Creating the Literary World of the Future: A Response to VIDA’s Recommendations

April 21, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 11 6 min read

Not only has VIDA released its 2014 numbers, including its first count of women writers of color, but the organization has also published a handout: “Things You Can Do Right Now To Advance Women’s Writing.” The value of the VIDA count (which this year showed more improvement but also persistently low representation of women writers at some publications) has been questioned since it was first produced in 2009. All along the VIDA organizers have insisted that the numbers are intended to spark a wider discussion about why women’s perspectives are undervalued and how change can be effected. Their new list of recommendations is a tangible effort to encourage that change.

The list comprises many sensible actions, encouraging women writers to submit their work “everywhere” and readers to “buy more books by women.” At least one of the recommendations has been challenged by Phoebe Maltz Bovey at The New Republic, specifically the call to writers to “have your female characters say and do important things.” Echoing Katie Roiphe, Bovey argues that telling women they should write about “important” subjects perpetuates the problem that “the small-stakes narratives coming from female authors aren’t treated as serious literature.” Meanwhile white men are given the latitude to write about anything and are treated more seriously, whatever they write about.

Bovey is right, although I doubt the VIDA people were trying to be prescriptive about what writers write. However, her argument raises larger issues about what kind of literature we value and touches on one of the other recommendations in the handout, specifically that teachers “teach books written by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters.” As a professor of American literature who has contributed to the recovery of women writers and argued for their inclusion in the canon, I could not agree more. But it’s not that simple, for the message sent to women that what they are writing isn’t important or serious enough is not a new one. It is as old as literature itself. And its persistence has everything to do with how women’s literature is treated in college and university classrooms and, in turn, how it is treated in the literary world.

According to the VIDA website, the organization began with an email from Cate Marvin that asked, in part, “Has anyone else noticed all these incredibly accomplished women writers whose work seems to go consistently unnoticed and unrewarded by the American literary establishment?” The roots of the problem are deep, as many have indicated. Some have pointed to the largely male cadre of editors running the major magazines and thus assigning book reviews. Others to the classification of women’s literature as “chick lit,” or to its relegation to what Meg Wolitzer called, almost exactly three years ago, “The Second Shelf.”

The real issue, of course, is not the numbers, although they are important. The underlying issue is how we decide what writing has value. For so long as the lives and experiences of women and people of color are undervalued, so will their writing be.

One respondent to Wolitzer’s article called for the end to the gendering of children’s literature, for not only do boys stay away from girl’s stories, but so do “girls come to accept that boys are uninterested in stories by or about women.” The issue is complicated, of course, by many women’s desire to promote stories about girls, the “strong heroine” complex that Bovey decries. But surprisingly little discussion has taken place about how the intense gendering of children’s literature embeds gendered literary preferences in our psyches.

Another respondent to Wolitzer’s article, the literary scholar Marjorie Pryse, pointed to the persistence of all-male or nearly all-male reading lists in colleges and universities. She seems to admit that her efforts (and others’) to revise the canon to include more women and people of color have not yielded substantial results. I would agree. I hear regularly from my students that the vast majority of their literature courses include almost no women’s writing, let alone that of writers of color. One told me just last week that her Victorian literature class had only one woman on the reading list, out of 15 weeks’ worth of reading.

I suspect that my students’ experiences are not unique. Lilit Marcus wrote in a piece for Flavorwire, “[a]s an undergraduate English Lit major, I had several classes where every single author we read was male.” There is no VIDA count for academia, but D.G. Myers, a former English professor at Texas A&M and Ohio State, counted the top 25 writers most frequently cited over the past 25 years in the MLA Bibliography, the primary database of literary scholarship. There were only 5 women on the list, a fair approximation of the percentage of women writers being published and reviewed in some of the most retrograde literary magazines. What is taught and researched by academics impacts what the publishing world values as well. As one indication, Modern Library publishing company’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century included only nine books by women.

