Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Literary Prizes Seldom Make Passes at Tits and Asses

In an early interview I did before my novel was published, I was asked: "Are there enough women in leadership positions in your field?"

I said: "Publishing is full of women. Most readers of fiction are women. Stephanie Meyers and JK Rowling are, by all accounts, millionaires. And yet don’t most men win the high literary prizes?"

Fast forward to about a week ago, when Publishers Weekly announced its best books for 2009. All were by men.

"It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male. There was kicking and screaming for a science fiction title. A literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked."

Ever since, the internet, that new hub of literary discussion, has been up in arms. Furious bloggers challenged readers to create their own alternative lists. SheWrites, a recently created online community for women who write, urged participants to take action. Twitter is aflutter. There’s a lot of digital noise.

I feel like paging Dorothy Parker who famously wrote: "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." Is it too crude, if true, if I add: "Literary prizes seldom make passes at tits and asses"? The sad thing is, I accept this as a reality of my industry. The majority of fiction published by prestige magazines—okay, I’ll name one name: The New Yorker—isn’t by women. Some have complained that male authors get more marketing dollars from publishing houses, and that’s why “the smart people” are generally men. On a practical level, I can understand why this happens. If men win prizes, and prizes are good for publishers, why wouldn’t you, the publisher, support your most likely candidates?

But I’ve got to say, it’s a little . . . curious that in November of 2009, in a fall that has been incredibly crowded with very famous (Dan Brown) and accomplished (Lorrie Moore) writers putting out books—and making it very hard, I might add, for a debut novelist to make much headway—it’s difficult to believe that Lydia Davis or Margaret Atwood or AS Byatt or Lorrie Moore or Sarah Waters aren’t on the list. What happened?

In my original interview, I answered other questions the way that I did because I'd naively assumed that I'd just written a novel—a novel, about a lot of things. I thought people would probably notice the subtle references to sexual trafficking of women, when one of my characters finds herself stuck in America with a man she barely knows, without money or community. The sexual trafficking of women—and children—is an ugly but very real problem, the result, in part, of a world that can shift around with greater ease due to air travel and the internet. The novel is full of references to Buddhism, to the ways that westerners take and reshape Eastern religions in ways that suit them, and how, frankly, Asians do the same with western culture. I was pretty sure people would notice—since the theme is stated in the very first sentence of the book—that mostly I was trying to write about what happens when a woman goes to extreme lengths to develop her talents, at the expense of her relationships, just so she can be "safe" in the world.

As it happens, I actually wrote an "Asian American novel" and a "mother daughter novel" and even "women's fiction." I didn't know this until the reviews started coming in. And then there were the complaints that I had not stuck to the standard "mother-daughter" storyline that readers expect (because of all that other stuff). And then I wondered: are men punished for failing to conform to expected narrative norms? Do men write "men's fiction"? Is there such a category?

As far as I can tell, there is no such grouping, but at least we have the books on the PW list, the ones that do all their analyzing, and observing of how things and societies operate and how things can be understood and discovered. And some of these I have read and loved and agree are among the very best books of 2009. However.

It is very rare for a female writer to be praised as having written a "novel of ideas." Google the exact phrase to yourself, along with "writer" to see who turns up. Most often, the writers who are women and who write "novels of ideas" hail from foreign countries. They don't come from the west. Women in the west write about trivialities. Translation: relationships. But, as Joanna Trollope points out in her article in The Guardian:

". . . while books about young men's lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene. Take anything from Toby Young's How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to The Contortionist's Handbook to Toby Litt or David Nicholls's One Day, or the works of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem. Often these books are far more sensationalist than those by the authors' female counterparts: about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they've done, what a crazy nihilistic time they're having in London / New York."

It's not like men don't write and agonize over relationships too. Why, then, are they so smart and we are so . . . sentimental? So fluffy and hausfrauey and silly? Let's take the question even further. Let's say that most women—for argument's sake—actually do focus on more on relationships and less on abstractions. And . . . so? Why would novels about relationships be trivial in the first place?

I thought that relationships were one of the core principles of that most testosterone driven of all worlds—sales. Do we in publishing think we are above such trivial worries as sales? (Ah, but we aren't are we?) Why on earth wouldn't relationships be a sharp and focused lens through which to view the world and to draw conclusions? Why, in fact, would this not be a way for us to understand a great many complicated things—how technological speed, the abstraction of love, the exchange of spiritual practices—are in fact changing our lives on a personal level?

I like men too much to believe, however, that they’ve conspired to turn attention away from women’s work; much of publishing is run by women, after all. Instead, my suspicion—and this is a hunch and not something I can back up right away—is that we women, we who make up the majority of readers—still believe that men are smarter than we are. And we want to show you we can be as smart as you, and we want your approval, just like we did in college or graduate school when it was so exciting that you noticed us as the smart, not-silly girl student in the room. We are competing with each other, though we are often in denial about this, and the best way to successfully compete amongst ourselves, is to get your approval.

And the best way to get your approval, is to show that we get you, with all your abstracting and analyzing and warring. We can speak your language, as they say. We are, in other words, just as good as you are.

In that same early interview, I was asked: "Are you a feminist?"

I said: "I’m generally not comfortable with labels or groups. Do I think that everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and fairness? Yes. Does that make me a feminist?"

In other words: I don’t need your labels. I’m above them. But as it turns out, I’m as susceptible to being labeled as anyone else.

I’m rethinking my position on feminism.


  1. Ayn Rand wrote a novel of ideas. Atlas Shrugged.

  2. You've come out and said what I've been thinking but haven't had the courage to admit. Why aren't women who write literary fiction regarded as highly as the men who do? I'm part of the problem for exactly the reasons you've noted. I don't mean to be and to truthful, I'm not even aware of it most of the time. But yes, there are those of us who have been conditioned to believe that most great fiction has been written by men and too much silly fiction has been written by women and in the process, we've discounted and overlooked some brilliant work and elevated some that perhaps, did not deserve it. I suspect women play a much larger role in holding themselves and other women back than most of us are willing to believe or admit.

  3. I don't know if Ayn Rand won any awards for that book. And I am embarrassed to admit--I haven't read it. I realize it's a polarizing book too, with people really passionately supporting its philosophies, and others dismissing its observations and cultural impact. I don't doubt that it's a cult favorite. But I don't know that the literati hold it up as a Book Worth Reading and Worthy of Respect.

    Lisa--At a certain point, I realized I was probably guilty of these attitudes, which is why I wrote what I wrote. I have no idea what the solution is. And as someone who has traveled a great deal, I feel that we women have it pretty good here, all things being equal. But this is not to say that there aren't problems, and that the problems are far more complex than party A is oppressing party B. Human beings seem to me to be more wily than that.

    Thank you both for reading and commenting.