Pink Ghetto

A friend of mine sent me a link to a recent essay by novelist Erica Jong. In it she argues that women writers–especially those who write about relationships–are not taken seriously as Great Writers the way men who write about the same subjects are.

Jeffrey Eugenides had his moment, then Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. But the chair for the Serious Novelist is rarely held for new women novelists — unless they are from India, Iran, Iraq, China or other newsworthy countries. American women novelists are more often bracketed as genre writers — in chick lit, romance, mystery or historical fiction — and quickly dismissed.

Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity (Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer and Kiran Desai come to mind). Of course, there are exceptions, like Annie Proulx and Andrea Barrett. But they tend to write about “male” subjects: ships, cowboys, accordions. There’s Pat Barker, who gained the most respect when she began to write about war. Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian and therefore gets a longer leash than most North American writers. And Isabel Allende, a wonderful writer, who has become our token South American female.

Surely not, I thought. What about Alice Munro–oh, wait she’s Canadian. Okay, then Alice Sebold. Hmm, Lovely Bones was more of a murder mystery in reverse. Sue Miller? Audrey Niffenegger?

I guess the question I started asking myself was: what does Jong mean by “being taken seriously?”

Does it mean having an appreciative circle of readers who wait impatiently for your next book?

Or does it mean winning a literary prize, the kind that’s stamped on the book’s dustjacket to let the reader know “hey, quality read here!”

Or is Jong saying that U.S. women writers aren’t taken seriously by The Industry? Yep, that’s where she was going:

Feminism didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what — or who — matters. I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers. They may grumble about the chick lit ghetto, but they dare not make a fuss for fear they won’t be published at all. Their brashness is real enough, but they accept their packaging as the price of being published. My generation expected more. We did not always get it, but at least categorization outraged us. Where is the outrage now?

Well, as a member of that Gen X group of writers, I have a different perspective (and for the record, I’m not convinced this is a generational difference). I appreciate Jong’s boldness in pointing out that younger writers seem less ready to fight The Man. We’ve come after the first wave of U.S. feminism, and we probably take for granted the fact that we don’t have to fight and claw for every victory. In fact, I know we do.

At this point in my writing career, I can only imagine this problem, and my fertile imaginings lead me to think that I would worry less about being overlooked for a Pulitzer and more that my contract would be renewed, that my reputation is growing among readers which would then lead to increased sales, which would then keep me published.

I mean, I dunno, do literary prizes really mean so much? Women are well represented in the genre prizes (Hugo and Nebula Awards, Newbery Medal of Honor, Edgar, etc.). But I guess that’s not Serious Fiction.

Jong concludes:

I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers — my daughter’s generation — protest their ghettoization. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we’d better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded. Let’s celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let’s mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.

I never thought of genre fiction as a ghetto. I thought of it as a market device to help the reader find the kinds of books they like to read. Am I wrong in this?

So I suppose I’m asking more questions than answering. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

ETA: I must mention something about writing at the other end of the literary spectrum. My post on fanfic is going to have to wait until next week. I want to be sure to do it justice.

Maybe one day there’ll be a literary prize for fanfic. If one doesn’t already exist.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    You bring up many questions and I’m sure there are just as many answers and viewpoints. I do believe it’s more difficult for women to get published outside the “women’s” genres, like chicklit, romance, cozy mysteries, etc. Women authors get reviewed less frequently — look at the mission statement of Sisters in Crime and their monitoring project. Publishers are looking to make back the money they spend on publishing a book. To do that, the book must sell well. Just looking at my own personal experience, men (husband and son) buy books by male authors. Women (myself and daughter) buy books by both men and women. Yet, consider the statistics from Romance Fiction — romance fiction represents 39.3 percent of all fiction sold. That’s a big chunk of sales ($1.2 billion each year), yet you’re unlikely to see a romance writer win a major award outside of those given within the genre. Content Connections did a Women and Books 2007 Survey trying to ascertain the reading habits of women. The results were announce at BEA, but are not up on their website yet. What is “serious” fiction? I think most people consider serious fiction to be that which is called “literary” or that which is NOT stocked on a genre shelf. It is definitely not defined by sales.

  2. says

    “What is “serious” fiction? I think most people consider serious fiction to be that which is called “literary” or that which is NOT stocked on a genre shelf. It is definitely not defined by sales.”

    This is a great point, Helen. It seems like “literary” is code for “wonderfully written but lots of work to read,” which is why literary books have low sales. IMO of course.

    As for men cross gender shopping, mine will clear an afternoon to read Mary Higgins Clark or Laura Lippman but maybe he’s unusually enlightened (hmmm, I WANT to think that ;-)).

  3. thea says

    hey, what woman of any generation hasn’t at one time or another stood there banging her head against the wall trying to get some attention for her work? but that is how women are conditioned – to hope that external feedback will give us the validation we need internally. But the bottom line is writing is a business and it means money and if men get the lions share of the attention, then they get the lion’s share of the money. also, stephen king has been dissed by just about every award that could be given, and yet his writing has made so much money for this industry. and maybe what we are forgetting is that writing is an art, not just a business and as such, not everyone can be picasso, but that does not mean our work does not give pleasure to the world, if even for a short time.

  4. says

    I’m sure there are plenty of women who write serious, literary fiction who we’ll never hear about.

    I think Jong has a point re: men and their writings about love. I’ve always wondered about Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook. Would that novel have been as elevated by society if it’d been written by a woman? There’s a novel called A Little Love Story, written by Roland Merullo, that uses a cliched plot device but still has the reviewers–Publisher’s Weekly and Washington Post–struggling to give him kudos (even as readers at Amazon rip his story to shreds). gives this as a definition for ghetto: any mode of living, working, etc., that results from stereotyping or biased treatment.

    Which writers work under stereotyping? Romance novelists do, without a doubt. But I think literary fiction novelists do, too.

    A good thinking post, Kath. Thanks.

  5. says

    Gaahhh, The Notebook. I read it thinking, wow, Spark ripped off about 100 better romance novels, and yet here he is with the big house and film deals.

    I felt that way about the Bridges of Madison County guy too, though.