Over at the Huffington Post, Erica Jong makes the claim that critics aren't giving women writers a fair shake:
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.
But deep down, the same old prejudice prevails. War matters; love does not. Women are destined to be undervalued as long as we write about love. To be generous, let's say the prejudice is unconscious. If Jane Austen were writing today, she'd probably meet the same fate and wind up in the chick lit section. Charlotte Brontë would be in romance, along with her sister Emily.
We may glibly say that love makes our globe spin, but battles make for blockbusters and Pulitzers. When writers like Eugenides write about families and relationships, critics marvel at their capacity for empathy. When a female writer does the same thing, they sigh and roll their eyes. Men aren't penalized for focusing on family and relationship. Rather, we wonder at their empathy because of their gender.
And Jane Smiley responds:
The fact is that women form the biggest audience for serious fiction -- all Americans read fewer books than they once did, but mature men have shown the biggest decline and mature women the smallest decline. Women tend to read all kinds of books and they also tend to write all kinds of books. Alice Hoffman, to mention only one woman I've been thinking of recently, has written three children's books, six young adult novels, and nineteen adult novels, not one of which has a masculine subject. It has always been the case in American literature that women's books sold lots of copies (think of Uncle Tom's Cabin) while men's books were much esteemed (think of Moby Dick). When Edith Wharton drove over to Henry James's place to show off the car she'd bought with the proceeds of her latest novel, James responded by bringing out the wheelbarrow he earned with the proceeds of his. But who is known as "The Master"?
To base one's estimation of the health of the American novel on awards and publicity does all women novelists a disservice. Novels are sometimes acclaimed and sometimes make news, but really novels move through society like a virus -- silently passed from hand to hand, reliant upon word of mouth, proliferating by means of social gatherings (book clubs, say). Their power isn't always evident, but it is there.
I'm going to let the last bit of my reply to Jong speak for itself: Here are a few authors you might try, Erica, not in any particular order: Valerie Martin, Gish Jen, Susan Cheever, Francine Prose, Diane Johnson, Sue Miller, Linda Hogan, Louse Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Marianne Wiggins, Joy Williams, Ursula K. Leguin, Amy Tan, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Ann Beattie, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Gail Godwin, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Gaitskill, Susan Richards Shreve, Alice Greenway. And that's only a beginning. If you think we haven't been doing anything, you are wrong wrong wrong.