Women are often the cruellest critics of other female writers. Where does this anger come from, and at what expense? Emily Gould considers her own frustrations, as reader and writer ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
At a party over the summer I bumped into a woman whose personality is less familiar to me than her byline. We'd only been chatting for a minute when she asked me what I thought of a recent novel. As is often the case when someone asks for your opinion, this woman didn't really want to know what I thought—rather, she wanted to tell me what she thought, and that she was reviewing the book for someplace prestigious. "The novel is just terrible," she said. "Oh my god, right?" I responded, because we were at a party and it was too loud and hot and late in the evening to bother saying what I'd really thought. But the next morning I felt that I'd done the novel—and the woman who wrote it, and women in general—some intangible cosmic harm in my tipsy trash-talking.
I resolved to set the record straight. I'll do so now: I did not think "A Fortunate Age" by Joanna Smith Rakoff was terrible, not at all. In fact, I found it well-paced and full of extraordinarily acute physical description. But I did hate it. I hated it in the same bitterly guilty way I'd hate a person—a woman, really—who'd garnered some prize that I hadn't been in the running for, that I hadn't been qualified to win and, moreover, that I would have been loathe to admit to desiring. I hated its characters, a cadre of upper-class women who all went to the same prestigious college, settled in a trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood when it was still a bit gritty (but already had a couple of decent brunch places), and had romantic intrigues that, while occasionally unconventional (if anal sex can still be said to be unconventional), wended their way inexorably towards marriage-and-babies happy endings (for the "good" characters). I even hated how Rakoff nailed the locations, the outfits and the other trappings of bourgeois post-collegiate faux poverty in late-millenial Brooklyn, because I felt that she used this accumulation of petty accuracies to paper over a false big picture.
This is what I mean by a false big picture: a character in "A Fortunate Age" who has fallen on hard times is rescued from an accident by an amiable doctor with whom she is vaguely acquainted. When she wakes up in her hospital bed, the amiable doctor is kneeling by her bed and proposing marriage! He has long loved her from afar. As she says yes, she thinks to herself that she'll never have to worry about anything ever again, and then, for the remainder of the book, she doesn't.
This retrogressive plot point can be explained, sort of: the book was modelled on Mary McCarthy's "The Group". But, per its cover copy, "A Fortunate Age" is meant to update "The Group" for Rakoff's generation. This is not my own generation, but it's close enough for me to feel discomfort at her insistence that so little has changed since 1963. Does Rakoff (whose author bio mentions her husband and children as prominently as her graduate degrees in a way few male authors would) really believe that a modern, educated, cosmopolitan, adult woman in her late 20s would happily marry a semi-stranger? And, more importantly, do her readers? That, ultimately, is the source of my horror: the idea that this book will be taken as a representative portrait of women who are somewhat like me. Beneath that worry lurks a more disturbing one: are they–am I–really like that?
So I become, once more, the kind of person I can't bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn't project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are "off-message" because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types. This critic lives inside us all, but she is also embodied, occasionally, by real people. One of them, an online "feminist" columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She'd said that the question wasn't why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren't, "in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women's writing voices."
Is this a real cause for concern? Is there really limited space for women's writing voices? Some people, myself included, have pointed out that there is unlimited internet real estate available to anyone with the modicum of pioneering spirit necessary for staking out a URL. The opportunity for women's writing to reach a wide audience online is limitless, at least in theory. Of course, the preponderance of bylines in the most august–and the most high-paying–magazines and newspapers are still male. But as those dinosaurs fade into obscurity, the scales will naturally shift in women's favour. Unless, of course, they won't. It's just possible that they won't.
A male writer once told me, in a moment of ill-advised but unforgettable honesty, that when it comes to books, "boys compete with boys and girls compete with girls, like the Olympics." Much as I'd like it to be otherwise, this is demonstrably at least somewhat true. And no matter how many times some writer–female, always–writes a piquant, well-reasoned op-ed about this phenomenon, it will remain true that carefully observed, quietly funny, romantic stories about friends, love, work and families will be marketed and reviewed as "chick lit" or "literary chick lit" if they are by women and as "coming of age stories" or "astute psychological realism" if they are by men.
Maybe it is time to acknowledge that this is not some conspiracy on the part of the publishing industry or of the patriarchy and admit to ourselves that writers like Joanna Smith Rakoff are giving women what they want. A character who erases her debt and her crappy lifestyle by saying "yes" to the nice doctor may not be a good spokeswoman for her generation, but there are certainly real women who have made similar choices, and quite a few who wouldn't mind the chance. The author who created this character didn't condemn her. Must I? Only, it seems, if I reflexively anoint her, and her creator, with the burden of being symbolic and representative. If I allow them to just speak for themselves alone, I find that my hatred dissipates and I can relax and enjoy the book’s undeniable pleasures.
I can enjoy them, that is, for a moment. And then I remember, again, the kernel of truth at the heart of that columnist’s infuriating declaration that only a handful of women’s writing voices are heard, and that those prominent voices are too often salacious, self-revealing, “unfeminist”, or otherwise unworthy. Wrong as she is, she is right about one thing: women have not yet come so far that we can shrug off worries about being misrepresented.
It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we'll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.