this SCBWI scandal (the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Some of the comments were from people who had attended SCBWI conferences who were saying that while the industry is heavily female dominated--not just in terms of the authors, but the people who work in the publishing industry and the organizers of the conference--but the few males who were there would disproportionately receive attention/ awards/ fawning praise from the women in charge of the conference. 

I was reminded of this notion that men will apply for a job that they meet 60% of the qualifications for, but women won't apply unless they meet 100% of the qualifications (alternatively, I've heard this as 80/20). This goes hand in hand with when I hear editors of lit mags saying that their inboxes are flooded with submissions from men. People often view this as men being presumptuous; I'm not sure it is--it could be women not being presumptuous enough. But not only do we not think we're good enough to apply for that 60% job, and "well that magazine would never publish me anyway," but apparently we are also fawning over the dudes at SCBWI and hiring guys who are 60% qualified and shitting on women who are qualified for being bitchy, or unlikeable, or "ambitious" (said with a negative tone of voice.)  

I put this into my calculus whenever I feel like crawling under my duvet and not trying anymore. Everything I've ever gotten has been slushpile style, which requires the crazy assumption of "I'm just as good as anyone else in this pile." 

Further reading: 

Siri Hustvedt's take on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and the wide-eyed fan who once asked her if her husband (Paul Auster) writes parts of her books for her. 

Editor and writer Kelli Russell Agodon's essay on why women should submit (to magazines) more like men.