Talking ‘Bout my Gender-ation

The Los Angeles review of books recently ran an article by Katherine Angel (what a great name) with the title Gender, blah, blah, blah (not such a great name). In it, Angel described a situation that was entirely familiar to me, and I imagine familiar to many female writers.

You meet a man at an event, a dinner or a party and he immediately starts to tell you about his self-published book and to tell you all about the process and what it is like to be a writer before finally, ten to fifteen minutes later, asking “What do you do?” At which point you say, “I’m a writer.”

I try to be as tactful as I can when I mention that I do this full time and have written 15 books with major and midsize publishers so as not to entirely deflate my new acquaintance. Angel described her version of this experience thusly:

When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Books with 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.

It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it.

My father all his life had the unambiguous identity of “writer.” People deferred to him as a writer, they came to him for writing advice. I always had the sense that he was considered to be talented and accomplished in his field. As a girl I was proud of this, and when I found that I had inherited this aptitude I followed in my father’s footsteps.

When people asked my father what he did and he said “a writer” they usually followed up with something like “That is exciting. Have you written anything I would have read?”

I have reached the point in my career that I have published more books than my father did in his lifetime.

When people ask me what I do and I say “I am a writer” they tend to start talking about self-publishing or ask “What is the name of your book?” (singular).

Lately, I have to admit that I have been frustrated at my inability to claim the kind of professional identity my father had. It is impossible to separate out the variables, of course.I have a different personality from my father. He liked to be the alpha in a room and I an deeply introverted and do not like to talk about myself.

It may be the self-publishing revolution that makes everyone assume a 21st Century “writer” is a hobbyist. I suspect the impression that I must be a hobbyist is made up of a combination of easy publishing and assumptions about gender. When a woman says “I am a writer” the snap judgement is that she self-publishes– most likely memoir, romance or romantic comedy.

Angel’s article is largely about the under-representation of female writers in prestigious literary journals. The editors of these journals point out that men submit more than women and that when they are rejected men tend to resubmit more than women do.

Several magazine editors have told me that men do disproportionately pitch to magazines. (One editor estimated it at about 6 to 1, and another spoke of the “sheer volume of male submissions.”) I’ve also been told that men tend to return, often swiftly, with another pitch after rejection, and tend to be less well attuned to a definitive rebuff clearly meant to dissuade further efforts. (As Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, says here, “Men will always resend, even after the most blatant rejection.”)

It is tempting then to chalk it up to natural differences between the sexes and to throw up one’s hands. Men are just naturally competitive, ambitious and confident compared to women. Women are focused on relationship building and they do not want to offend. It’s evolution. There is really nothing we can do about it, so let’s not even try.

Or could it be something else? Could it be a situation that we create through a complex web of culture? Something, therefore, that we could choose to change with a bit of conscious effort and time?

When I read the paragraph above I thought immediately about the study I have mentioned here previously, which indicates that parents tend to give boys process praise and to give girls person praise. That is to say that boys are usually praised for what they do (“Good job building that tower”), whereas girls are more often praised for what they are (“You are such a pretty girl”).

This trend, to focus on what boys do and what girls are continues into the pre-teen and teen years, as illustrated by the supposedly empowering workshop Girls, Unstoppable! which attempts to boost girls’ self-esteem and math books designed for girls which tout their ability to improve self-esteem rather than more utilitarian things one could do with mathematics knowledge. It continues into adulthood where fictional stories of male and female characters often have different “happy ends.” Male characters have happy ends when they have solved a seemingly-insurmountable problem in the world. Female characters often have happy ends when they arrive at a place of self-acceptance.

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

So, no, I do not believe this situation is created by an inherent natural difference between the sexes, it is, rather a learned behavior. That does not make it easy to solve. It can’t be fixed overnight. But noticing that we do this is a good first step.

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