What women writers need are wives. That was the ultimate conclusion of Black Mountain Institute’s Feb. 22 panel on female novelists. As a female writer with a chronically messy apartment, I could’ve told you that. Nothing could better help me achieve my literary goals than a live-in servant. But it being the 21st century and all, the same probably applies to men.
Perhaps that classic bogeyman, the dead white male writer (pictured above), had it easy. But that’s only because he died when women entered the workforce. The question hovering in the background at the discussion, though, was why women don’t enjoy the assumed hegemony of this Bard-with-a-stiff-cocktail, who was last seen on the special literary episode of Mad Men.
Titled Female Novelists in the 21st Century: Not Your Grandmother’s Sense and Sensibility, the event promised some liveliness. Instead, it delivered … whining. It turns out things are harder for women writers than men. Which is a fine thesis, but none of the arguments were new or newsworthy. A few things questions were never addressed: What’s it like for women writers to see birth control turned into political fodder by the Republican primaries? Or, how has the publishing world changed now that women college graduates outnumber men?
Here’s the irony: For all their complaining, you’d never know that the panelists—Mary Gaitskill, Cheryl Strayed and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum—were each highly accomplished writers with résumés even a male chauvinist would envy.
During the Q&A session, UNLV English professor Douglas Unger started the questioning with an attempt to get a little positivity going. He asked, “What are your favorite iconic male characters written by women?” And to show he was a good sport, he even listed several of his own favorites.
The three authors, though, refused to state any.
I wanted to cast literary pretensions aside, strike a blow for cultural impact, and shout out, “Harry Potter!”
But I didn’t dare. Not after another audience member had called out the name of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s much-loved creation from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gaitskill had replied that Harper Lee didn’t count.