Published January 31, 2021 by swankivy

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It’s interesting how often people who talk about literary merit and artistic worthiness are so quick to assume women aren’t writing about real problems, or that the differences we do see in common elements of writing based on gender have clear divisions between what’s nutritious and what’s empty calories. There are more women than men in this world, and still our thoughts, issues, and lives are thought marginal.

First, these are all slightly exaggerated and paraphrased from real quotes by men about women’s work. For context, here they are:

  • “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think it is unequal to me.” [Women’s work presents] “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” —V.S. Naipaul
  • [Women exhibit] “lack of range—in subject matter, in emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor. . . . the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; lyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God. . . . ” —Theodore Roethke
  • “[R]omance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn. It’s pointless to spend much time impugning these books as writing because they really aren’t meant to be considered as actual writing, the same way a Twinkie wasn’t meant to be considered as actual food.” —William Giraldi

The common theme here is  through some combination of bad experiences with literature, socialized disgust for and condescension toward anything that women enjoy, sexist attitudes toward women in general, overreliance on “award-winning” literature as if the awards are given objectively through some distant assessment of pure merit, overexposure to men’s work as deep and “classic” and women’s work as lowbrow and “popular,” or simple assumption that women’s stories aren’t relevant/applicable/interesting to them . . . these men conclude that they can and should write off literature about, by, and/or for women.

And what’s really interesting is how many men, when challenged on this, will have one of these two explanations for why they aren’t interested in women’s work:

  • They just . . . just aren’t INTERESTED, inexplicably, and don’t know what to say when you ask why or what they could possibly believe about ALL women’s work being “not for them.”
  • They have indeed tried women’s work and didn’t like it, insist that the sex of the author has nothing to do with that, and feel justified in generalizing their reaction as applying to any and all literature by women.

You KNOW they have not concluded men suck at writing whenever they read a sucky book by a man, or when they encounter a genre or subject primarily written by men that they aren’t interested in. Yet somehow, even though they’re totally not sexist, guys!, reading a comparatively small number of books by women has given them all they need to know about all women authors–they all write the same, or about the same things, or with the same lower or basic quality that they’re sure they objectively assigned to the sample they’ve read.

I guarantee you some of these men’s favorite books were written by women writing under an androgynous name or deliberately under a man’s name.

One comment on “Narrow

  • The first person I want to meet in heaven is Isabella MacDonald Alden.

    Other favorites are E.D.E.N. Southworth, Susan Warner, Martha Finley. Some of Grace Livingston Hill is good. I also like George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton.

    Why are Isabella “Pansy” Alden novels so good?

    1) they are based on real life, usually with names changed, and artistic selection of details. Some of the more incredible characters and events have footnotes assuring the reader that there was such a person or that really happened.

    2) they are “divine romances”. So much of Grace Livingston Hill are “human romances”, where a man and a woman get together through unusual, difficult, and of course highly romantic circumstances. But Pansy stories are about God courting and wooing His children. Calling them, speaking tenderly, speaking sternly, persistently pursuing until they final surrender to His love.

    3) death is ever present, but never the end of the story. In the early 19th century, when a loved one traveled to Europe, you would not hear from them for months or years. It took 21 days for a fast ship to traverse the Atlantic. Transatlantic telegraph came in the latter 19th century. Death has a way of getting a characters attention, when they had ignored the pleadings of God and pursued the frivolities of a socialite, wealth and power, or the weary drudgery of survival for the poor.

    Death is not the end even of the earthly work of a character: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” Much of a Pansy story is tracing the rippling effects of a consecrated life long after they have gone to the far country.

    4) “Based on a true story” means a wealth of historical detail. I speculate over modern diagnoses of diseases described – “consumption” (tuberculosis) is pretty obvious as is “paralysis” (stroke). Others are not so clear. I thrill over the rapid march of new fangled inventions in the late 19th century, sewing machines, washing machine, dishwasher, stenograph, typewriter, phonograph, automobile, telephone, “ready made” clothes, steam powered manufacturing (and associated abuses of centralized power).

    5) Intimate portraits of classical education, from community schools, to reading circles and distance education. Characters learn by teaching and learning from friends, and through innovative institutions like Chautauqua have access to experts in a field as well. (All without internet.)

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