The author’s 2002 book about her career as a war photographer was titled “Shutterbabe”—against her wishes. Illustration by Milton Glaser Incorporated.
My latest novel was just long-listed for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize. I cried when I heard. Then I Googled it. Here are a few things I learned: it was founded in response to the 1991 Booker Prize, whose nominees were all men; it is frequently modified by the adjective “prestigious”; and it is controversial. Why do we need a separate prize for women, ask the columnists, year after year, in one form or another, following the announcement of the nominees.
“The Orange Prize is a sexist con-trick” posited a prize-winning male novelist in 2008. “The past is gone,” he wrote. “Get over it.”
The 2012 VIDA statistics have been out for some time now, so I won’t linger over the current and quantifiable inequity—yes, even in this magazine—in the frequency with which male and female writers are reviewed today, five years after the past was deemed “gone.” It’s a proven fact, backed by simple math even my first grader can understand: the number of reviews of books by men is greater than the number of reviews of books by women; the number of male reviewers is greater than the number of female reviewers. Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.
What I will do, however, is open my kimono and make it personal, though I’ve been warned not to do this. It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you. But never mind. I’m too old and too invisible to said establishment to care. And I still believe, as Carol Hanisch wrote back in 1969—when I was having my then three-year-old feet forced into stiff Mary Janes—that the personal is political.
So. Let’s rewind and take a look at my so-called post-feminist life in arts and letters.
Born in 1966, I came of age at the dawn of a revolution. The past was gone; we would move on and get over it! Except getting over it, as it turns out, takes more than an ashcan full of bras and access to the pill. It takes years—decades even. My whole life, in fact, and still counting. Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, when I was 6, but only the girls born many years after me got to reap its rewards. Who knows? Instead of a novelist, I might have become a really short, nebbishy soccer player.
Fast-forward to 1988: I am raped by an acquaintance the night before my graduation from college. The next morning, before donning cap and gown, I stumble into the University Health Services building to report the crime. I’m advised not to press charges. “They’ll smear you,” I’m told by the female psychologist assigned to my case. I don’t want to be smeared. I’ve got a life to live. Twenty-five years later, while watching CNN lament the effects of the Steubenville rape on two promising lives—the rapists’, not the victim’s—I’ll hold two competing thoughts: nothing has changed; I wish I’d been braver. I decide to Google my rapist’s name, something I’ve never done in the quarter-century since the crime. His promise, I note, has been duly fulfilled. He’s successful. He’s married—to a woman who recently spoke on a “Lean In” panel with Sheryl Sandberg.