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.
3. It would be good if we stopped confusing “equality” of perspective in this debate—in terms of sheer byline counts—with “sameness” of perspective. Parul Sehgal made the observation that women and people of color have something interesting to say about how power operates. Which, I think, does not quite reduce to other kinds of people being “better” critics than white men, but it does mean that more than white men’s perspectives are important, and even, dare I say, vital, to having the full range of critical conversation. It often bugs me that we call parity of bylines a “diversity problem.” In my opinion, it isn’t just “fairness” that demands the inclusion of more perspectives. It’s a problem of quality, too.
4. As far as representation goes, the problem isn’t just with the publications that assign writing. It also has to do with the way books are marketed today, Miriam Markowitz pointed out, and particularly how they are marketed to women. In the publishing world, it seems, women are still easily caught by images that evoke either feminine douche commercials (flowy dresses, fields) or ersatz Sex and the City ads (martinis and shoes). It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with any of these images, but the idea that they appeal to women wholesale has always struck me as misguided. Like everyone else, women tend to read books by authors they admire, or books that look interesting in the jacket copy, I assume. Though perhaps publishers have an army of book marketers who say otherwise.
5. There are two economies at work in the book world, Laura Miller observed: one where books are literally bought and sold, and the other where they accumulate prestige. And writers, even publishers, are often not good at articulating where “success” is allocated between them. To venture a slight criticism of the Kogan article which appeared here at The Nation, that tension was pretty evident in it. Kogan’s memoir, Shutterbabe, was a bestseller, but it was the treatment by critics that left her with a sour taste in her mouth. Except—and this is, I think, what critics hate to face sometimes—the truth is that a good book will long outlast the reviews.
6. Ruth Franklin noted that, in a way, all this VIDA stuff is much larger than just the book world. We live in a gendered society, and that is going to color how we talk about just about everything, books included. Which of course raises a sort of chicken-and-egg question. I guess my perspective on this is that diversifying the people who write for you is an easy, measurable thing to do in the face of a gendered society, in a way that, say, expanding a critical standard to embrace more voices in art is not.
7. Michelle Orange offered that she felt that women often have a harder time establishing authority in criticism, citing Virginia Woolf on this point. Which I, personally, agree with. I spend a lot of time reading biographies of women critics along with their work, and I’m often struck by the kind of firestorms they can start by simply dissenting from the popular view, however skillfully or convincingly. I completely garbled a question about this at the panel itself, but to an extent it’s always seemed to me that the blowback you can get as a woman of fairly strong opinions is itself gendered. And concomitantly, as someone of color trying to make such a statement, racialized.
I’ve posted here about this before. It’s related to Rebecca Solnit’s famed “Men Who Explain Things” phenomenon, but somewhat distinct from it. The best way I can put it is in old left terms: sometimes just a claim to be able to say something of general application—say, to pronounce on the value of a book—is, consciously or unconsciously, received by those in power as a challenge to their authority. The thing about having the kind of power conferred by gender or race is that it becomes almost just a fact of the universe, a given, and someone mounting a challenge to that—saying, for example, that Philip Roth just doesn’t speak to your experience that well—can inspire, well, disproportionate surprise and consternation. I say this not to make women writers more intimidated, nor to tell anyone they shouldn’t give voice to that surprise. Just, I wonder if this particular operation of power ought to be more closely observed by everybody, and guarded against.
8. Pro tip for young men: No more pitching Martin Amis reviews. Full stop.
(That was said as a sort of joke for the panel but I would add: it seems to me to be good professional advice, insofar as [a] the editor has probably already assigned the Martin Amis review if she’s interested in the book; and [b] it seems to me always better to show an editor that you have a new or exciting perspective to offer, which a review of a very established literary novelist might not give you a chance to showcase.)
Is your world flat? As Tom Tomorrow illustrates, Detective Friedman is on stand-by.