On Wednesday night, I hosted a panel in New York entitled “Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism.” I organized it because over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there is a distinct quality to the experience of being a somewhat opinionated woman, at least in public, and in print. And I wanted to talk to some of the smartest women I know about it. And given the abysmal byline counts one finds at VIDA, and the controversy over Wikipedia naming novelists who are women “women novelists,” and Deborah Copaken Kogan’s piece on her post-feminist life in letters right here at The Nation, there certainly seemed to be an appetite for the discussion in the sphere of books criticism, and even in the arts more generally.
I managed to convince quite the lineup to do the event with me. The other panelists were: Laura Miller (Salon), Ruth Franklin (The New Republic), Parul Sehgal (The New York Times Book Review), Kate Bolick (The Atlantic), Michelle Orange (The Rumpus) and The Nation’s own associate literary editor, Miriam Markowitz. I love all these women’s work. It was an honor just to have them all accept. And as it turns out, they all had some pretty insightful things to say.
We were going to bring you the audio, but technology somehow failed us and left us with a silent loop on the tape. To borrow another panelist’s observation on the snafu: “The patriarchy works in strange ways.”
So I offer my own takeaways below. Of course, we disagreed with each other on certain points. But there were some commonalities:
1. Whenever that VIDA time of year comes around, I always hear that it’s hard for editors to find good women writers, that we’re not around, that we don’t pitch enough. Yet I found there was an embarrassment of riches in that regard. There were a bunch of other women I could have (and should have) asked to be on this panel. Perhaps I just skew my reading towards women, but given that I usually read journalism without much regard to byline, I don’t think that’s quite it. Point being: why all these women aren’t fighting editors off with sticks is beyond me.
2. I asked all the panelists to talk about women critics “of the past” (“the past” being construed very loosely) that they admired. Kate Bolick raised the question of whether it wasn’t a kind of over-determined gendering itself to admire and relate to mostly other women critics. This had actually been a question bothering me while I organized the thing; were the women I asked going to be annoyed at being identified, explicitly, as “women critics”? (This has been one of the items at issue in the Wikipedia debate, with novelists more generally.) I can only be honest and say that yes, I am more interested in how women have navigated this position, because I think there is a distinct quality to that experience.