The Jonathan Franzen flap and unconscious gender bias.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 14 2010 10:10 AM

Can a Woman Be a "Great American Novelist"?

If you doubt unconscious bias exists, you live in a man's world.

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One of the problems with complaining about gender and recognition is that it risks sounding like sour grapes: There's no rational, empirical way to have the debate. It's like asking: What would it be like if dogs meowed? Would we think about them differently? Are male novelists given cred for fetishizing comic books and Star Wars, one acquaintance recently asked, while female writers hide away their girlhood preoccupations with Anne of Green Gables and palominos? It's hard to say. The issue is not merely about numbers of reviews of women's and men's books. It has to do with the ways those books are reviewed; the language used; the prizes given; the fellowships received. Any man who doubts that there remains a gender gap—if largely an unconscious one—is living in a man's world.

But because we all still do, writers Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu recently founded an entire organization, VIDA, dedicated to supporting female writers and documenting gender issues in reviewing and canon-making. For women live in that man's world, too: When a female colleague and I were trying to come up with a list of candidates to interview for Open Book, a Slate V interview series with writers, our first list was almost entirely male. (Interestingly, no male writer turned us definitively down, but several female writers did, at least one on the grounds that it was too stressful to be on camera.) Rather than complain about all this, perhaps it's better to just get off your butt and do, as C. E. Morgan, a New Yorker "Twenty Under Forty" writer, recently put it. Putting my faith in working rather than complaining has long been my preferred method of dealing with sexism in the world and workplace.

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But as I get older, I find it harder to ignore the social friction female writers endure. This is where the anecdotal enters the picture, and to sit with female writers, even ones who never complain about gender in print, is, inevitably, to trade war stories—stories that men probably don't hear all that often, because we tend to keep them to ourselves, knowing they make us look weaker, or like whiners. There's the provocative female writer who was asked if she had an eating disorder because she is naturally skinny, and whom reporters badgered for information about the number of men she'd slept with. There is the time I met a former professor at a reading, soon after he'd invited me to apply for a prestigious job. Embarrassed at having not recognized me, he told me that "in my frock" I looked like a "sorority girl." There's the author who sent out a proposal about John Lennon and learned that editors worried readers might not believe a woman could write with authority about a musician.

In private, these stories become sources of humor, but they are nonetheless disheartening. They're one more of those adult disillusionments that abrade you and make it hard to revel in the freedom of imagination, harder to feel the pure joy of engagement. These stories, among women, are everywhere—and so what?, you might say. They're hardly tragic. They're hardly oppressive in the grand scheme of things. But they do make it more difficult to concentrate on that grand scheme, however determined you are.

Also in Slate: Ann Hulbert totals up the percentage of books reviewed in Slate that were authored by women. On the "XX Factor" blog, O'Rourke responds to the allegation that female novelists work "in miniature," dissects women and the quest to write the Great American Novel, and explains why she doesn't yawn when she talks about women writers. And a heads-up: The DoubleX Audio Book Club will discuss Franzen's book Freedom in October. (We picked it before the feminist flap, and now we really can't resist.)

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Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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