When I was teaching first-year English, one of my students scrawled on the bottom of his quiz: “The syllabus for this class is a palindrome.” Ha. Clever.
Obviously, my syllabus was not the same from end to end either way you read it. I’m sure you would have seen more women’s names than men’s if you scanned it, but I was trying to redress a centuries-old problem. I wrote back: “Thus far in your education, how many women writers have you read?” He never said another word about it, and we developed an excellent student-teacher relationship based on mutual respect.
Do you remember the novels you were assigned in middle and high school? I recall Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Ox-Bow Incident (a real snoozefest for my 15-year-old self), The Old Man and the Sea (ditto), The Sun Also Rises, Pillars of the Earth (which one parent complained about, ruining it for the rest of us), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Stranger, and The Scarlet Letter. Every single one was written by a white man, and each stars a male character in an impossibly male situation, with the exception of The Scarlet Letter. Ah, the harlot!
By my senior year, I finally had a more enlightened English teacher who allowed us one novel of our choosing from a long list, and I picked Jane Eyre, the book that made me realize that I actually loved literature. She also had the audacity to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved, bless her heart. I loved it and ended up writing about it for my undergraduate thesis four years later. And she taught Pride and Prejudice! These three books changed my life, and I wonder what would have happened if I’d been given a novel with a female protagonist written by a woman when I was twelve instead of seventeen.
For starters, Mr. Kitchen probably wouldn’t have had to tell me he wasn’t recommending me for honors English at the end of ninth grade. He criticized my writing, which at that point was probably more inspired by Christopher Pike thrillers and Sassy magazine than actual literature because I really didn’t care if the damn shark reared up and ate the old man or if Gene and Finny ever made up (unless they kissed).
Fortunately, Mr. Kitchen admitted that I could take the class my sophomore year even without his recommendation, and I probably took it just to spite him. I went on to get the highest score possible on the AP English test, major in English, complete a master’s in English, and become a writer. My English lit success story was very much in spite of the male bildungsroman, not because of it, and I want to make sure that both girls and boys are connected to diverse authors at a young age.
So it’s frustrating to see that some artless beef-witted louts are messing with the novelist entries on Wikipedia. The New York Times reports that Wikipedia users are slowly but surely moving women from the “American Novelists” category into a subcategory called “American Women Novelists.” Amanda Filipacchi points out: “It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.”
The term “women writers” is fairly common, but what’s your reaction to “men writers”? It catches in the throat, doesn’t it? You think, that can’t be right, can it? Just keep practicing it. I noticed that there is an “American Men Novelists” category (with only 134 pages compared to 618 in the women’s category), but it says that it’s “being considered for merging into Category:American novelists.” So men are novelists and women are women novelists.
Since Filipacchi’s article, there has been a flutter of back-and-forth activity on the pages in these categories. A couple of users stand out on both sides, and there’s an interesting Wikipedia discussion of how to resolve the problem.
Situations like this perpetuate the idea that stories about girls can’t appeal to boys, make it even harder to get men to read fiction by women, and distance girls and women from critical role models. (Plus, aren’t we tired of heteronormative gender role bullshit yet? That’s a discussion for another time, I suppose.) Women have spent their entire lives reading books about male boarding school hijinks, male comradery, male violence, male adventures. If I can read and enjoy Moby-Dick, why can’t a reasonable fellow do the same with Middlemarch? After all, even Martin Amis called it the greatest novel in in the English language.
There’s this special characteristic you develop when you read a story about someone whose daily cultural experience does not mirror yours. It’s called empathy. It’s special because a democratic society cannot function effectively without it (and a good dose of it might go a long way toward combatting rape culture). Women are known for their empathy, not because of essentialist biology, but because we have been forced to live in a world that views man as default and woman as other. A story about a woman is a story about a woman, while a story about a dude is just a story, just life. We can’t get away from men’s points of view, as they permeate every institution, not just collaborative websites.
If you’re a straight white male only reading straight white male authors, you are severely limiting your worldview. In which case, what is the point of reading? So pick up some books by Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Jean Rhys, Jeanette Winterson, Isabel Allende, just to name a few (of my favorites). If you are one of the billions who do not identify as male, there’s a serious dearth of women editing Wikipedia, so let’s get to it! Many women in the literary world have fought hard to be taken seriously by an industry that favors men even though women read more books. The least we can do is make sure they’re credited properly.
On my first day as a student in a graduate fiction workshop years ago, the professor asked us what writer we hoped never to be compared to. To my chagrin, nearly every guy in the room named Jane Austen for her “flowery language” (uh, hello, that’s how people spoke then) and “silly women’s stories.”
So I said, “John Updike, that asshole,” and wrote some silly women’s stories.