Margaret Atwood on Literature’s Women Problem
By Maria Popova
The recent sexism cries over Wikipedia’s segregation of American women novelists into a separate category removed from American novelists, and the subsequent debate, reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s remarkably prescient words on the subject in the introduction to the 1998 anthology Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (public library), a gender-ghettoization of The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series.
Atwood recounts an all-too-familiar anecdote:
Some years ago I was on a panel — that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century — consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Sahgal of India. From the audience came the question “How do you feel about being on a panel of women?” We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.
I suppose all should have said, “Why not?” Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone — an attitude that may puzzle, hurt, or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling.
Atwood cites the first interview in the collection, in which Dorothy Parker, witty and wise as ever, nails the subject to its cultural cross:
I’m a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality — dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers.
Impeccable humor aside, Atwood strikes at the heart of the issue:
Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them jumpy.
Joyce Carol Oates, who voiced her indignation over the recent Wikipedia controversy in a tweet and whose interview closes the anthology, quips to the interviewer upon being asked to name “the advantages of being a woman writer”:
Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.
Atwood’s solution, seemingly simple, is as poignant today — in part because it’s so simple yet so evidently difficult to indoctrinate — as it was fifteen years ago:
Despite the title of this book, the label should probably read, “WWAWW,” Writers Who Are Also Women.
(But this, I suppose, does’t quite roll off the tongue as a Wikipedia category title.)
Complement with Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, then wash down with some timeless wisdom on the craft from some excellent Writers Who Are Also Women: Susan Orlean, Mary Gordon, Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, Mary Karr, Joan Didion, Helen Dunmore, Isabel Allende, and Joy Williams.
Photograph via Random House
Published May 1, 2013