The understandable result of all of this, in Marcus’s words, is that “there are still many readers in the U.S. who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that men have contributed most of what we know to be literature.” And until that changes, until we collectively (and not just inside of academia) believe that women writers have produced important literature in the past, then the devaluation of women’s writing in the present will persist.

coverI don’t mean we should simply acknowledge that a few women have produced so-called “great” literature. We are already doing that. What I mean is discovering value in the many, many texts women writers have written since the first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written (by a woman) in the 11th century. Now I hear you saying, well sure, there may have been a lot of writing by women in the past, but it isn’t worth reading now. It was magazine filler or sentimental schlock. There was certainly plenty of that, produced by men and women. But there were hundreds of women writers producing important, significant, even great literature. Ask the dozens of scholars recovering these works and I’m sure each of them could recommend a list of women writers who deserve to be read today and valued.

My own list of largely unknown women writers whom I think deserve wider recognition includes:

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894), whose stories and novels, many of them published in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly, show why she was often compared to George Eliot and Henry James. Her story “Miss Grief,” about a woman writer’s frustrated attempts to gain entrance to the male-dominated literary world, should be required reading for every person interested in the VIDA count and the status of women writers today.

Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), whose story “Life in the Iron Mills” is as powerful as anything Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and is widely considered the first important Realist text in American literature.

coverHarriet Jacobs (1813-1897), whose slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is as significant as Frederick Douglass’s more well-known narrative.

Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), who has been called “next to Melville and Hawthorne, the most strikingly original voice in the mid-nineteenth-century American novel,” particularly for her complex and challenging novel The Morgesons.

Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), whose stories of Chinese immigrants, such as “Spring Fragrance,” are delightful as well as provocative.

coverThe Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938), whose fascinating stories and essays, including the autobiographical “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” show how the late-19th-century literary world provided opportunities for a diverse range of voices, not only on the margins but also in the well-respected Atlantic Monthly.

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), whose stories, such as “The Revolt of Mother,” are finely wrought tales of thwarted lives asserting their own kind of freedom.

When my students encounter these works in my classes, they don’t question why we are reading them. Instead, they wonder why they have never heard of them before. They also learn to read differently and with different expectations.

coverAs many have noted before me, if we look for the woman writer who wrote the equivalent of Moby Dick, we will be disappointed. We can’t expect women to have written about whaling adventures, or assume that because they didn’t, they haven’t contributed anything important to literature. To raise the value of women’s contributions doesn’t necessarily mean devaluing male canonical texts. It means simply appreciating the perspective of the other half of the population and not hiding behind the idea that only the “great” works of literature deserve to be taught, or that editors only seek to publish the “best” writing (as many of the publications exposed by the VIDA count have insisted they do).

There is much, much more to be said about how the low estimation of women’s writing of the past contributes to the devaluing of women’s writing today. But I think it’s time to begin to recognize that what happens in college classrooms today has an impact on the students, male and female, who will help to create the literary world of the future. Academia tends to assume that it has little influence on the outside world (particularly in the humanities), but there is nothing unimportant about the portrait of the literary past it presents in its classrooms.

Image Credit: Flickr/James Jordan.

is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author/editor of four books, including Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories, both forthcoming from W. W. Norton in February 2016. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award and also writes reviews and essays for general and academic audiences, specializing in biography and women writers. She can be found on Facebook and on Twitter and at anneboydrioux.com.

11 comments:

  1. Okay, this is a joke, right? — before i even get read the essay, a giant ad for “Shopaholic to the Stars” pops up and demands to be read or clicked off. Seriously?? Have not read it but the title seems to imply that “. . .what women are writing isn’t important or serious enough.” Intentional? Cruel twist of fate? Don’t mean to slight the book, or shopping, even, but it seemed very apropos . . . will surely read essay with increased interest.

  2. This is a wonderful piece and especially love the list of unknowns, only one of whom was familiar, sadly. 35 years ago I had to minor in Women’s Studies to read Toni Morrison (!) and Wilkins and Gissing et al — they were not on any other reading lists. Victorian Lit had 2 females — George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte — how great would it be to contrast these with Stoddard or Zitkala Sa (not to mention Dickens!). My Political Lit. courses had NO women, and of course, the Epics course barely had anyone after 1500CE, so all Y chromosomes there. (Although — why?? clearly there were some women writing in the way back of time — kudos to those unearthing these works.) And there were virtually no men in these courses, and that is sad.

