I’ve been thinking a lot about Catherine Nichols in the last week – the aspiring novelist who discovered that her attempts at querying agents were 8.5 times more successful when she submitted under a male pseudonym.
(It’s also worth noting, as Nichols herself did, it’s likely these figures would be even more depressing if she happened to be a woman of colour with an identifiably “non-white” name)
I was unsurprised. I was angry. I was hopeless. I wondered what the point of even trying to write and complete a novel was, given the extraordinary barriers any book with a female name attached to it would face. Give up, give up, give up.
As it happens, I was also reading Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife which looks at how a husband’s literary ambition cannibalizes his wife’s talent. The Wife looks at the gender imbalances that thwarted its heroine, Joan’s, ambitions in the 1950s and 60s – but as I read about Catherine Nichols it occurred to me that, without too much adjustment this story could just as easily be set today.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Women of my generation (I was born in the late 80s) were meant to be the unburdened beneficiaries of our mother’s and grandmother’s struggle. To a certain extent this is true: I enjoy legal protections (the right to an equal wage, protection from marital rape, access to legal abortion) that didn’t exist a short generation ago, no matter how patchily these provisions are enforced. In more nebulous social terms, too, attitudes have shifted. What was once routine is now unthinkable.
Except: maybe all those old prejudices aren’t really unthinkable, they’re just unsayable. Pushed down, buried into the unconscious, they persist. Women can’t tackle big subjects. Women write small stories – “minutely observed” comedies of manners. Women do emotion.
Even when we do well, women are damned with the faintest of praise. It reminds me of hearing some TV opinion-drone (male) explaining why the fact that girls now consistently outperform boys in exams isn’t to do with girls working hard, or being proficient in the subjects: rather it’s because girls are goody-two-shoes, parroting-to-please. Boys, more naturally rebellious, chafe against the confines of the education system, but are actually demonstrating greater intelligence, academic insight, curiosity, he assured us, when they fail their exams, stir up trouble. I wanted to throw my shoe at the TV (but I didn’t).
No-one wants female anger, female rebellion. It is ugly, unseemly.
No-one wants women to “write like men,” tackle big subjects with vigour – just ask Zadie Smith, who had her novel White Teeth derided as “hysterical realism” by big-shot literary critic James Wood. (Yeah, he really went to hysterical as a descriptor).
No-one wants stereotypical women’s fiction, because as I talked about earlier this year, obviously only women could want to read about such petty matters as relationship, family etc, and who cares about what women might find interesting? Of course, if men write about domestic life is a searing revelation of deeper truths about the human condition – just ask Jonathan Franzen.
In all spheres of life, women are told to be quiet. Couch our demands as polite requests, if you wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t be an inconvenience. Push away our own desires as incidental to everyone else’s. Our confidence is undermined: we submit less, we believe less in our own work, lack the brash assurance that our words belong out there in the world.
I remember reading or hearing somewhere in the rush of commentary that Nichols’ piece caused that the outcome of this is that women writers are not permitted to be mediocre or “good enough” in the same way men are.
All of this is known. But as I mulled over my own feelings and responses to this article over the weekend I tried to figure out what I should do, exactly. Give up, as my inner voice is often telling me to do anyway? Start honing my male pseudonym?
But there have to be more practical solutions, or ones that don’t require trading away my identity through lack of hope. Write letters to literary magazines asking them to consider implementing a blind submission process? Donate money to VIDA? Maybe write a blog post to raise my voice to the chorus of women saying THIS IS NOT OK.
Overall, I want to take this moment to pledge to do the exact opposite of what our culture has trained me to want to do in this kind of situation. I will not stop writing. I will not feel bad for submitting my work to lit mags (and when the day comes to agents), I will not worry that I am wasting their time. It’s their job to read the work of writers, damnit, and that includes those of us who happen to be women. I will treat every completed submission, signed off with my quite obviously female name, as my little blow against entrenched patriarchy. I won’t apologize for my successes, but share and be proud of what my effort has garnered. I will encourage other women writers to do the same, and support their work when it makes it out there into that big bad world.
There are too many fights still to be won, too many hard-won freedoms under attack. There is hard work for us feminists. But continuing to do what I love, being brave and sending my loud, unapologetic voice out into the world, jostling for my little bit of literary space? That’s not work, that’s pleasure.
Image Credit: Rodion Kutsaev