Andromeda/Your Turn: Gender Thoughts and Reading Women Writers

I had dinner last night with an Alaska fiction writer — soon-to-be-debut-novelist! (excitement) — and we talked about many, many things. But one thing that came up was the question of whether we write more masculine or more feminine books. That’s a tricky subject, and perhaps I’ll be criticized for making any distinction at all. But if feminine books tend to feature smaller spaces and more domestic premises and personal issues/social conflict on the intimate scale; and if masculine books tend to feature more action and more emphasis on external events and a historical/political backdrop, then I seem to write more masculine stories. I do know for sure that I get more reader mail from men, who see themselves in the characters I’ve written.

I didn’t plan to blog about gender as an issue, however, until I sat down this morning and decided to surf a few Alaska writer websites. The first one I checked out was UAA MFA student Erin Anais Hanson’s blog, in which she was asking herself why she has so few women writers (only Willa Cather) on her favorite writers list. Many MFA students compile a required reading list, and she was sensing a gender imbalance in her own upcoming year’s planned reading. With effort, she did think of Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and — the only living woman on her favorites list — Annie Proulx. It sounds like she got help adding a few more to read this year: Toni Morrison, Nicole Krauss, and Margaret Atwood.

So, on a bleak and rainy day when reading recommendations seem fitting: What living, literary women novelists might you add to Erin’s list, including writers who haven’t yet made the canon?

I’ll toss out a few, noticing that each one of these writers straddles the literary/commercial world in an interesting way, and each one also has an extremely non-sentimental, acerbic voice, which is perhaps why I like to read them, regardless of gender:

Meg Wolitzer, especially The Wife
Lionel Shriver, especially We Need to Talk About Kevin
Zoe Heller, especially What Was She Thinking? (Also called Notes on a Scandal)
Zadie Smith, especially White Teeth

Other thoughts?

14 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: Gender Thoughts and Reading Women Writers”

  1. I love Kim Barnes (In the Wilderness), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), Alice McDermott (Child of My Heart), Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), and Alice Munro (The Beggar Maid). Worth noting, perhaps, that two of these (Atwood and Munro) are Canadian; both have noted that they think Canada, in its eagerness to establish a national literary heritage, has been more open and encouraging to women writers than has the US, where the macho tradition of Hemingway and Dos Passos is arguably still well-entrenched.

    As an aside, if we accept the distinction here between masculine and feminine books, it's worth noting, I think, that David Vann has nicely merged the two in Legend of a Suicide, examining the macho theme of conquering the wildreness in the context of small spaces (the island, the cabins) and intimate conflicts. I'm eager to see what he does with a female protagonist in Caribou Island.

  2. I think a lot of the distinction between masculine and feminine books is drawn from mass market "genre" work. How many male romance/chicklit writers can you think of? How many female spy/suspense authors?

    But when we're talking about literary fiction, work that is attempting to blur genre lines or discard them entirely, the genre divisions still seem to apply. I'm inclined to think that it has something to do with marketability. You can usually tell from the cover of a book which gender their aiming for.

    What I'm struggling with is why I can't see past these lines. Why is it that I read more men? Is it that women who write "masculine" work have a harder time getting published? Or is it actually less common for women to write adventure stories?

  3. I had an editorial assistant once refer to me only as "Paul" throughout our interaction. She and I never met face to face but, based on my work, she assumed there was no "a" on the end of that name. The subject of the piece was the Battle of New Orleans and, to some degree, I took her assumption as a compliment.

    As to women worth reading, I can recommend two who are still very much alive: Cecilia Holland whose research and story telling are superb in all her novels, and Nancy Zaroulis whose "Call The Darkness Light" is one of the most arresting pieces of historical fiction I've ever read.

  4. I went right to my bookshelf and pulled a dozen favorite female authors, alas one is dead but I'm including her anyway because I love her voice. Of course, aside from the one recently deceased, there are scores of female authors I love long since gone, not the least of whom is Jane Austen.

