Friday, August 27, 2010

Literature and girl cooties

Yesterday was Women's Equality Day, the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It only gives women the right to vote, not eœual protection under the law. The ERA would amend that:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

As Timmi Duchamp points out over at the Aqueduct blog, "here we are, almost forty years later. And the amendment keeps getting proposed every year, and every year keeps failing."

In legal terms, then, women in the USA do not have the same status or protection as men.
We never have. It's no surprise, therefore, that, when it comes to literature, women are not given equal attention or regard. We've just been through another round of annoyance about this (most recently from Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner at HuffPo, blogger Anna North over at Jezebel, and NPR).

So, by way of solidarity, here's a version of a post I wrote three years ago (for the Litblog Co-op, when they celebrated Always, which was being marketed as Noir), about literature and girl cooties. Enjoy.

Books and Girl Cooties

Genre and gender typecasting, norming and othering, is a subject that's been on my mind my entire publishing career.*

Here's a quick run-down of my novels and their typing so far:

  • Ammonite: a mass market original with an orange jellybean spaceship on the cover. It's far-future SF largely concerned with change, with a side-helping of gender (or sex romp on girlie planet, or biological What If novel, or subgenre throwaway, depending who's talking)
  • Slow River: a hardcover then trade paper from a genre imprint with a vaguely hip cyberpunky cover. Near-future SF about the nature of identity, with a tint of bioremediation (or a novel of sex &industrial sabotage, or a noirish and mesmerising tale of sewage and abuse, or smutty dyke fiction, depending)
  • The Blue Place: an Avon hardcover and Perennial trade paperback.. The first step on the journey of Aud (rhymes with cloud) Torvingen, who sometimes kills people and is trying to work out what it means to be a human in this world (or a novel of suspense, or kick-ass semi-legal gal fiction, or lesbian noir)
  • Stay: a very classy-looking Nan A. Talese hardcover--rough front and everything--and Vintage/Black Lizard trade. The second Aud novel, in which she learns just how far removed she's been from common humanity (or an unflinching examination of grief, or brutal take on female violence, or classic noir)
  • Always: a big, bright-purple Riverhead hardcover. The third book of Aud, in which she embraces her strengths and frailties (or fist-slamming physicality, or cutting-edge crime fiction, or literary noir)

If you judge simply by imprint and format, I've been creeping up the literary prestige ladder with the aid of the "noir" label. However, it's such a wrong label--if I had to describe my work I'd say it was about change and growth and the physical joy to be found in its interstices, pretty much the opposite of how I understand noir--that most booksellers and readers ignore it. So when Carolyn Kellogg asked me, "Where is Always shelved, anyway?" I laughed, and suggested she take her pick: mystery, lesbian & gay, science fiction, new fiction. Never, unfortunately, in all of them--and always in the one you check last. Still, at least it has that Electric-Kool-Aid-Purple cover; if it's in the store, you'll see it, it doesn't matter which genre friends it's hanging with.

And I can guarantee it will be in a genre section, not the Literature shelves. Why? Girl cooties--double girl cooties, triple girl cooties: a girl writing from the POV of a girl who likes girls.

You think I'm kidding?

In an admittedly unscientific survey of fiction awards of the last twenty years, I found there's a statistically significant (or vast and overwhelming, depending on how you view these things) difference between the winners of literary and genre prizes. Specifically, I looked at US awards, since 1987, for novels by women writing from the first person POV of another woman. The National Book Award can boast one (5%): In America, by Susan Sontag. The Pulitzer does three times as well (15%) with The Stone Diaries, A Thousand Acres and Beloved. The NBCC claims two (10%)--The Stone Diaries again, and A Thousand Acres. The average, then, for women writing women in the three acknowledged US "literary" awards was 10%. When I scanned the top genre awards--the Edgar, the Nebula, the World Fantasy--the percentage just about doubled. If I add in YA (the Newbery Medal) and Romance (RITA) the numbers go off the charts (I mean so many I stopped counting--see previous admission about this all being rather unscientific).

It looks to me as though the percentage of by-women-about-women book award winners is in inverse proportion to the perceived literary prestige of the award. After all, the literary gatekeepers regard romance is as being at the bottom of the genre-for-grownups pile, and YA not even worthy of grownups. SF, although it's come up in the world lately (Philip K. Dick has his own Modern Library editions), is still regarded with suspicion, while crime fiction, particularly its special cousin, noir, is almost respectable.

This, I'm guessing, is why my publishers (a different one for each of the Aud novels: coincidence? I think not...) have tried so hard to tag my work "noir." Noir is traditionally written by boys about boys. It doesn't have cooties.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying men don't like women, I'm saying that the literary gatekeepers (men and women and all those in between and on the edges) don't like books by women about women. But why? Is it something to do with the whole Cartesian dualist mind/body divide in which women are viewed as very much on the body/bad side of the scale rather than the mind/good? (I've written about this a lot, particularly in "Writing from the Body.") Or is it--as lots of people here have suggested this week--the fact that readers find it difficult to cope with women giving violence? (Though receiving it has never seemed to get in the way of literary acceptance.) Maybe I'm wrong. I want to be. The whole notion is so very Second Wave. I want us to be past that.

Yet if we believe this article in the Guardian, we're not. It seems that as recently as 2006, the books that matter to men tend to be largely by and about men, whereas books that matter to women are by and about women and men.

Literary boys and girls believe in girl cooties. How do we persuade them otherwise?

* See the essay I wrote with Kelley, "War Machine, Time Machine," (Queer Universes, LUP 2008, ed. Wendy Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon) for more.

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