Lift Don’t Suppress Others

Lift Don’t Suppress Others.

Thirty-five Years After How to Suppress Women’s Writing

In 1983, the University of Texas Press published Joanna Russ’s landmark “How to Suppress Women’s Writing”, which enumerated and elaborated on the many ways women writers had been kept out of the canon. Almost forty years later, it remains distressingly true that, as Russ wrote, “If certain people are not supposed to have the ability to produce ‘great’ literature, and if this supposition is one of the means used to keep such people in their place, the ideal situation… is one in which such people

Although Joanna Russ’s “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” is out of print, the ideas that animate it remain relevant: women writers are still praised for intuition instead of effort, scorned for writing about the “personal” as opposed to the public. Moreover, as the VIDA count proves, year in and year out, women’s writing is rarely showered with the critical attention nor the awards that men’s writing receives. This generation of women writers seeks to remediate the status quo for the benefit of the other.

Shirley Jackson was a literary superstar of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Her work won the O’Henry award and was shortlisted for the National Book award. She’s best known for “The Lottery,” which is one of the most famous stories in American literature.


“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.

Rosie Cima writes for The Pudding a website that wrote this:

“The gender ratio of the authors on the New York Times Best Seller list is one way to gauge how being a female writer today might be different from 70 years ago, in Shirley Jackson’s time.

Books by women consistently made up about a quarter of the list in the 1950s. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, female representation on the list fluctuated dramatically. The rate of books by women got as high as 38% in 1970, and as low as 14% in 1975. (Some of this was simple math: from 1963 to 1977, the New York Times capped the list to 10 books per week. This made the annual list of best sellers shorter and the gender ratio more sensitive to changes in the counts from year to year.)

This volatility didn’t result in permanent change: in both 1990 and 1950, 28% of the books on the list were written by women. In the 1990s, women finally made steady gains on the list over ten years. 2001 saw the highest ratio of all time: 50% women, 50% men, later dipping to 48% in 2016.

This appears to be good news. Among commercially successful authors in Shirley Jackson’s time, men outnumbered women 3 to 1. Now, that number is close to 1 to 1.” This appears to be good news.

But it’s not.

Here’s why. Although the absolute ratio appears more closely aligned, it is the relative data that we are interested in to understand if women writers are celebrated to the same extent as men.

If there are more overall numbers of published women authors yet more men are making the lists then there is not equality; men are getting the reviews, the publishing house money for promotion, the buzz.

Given this data, and data it is, the discussion of how women’s writing is suppressed in overt and covert ways is relevant.

Of course, this is part of the systematic sexism that occurs culturally and is a trickle-down effect from the patriarchy. Of course, this is not only in writing; it occurs in all of the arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

We could spend this hour hauling up or memories of the times that we have been discriminated against men but instead we believe it is important to discuss how this suppression occurs in small insidious ways with all marginalized others and what we can do about it.

We would like to elevate this discussion of suppression to a larger model of discounting the other, whoever the other may be. Anything other than the self. For example, we can dismiss, disparage and discount in terms of color, sexual orientation, genre or even road to publication and we often do. All of us.

How is this done?

I’d like to elevate this discussion of suppression to the larger “other” and use the panel as a way to talk about how language suppresses and how to recognize it, point it out and give options for addressing.

For example,

Joanna Ross, in her book How To Suppress Women’s Writing discusses the idea of one of the ways is to actually prohibit others from writing and while this doesn’t overtly occur we could speak about how women and others are prohibited in smaller ways—given less money in publishing deals because what is written isn’t deemed literature, reviews, etc.

I’m very interested in the ways that language and criticism in reviews dismiss the other.

They didn’t write it.

For example,  The persistent and false myth that Truman Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee’s sister, Alice, in a 2010 documentary claimed that “Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not.”  The jealousy of a literary rival, combined with the unusual length between Lee’s magnum opus and its sequel, seems the likeliest explanations as to why the myth persisted so long.  Other examples?

 It is clear that they did write it but they shouldn’t have.

How dare they write about….. I’m sure Harriott Beecher Stowe is an example. But she also can fit into category D below

They wrote it but look what she wrote about (romance, family, women, cooking….)

I’m reminded of the NY times review by Benjamin Anastas on Lauren’s Grodstein’s Our Short History-the story of a single mother with stage-IV ovarian cancer and who her son will live with after she is gone.

Anastas writes dismissively, “Our Short History,” an unabashed tear duct rooter that should come with its own box of Kleenex Ultra Soft and a plush toy from the American Cancer Society.

… after her remission gives way to recurrence and her condition deteriorates, it is consistent with “sick lit” as a genre and keeps the pages turning. Grodstein directs the MFA at Rutgers.

Or when Claire Messud defended her position on writing a woman character who was angry when asked.

“I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

And was then generally seen as angry (gasp) herself.

They wrote it but they wrote only one of it.

They wrote it, but they aren’t really an artist.

When a whole genre of writing is dismissed.

The famous article in the Slate Against YA Ruth Grahm wrote, Read whatever you want. But you should be embarrassed when what you’re reading was meant for children

If they did, they had help. 

They wrote it but they are an anomaly or successful for another reason.

Or, when Jonathan Franzen critiqued Edith Wharton’s writing speculating on whether Edit Wharton’s physical beauty (or lack of it, according to his assessment of her face and body) affected her writing.

They write like a man as if that is the gold standard.

Other thoughts?

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