by Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo
In light of International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman and a writer. It occurs to me, do you think men think about what it means to be a man and a writer?
If you’re a woman, does writer become a noun that requires a qualifier, woman writer, that it does not if you are a man who writes? A man who writes is simply a writer. Woman and writer are separate entities, but, of course, not for the woman who writes. Can we split ourselves in two in order to think about what it is to write: as a writer (genderless), and as a person (woman)? No.
Women buy 70% of the books that are sold, yet women writers receive only 20% of book reviews. The numbers compiled by VIDA tell part of the story. But does the inequity carry to book publication as well? It seems so. A review of big houses and small presses in an article in The New Republic by Ruth Franklin, finds that, in fact, more men overall are getting books published.
Looking at my bookshelves, the vast majority of the books I own were written by women. Thinking back on my evolving reading habits, I realize this has been a conscious act, even if I hadn’t taken note of the accumulation. When I choose a book, I actively seek out those written by women. I read women’s work for two reasons: I want to know what they have to say; I am interested in their points of view, and I want to learn from them because I am a woman, too. Generally, I am more interested in what a woman has to say than a man. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who possesses this sentiment.
I’m trying to understand why women’s stories are deemed less important than men’s, are repudiated outright or relegated to that vicious category, “chick-lit.” Who’s making these decisions? Defining and setting the boundaries? A dismissal of women’s stories amounts to a dismissal of women’s voices. Of women themselves.
Should we try to write like men? Perhaps use more masculine themes and words. (I’m not sure how to go about that.) If our work is perceived as “masculine” in some way, be it the plot, the themes, the tone, the language, will that make it more credible? To then be dispensed that backhanded compliment, that veiled insult, “You write like a man.” Do we need to be either sexless or masculine in order to be “good” writers? In order to be simply writers? I am less interested in infiltrating the realm of “men’s work” than validating that of “women’s work.” Or, better yet perhaps, smudging any delineating lines between the two. I’d like to call it simply, “life work.”
Generations ago, the challenges women faced to be heard, in print or otherwise, were far more daunting than those we (at least in the Western world) encounter today. I don’t have to write in secret, nor must I feel abnormal or wicked or selfish or be considered a bad mother because I write. Grace Paley said, “Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in that feminist wave. No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it—the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.” In our mere existence today, we reap the rewards of the work of the women who came before us.
So what should I write about? What do I need to write about in order to be validated? Margaret Atwood said there is, “… a fear of the development of a one-dimensional Feminist Criticism, a way of approaching literature produced by women that would award points according to conformity or non-conformity to an ideological position.” I don’t want to be merely a vehicle for an ideology. What I can bring to my writing is experience and imagination. We witness then we chronicle. We find the singularity of the individual voice. For women, I think the very execution of writing is a feminist act—putting our voices out there, putting our stories out, validating them. We write not necessarily to articulate our thoughts and feelings because maybe that is not possible in the moment but because meaning is revealed, meaning becomes. It becomes apparent and it fuels ideas. If not for now, maybe for our daughters.