    Here's my list:

    Nuala O'Faolain [died in May 2008]
    Kathleen Tessaro
    Barbara Kingsolver
    Alice Monroe
    Alice Hoffman
    Tad Bartimus [non fiction, but I don't care]
    Toni Morrison
    Marion Zimmer Bradley [Mists of Avalon]
    Virginia Woolf
    JK Rowling
    Amy Tan
    Joyce Carol Oats
    Tracey Chevalier [Girl with the Pearl Earring]
    Edith Wharton
    Joan Didion
    Elizabeth George

  5. Great topic, Andromeda! I love lots of the books already mentioned,and I feel many of the same contradictions expressed here. I fear writing too much of a "woman's book," and yet my gender is an important aspect of who I am. I worry that I perpetuate gender inequality by not wanting to be perceived as "just" a woman writer. I think of some of my very favorite writers — Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Annie Dillard — and realize that just as they rise above genre, they also rise above gender. And yet I'm sure their experiences as women must have enriched their writing. Erin, I totally agree that the marketing of books, even of literary novels, often screams for either a male or female reader. Which is too bad. Just as much as I am inspired by the authors I've already mentioned, so do I admire Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Seth Kantner, and many others. And it is interesting, Deb, to turn the topic on its head and think about male writers who manage to create convincing female characters and tackle stereotypically feminine themes. I wonder — do they have the same doubts about the perception of their gender? How do male writers feel when their books are preferred by women readers or described as "feminine" in their approach? How would Norman Mailer have reacted if his editor mistook him for a "Norma"?

  6. In no particular order here are some women writers I have fallen madly for.

    Pam Houston!! especially the short story collection, Cowboys are my Weakness

    Cynthia Ozick for her essays

    Annie Proulx for The Shipping News

    Annie Dillard for every thing she ever wrote.

    Nancy Lord especially for The Man Who Swam with Beavers.

    Joan Didion for The White Album.

    I don't think of any of the above as slanted toward feminine writing. Just as, my favorite writer of all time, Joseph Conrad, I do not think of as writing in a particularly masculine slant although I'm sure his subject matter (the sea and all) might put him in that slot. But, I love Conrad for the reasons I love the women writers above – they embody what seems the best of both genders. That's a pretty clunky way of saying it but my brain feels clunky right now.
    I'm a sucker for macho folks (and stories) who understand gentility and finesse, male or female. 🙂

    –Therese Harvey

  7. Jane Smiley is an amazing writer who tackles both the intimate and the larger social/historical context.

    One book that comes to mind is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Is it a more "feminine" or "masculine" book? Not only does he create a narrator who crosses gender lines, the story itself moves between the deeply personal and a huge, historical backstory.

  8. It's great to see these lists and stories – reminders of many beloved authors, and a few new ones to check out.

    I have two more women writers to mention, one of them definitely on the 'writing for women' side of things and the other not so much.

    Elizabeth Strout's writing fits in the stereotype of 'girl book,' but the characters are so vividly imagined and so lovingly presented that it can have a wider appeal (I know my husband enjoyed 'Olive Kitteridge' very much). She manages not to fall into that cliche' story that seems to be going around in variants of 'The Ladies Knitting Club' at the moment.

    On the other end of things, since the Stieg Larsson trilogy is all the rage at the moment, I should mention Asa Larsson, no relation, who writes grippingly dark, intensely detailed and slightly fantastical fiction. I've been impressed that even in translation, her work is so compelling.

  9. How could I have forgotten to mention Dana Stabenow?!
    Her Kate Shugak is a character of stellar invention.

  10. Favorite living female writers? Almost too many to count. But off the top of my head, the top of the list would include Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Alice McDermott, Amanda Eyre Ward, Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout, and so many others my brain hurts just trying to think of them.

  11. Virginia Woolf completely changed story structure and prose itself to fit a more circular, feminine perspective (To the Lighthouse is the best example). She did it in her own independent and spirited way too. Also love Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One's Own by Woolf. Love Anne Lamott's non-fiction (Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions). Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my top 5 best books of all time.

  12. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I've been holding my tongue, leaving the extended list-making to others, but of course I love Virginia Woolf! (I was trying to stick with a few undernamed contemporaries in my original post.) Mrs. Dalloway will live forever.

    Just had to say that.

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