Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…

On Gender Bias & Likeable Female Characters

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Hello to SUMMER!

While I have been enjoying the crazy weather & rejoice at finally being able to wear shorts, I’ve also been finding it harder to blog while working on my 2nd novel draft, as well as preparing several short stories for submission to literary magazines…But, as someone who loves to write, I won’t complain, and will aim to find a few topics to blather about every now and then… 🙂

Recently, Claire Messud sparked a furor of discussion when she responded “angrily” to a Publisher’s Weekly interview about the likeability of her female protagonist, Nora, in her newest book, “The Woman Upstairs”.

Here is the excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

CLAIRE’S response:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?””

This ignited considerable debate over gender bias, particularly against female writers and how their work is treated, reviewed, and perceived in the literary world.  It is no secret that female writers have often complained about not being perceived as formidable “literary” writers in comparison their male counterparts, even when discussing similar topics or subjects more commonly attributed to the female arena, such as marriage and family.

For instance, some will argue that while men like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen write books about contemporary family life, marriage, or relationships, their work is often perceived as more “literary” or possessing more literary merit than similar books created by women.  Even the book COVERS reflect this bias.  Novels written by men are usually decorated with plainer, more straight-forward graphics or text, thus making them appear more serious and more literary, rather than women’s books which may feature a faded picture of a woman’s face or scenes from a garden to make it softer and more approachable.

Claire Messud

But how can this be, we say?  Isn’t publishing mostly dominated by female editors & publishers, and aren’t most of the bookclub-reading, book purchasers mainly women?

Yes, but there is a crucial element here.  What gives the novels exposure?

Usually reviews in major literary publications, nominations for literary awards, etc…And who typically controls the big wide world of media? MEN.

To see if the disparity is real or just a bunch of hot air from whiney females, VIDA, “an American women’s literary organization, published its annual report showing the usual gendered gap in criticism and coverage. In 2012 in The New York Review of Books, women wrote 22 per cent of the books reviewed and 16 per cent of reviewers were women. In The London Review of Books, women wrote 27 per cent of books reviewed and 24 per cent of reviewers were women (66 out of 276). CWILA, Canadian Women in Literary Arts, noted improvements in Canadian publications since 2011. At The Globe, women authored 42 per cent of books reviewed and 42 per cent of reviews were written by women.”

So while Canada is doing marginally better, the rest of the world still has a lot of catching up to do!

The truth is women are still far behind when it comes being published, being reviewed, being read, and being generally visible and appreciated, especially when it comes to their contribution to the overall canon of literature and what is being taught in schools and universities.

Here is how VIDA justifies its’ counts:

The prominence of these magazines, and the widespread respect they’ve earned, also have consequences beyond an individual writer’s career. Most notably, they have a ripple effect on what happens in classrooms everywhere – both K-12 and in colleges and universities. Prominent publications “ripple” into syllabi via anthologies, textbooks and readers, College Bound Reading Lists, American Classics Lists, and the canon.”

But Messud’s comments also address a different problem: The pressure of female writers to create characters that are LIKEABLE.  Why does this pressure exist?  As she said, the relevant question should be– Is this character alive?  Not, “Do I want to be friends with them?”

I must admit that in receiving feedback for regarding my own work, I fear this IS what certain publishers are looking for.  They want to appeal to their readers or at least formulate a guess at what they might like, and thus have a better shot of publishing a “best-seller”, but are they missing the mark here?

Yes, we can all understand the need as readers to feel some kinship with the characters, they must be “real”, or at least resemble an image of a three-dimensional character, but do I really need to be their best friend in order to make my novel interesting or worthwhile?

Do the things I want to say as a writer need to be glossed over, re-wrapped and packaged in a pretty ribbon and bow, so that my characters are always fun-loving, nice, and an all-round joy to be around?

As Messud said:

“As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.” The more accurately one can illuminate a particular human experience, the better the work of art.”

So where can we draw the line between wanting to create a piece of art vs. something everybody will like (and therefore more marketable or appealing) without diminishing the quality of the writing as a piece of real literature?

What do you think?  Is there a gender bias and do you feel the need to write characters that are “likeable”?


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