This past Wednesday, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Goldberry Long shared her views on the baffling prejudice today’s female writers face. The talk, which took place in INTS 1128 and was titled “The Chick Lit Ghetto: Women’s Medical Narratives in Contemporary Fiction,” attracted students and faculty alike.The title of the event stems from the name often given to women’s literature, Chick-Lit, which implies a lack in quality and value.
The first time Long realized that works written by women were not regarded as highly as those written by men, she was an MFA student in Fiction at the University of Iowa. Long recalled her memory from graduate school in which celebrated writer Saul Bellow came to speak. During the question and answer session, a peer of Long’s asked Bellow who his favorite authors were. Bellow began to list countless authors, all of which were male. The student then asked whether he had any favorite female authors to which he replied, “I have no use for them.” The moment is one that Long has not forgotten. She recalled being taken aback and hurt by his blunt response. Long said, “I did not understand how comfortable he was dismissing so many important writers.” That sharp remark from Bellow heightened her awareness of the skewed perceptions surrounding women and their writing. Ever since then, Long has committed herself to uncovering whether the prejudice she witnessed that day was simply a unique occurrence or if it reflected a larger, deeper problem.
With her quirky humor and energetic disposition, Long both captivated and educated listeners on the realities she discovered. She did not shy away from sharing the opinions she developed on her search, either. Long once read about a blind test that was conducted to differentiate between male and female authors. Studies found that readers were unable to determine any stylistic difference between works produced by male and female writers. Despite this, there is still an imbalance between the way female and male authors are regarded.
It is well-known in the literary community that a writer’s reputation depends on being reviewed by respectable news sources. Writers who are not reviewed are considered irrelevant and lowbrow. Long introduced students to a website, VidaWeb, that devotes itself to investigating the cultural perceptions surrounding women’s literature. VidaWeb has a feature called “The Count”. “The Count” literally ‘counts’ the rate of publications by men and women in the world’s most respected news outlets. “The Count” has taken its statistics from top tier publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and many more. The results are depressing- nearly every pie chart reveals how few women have articles and stories published in comparison to men. It also ‘counts’ how many women versus men have works reviewed, and how many women versus men are the reviewers themselves. Long emphasized that because being reviewed by reputable news sources leads to respect in the literary world, the future for serious female writers is bleak– unless some drastic changes in the industry are made.
Long then showed attendees a slide of a blurred book and read the review. She asked the audience if the review was critiquing a male or female author. The review claimed the novel was disappointing and that it was edging on women’s literature because of being “outrageously whimsical” and an “escapist fairy tale.” The review also compared the novel to two other novels by female authors, one of which was “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. With fervor and fire in her eyes, Long explained how outrageous it was to compare a novel about the rape and murder of a young girl with the phrase “outrageously whimsical.” She also noted that the review insinuated that woman’s literature is low quality.
If it wasn’t the form or technique that categorized the work as lowbrow, then, Long decided, it had to be the content. Long then continued to share with students her personal hypothesis regarding why the stereotype exists using her own experiences. In order to do so, Long read two compelling and elegantly written excerpts from her soon to be published novel. The passages she read explained in excruciating detail women going through labor and child birth. In one of the excerpts, the woman gives birth to a still born baby, and Long beautifully and devastatingly illustrates the anguish the woman experienced. After sharing the excerpts, Long revealed that those two were the very passages her editor wanted her to omit. Though her editor said that the scenes didn’t advance the plot enough or significantly develop the characters, it was clear to audience members that the passages were both beautiful and integral to the character.
Long revealed her hypothesis—whenever a woman references her body in relation to menstruation, child birth or menopause, or anything exclusive of females, it is immediately placed into the “Chick-Lit” category. Her editor also claimed that including these pieces in the novel would alienate the male readers who could not relate and might make them uncomfortable.
In essence, when a female writer discusses her body in her work, she is placing it in an inferior category than that of a man’s work. She told students that although the majority of the consumers of books in the United States are women, men control what gets published and what is considered respectable literature. “I would like to think that quality wins, but the reality is that the playing field is lop-sided,” Long said.