    I am a little disturbed by the suggestion that we do something or other to “gendered reading” for children. I just hate it when adults start mucking about in the reading lives of children. Granted, we could probably do with fewer “Babysitter” series and whatever the male version of that would be, but — if I recall, I really wanted to read about girls my own age, as did my own daughter. And it was only really interesting if she had some gumption. But If, as you warn, we do start proscribing appropriate and politically correct characters and stories — yawn! End of happy childhood reading guaranteed.

    I really enjoyed this, and found much to think about. Thank you.

  3. Good article, but I must admit VIDA irks me. I find it a bit patronizing. I am 54 years old and am smart enough to choose for myself what I wish to read. As a child I read Alcott and Kipling. As a young adult, Harper Lee and Theodore Weesner. Early twenties I read Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy and Gogol. This year I have read Amy Rowland, Kincaid, Keneally, Suki Kim, Joanna Bourke, Toibin, Jennifer Clement, Murray Bail, Helen Garner, Colson Whitehead and on and on. Black, white, gay, straight; who gives a rat’s ass. I want a good book. Simple as that. Furthermore, I can’t help but think VIDA is supported by lesser women writers, but of course I may be completely off base. New York Times has Kutakani, Maslin, Stasio. Guardian reviews women’s novels, and many debut novels by women. Thanks for letting me give my opinion on this most contentious matter.

  4. Bovay’s issue seems to be grounded in a complete misinterpretation of the handout’s advice. Citing the Bechdel test makes it pretty clear that “have women characters say and do important things” simply means “make women characters impactful to the narrative”. The criticism is against the minimization of women in stories, not against stories about whatever type of “small” subjects it is Bavoy foists on the VIDA handout in the shape of her presumptions.

  5. Publishing and the media have definitely made it more difficult than it ought to be to find good books and stories written by women. But making the effort to read more books by women is not just sensible and fair, it’s also extremely rewarding. Those who opt not to read – or publish – books and stories by women are shortchanging themselves.

  6. I know only a few of the works mentioned in the last paragraphs & am happy to discover them. One point Wolitzer made in her piece, which is only glancingly alluded to here, is that a clear and seemingly straightforward prejudice exists that judges domestic drama by women as . . . domestic drama (or, of course, “chick lit”) and domestic drama by men–whether Updike or Franzen or Eugenides (Wolitzer used “The Marriage Plot” as an example) as literature. Norman Mailer may have been repulsive in his opinions (“a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls”), but I’m afraid he was openly expressing what any number of readers & critics believe, often without formulating the idea, even to themselves. But then again, Mailer also said he was “never able to read Virginia Woolf,” so his failures of discrimination may have had more to do with intellect than with gender.

  7. I learn here that Zitkala-Ša was a woman. I’m at a loss to explain how I never knew that. Maybe I never cared, particularly with writing so engaging.

    This sentence bothers me, though: “…so long as the lives and experiences of women and people of color are undervalued, so will their writing be.” Is it my male gaze talking, or is that a formulation that exists in anticipation of its justification? A justification that does not grow more palatable with the inclusion of some blunt counting stats to back up the somewhat hasty – and oddly competitive – assertion that “the gap is closing”.

    Now my head is a-jumble with thoughts about merit, about categorical thinking that doesn’t really have anything to do with literature, about prescriptive (and proscriptive/soviet) modes of influence, and mostly with this: isn’t “measurement” supposed to be a guy thing?

    Prejudice certainly exists in some narrow circle of influence peddlers, and certainly their influence may carry undue weight, but the stats themselves tell us nothing about the storytelling, or the numbers of women engaged in the humanities, and they only hint at some broader social phenomenon. A phenomenon that faces a hard test with just a quick look at – arbitrarily – this year’s National Book Award long lists: 16 chicks and 24 dudes across four categories. If it weren’t for non-fiction – dominated 9-1 by the dudes – well, you do the math.

    Size of the ship, motion of the ocean. Do it better, not bigger. Something like that.

  8. My favorite thing about VIDA is the total lack of error bars (which is why the magazines fluctuate so much in the rankings).

    Only 6 female writers to 10 male writers! MY GOD. That’s 65% more men writers than women!

    Or…. it’s not significantly different. Science!

    Not denying that the VIDA is capturing an imbalance, but obviously the way they present the data is political.

  9. A piece about literature should be well-written and free of undergraduate-level solecisms. The “whom” in the eleventh paragraph is incorrect. Those are writers who you think deserve wider recognition.

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