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Why You Can’t Win as a Lady Writer

With the announcement that Pamela Paul will be taking over the New York Times Book Review, the hills of social media have come alive with the sound of women writers cheering even as they point out that the numbers still look very bad, indeed, for us when it comes to review space.

And why is that? Part of the problem is that, even though we ladies write most of the fiction out there, we’re crammed into a pink ghetto, all of us—romance writers, and “chick lit” authors, “literary fiction” writers, women who write magical realism, women who pen murder mysteries, those of us who put out historical fiction, and those of us who write contemporary family dramas.

What if the Brothers Karamazov had been The Sisters Karamazov? Would it still be considered a classic? Is Anna Karenina chick lit because it deals with an unhappy wife? What if Death in Venice portrayed a desperate spinster? Would it still be “great?” If George Eliot had published under her real name, would she still be read today?

My great-grandmother came from the Ukraine with her three sisters when she was 13. Back home, her male relatives were sent to Gulags by Stalin. In America, she built a bread oven in her backyard, never really learned English, survived a couple of husbands, had a passel of children, and became a bootlegger. Is her story any less epic because she was more or less illiterate?

My grandmother was a maid. She knew about how to make a bed sheet snap into hospital corners, how to wring a rag so hard it almost dried itself, how to stretch a skimpy meal into one big enough for a whole family. She didn’t influence foreign policy, or go to war, or have deep and complicated sexual crises (that I knew of).

It pisses me off to no end that the stories that make me who I am, the history that forms me, is not only shut out of most scholastic books, but that it’s also shut out of literature. Like my grandmother, I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning. I, too, am raising children, and know how to smooth a bed sheet just so. Unlike her, I have a Ph.D. I’ve been around the world—twice. And I write for a career.

There’s a reason we women create the sorts of books we do, but it ends up being the same thing that smack us in the butts later. When we sit down to pen stories about who we are and what we know, we’re facing a Catch-22 (to borrow a manly literary reference). If history doesn’t recognize us as legitimate subjects, how on earth are we supposed to get into the esteemed literary canon?

Twenty years ago in college, when I was defending my senior thesis, I got in really big trouble for suggesting that we throw Alexander Pope out of the canon to make room for Sylvia Plath. It was an unfair question. In reality, there’s room for everybody, men and women, all races, all viewpoints. At least, that’s what they should tell you in school when you’re studying all the “great” works, most of which are by men.

Maybe until this whole mess gets straightened out, we ladies should have our own bestseller list, our own canon. Maybe then, the powers that be would sit up and realize that, hey, we actually do sell a lot of books. Literature is meant to expand the mind, after all. It’s supposed to change the world. I just wish the larger world would agree.

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