Monday, April 5, 2010

The lop sided divide

Poet Amy King went to some effort to compile some discouraging statistics regarding women writers and the ratio of literary awards given between men and women. The survey, published here in Willa, show that for all the talk about the great distance women have come since the bad old days, the lion's share of the top prizes , with the attendant status and acclaim, still go to men.  For all the talk of progress in the task of leveling the playing field, not much distance has been gained.

A large part of the problem, perhaps intractable, is the nature of the awards themselves; most of the ones we think matter–the Nobel, The Pulitzer, The National Book Award, The PEN Awards– were founded by male editors , who created categories and criteria reflecting their aesthetic, which is male, straight and, for all they knew, the single standard by which other writers are to measured. Women writers have made gains in terms of critical reception and the receipt of awards, but the standards by which women are judged, I fear, is whether they write as well as a better known male.

Lorrie Moore is constantly compared to John Cheever, Nikki Giovanni cannot escape being contrasted against Amiri Baraka; well intentioned critics try to explain the inevitable alignments, but the enterprise of letting the girls into the boy’s domain seems a faithless affirmative action move. I am reminded that Dick Cavett had said to his guest Susan Sontag that her name is unavoidable linked to the term “intellectual”. Sontag responded that the journalists doubtlessly think they are doing her a favor by telling readers that she’s a smart woman, but noted that male writers don’t need their introductions so qualified. She said that no one felt compelled to say that Norman Mailer was an intellectual when his name came up. It was taken for granted. The sad truth is that I think this onerous habit of keeping women writers at the margins will continue until there is a new canon formation.