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.
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: