Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > Is There a Double Standard for Judging Domestic Themes in Fiction?
| More

Is There a Double Standard for Judging Domestic Themes in Fiction?

Thursday 14 May 2015

MAY 12, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Cheryl Strayed and Pankaj Mishra discuss whether we view domestic themes in fiction differently, depending on whether the author is a woman or a man.

By Cheryl Strayed

Writing by women is often presumed to speak specifically to other women.

Fifteen years ago, the economists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse published a paper on the effects of blind auditions on the gender composition of eight major symphony orchestras in the United States. They found that the likelihood of a female musician being selected for the orchestra increased by 30 percent if her gender identity was concealed from the jury. It was the rare academic research that became a mainstream news story, perhaps because its conclusion could be delivered in a succinct and unassailable headline: Gender bias exists, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

It’s a headline that has been reiterated many times in many fields with an almost fill-in-the-blanks predictability. Google “gender bias” and you’ll be offered a parade of findings that echo those of Goldin and Rouse. One study shows that college students rate online instructors higher in evaluations if they believe their female instructors are men. Another finds “a profound and consistent gender gap” in the ability of female entrepreneurs to attract investors in the same numbers as their male counterparts. Another reports on the striking differences in the ways that professional athletes are portrayed in the media when breaking them down by gender. Yet another determines that female employees in the tech industry receive far harsher performance reviews than male employees do, even when they’ve been deemed to be equally competent on the job.

All of these studies and others like them conclude that your chances of being chosen, promoted, esteemed and celebrated in the professional realm are lower if you’re a woman, so why wouldn’t it be true for female fiction writers too? The same way that the clarinet in the hands of a woman sounds different when heard from the other side of a curtain rather than when she’s sitting in plain view, we read women writers differently. Writing by women is often interpreted as smaller, more particular and personal, and presumed to speak specifically to other women, while writing by men is often perceived to be broadly commenting upon social structures, institutions and experiences that are universally relevant and resonant to us all. This phenomenon is exaggerated when women write about domestic themes, because notions of domesticity and femaleness are so entangled that many presume it’s the only thing women can write about — that indeed all literary writing by women is a single-gender genre the Nobel Prize-winner V. S. Naipaul described as “all this feminine tosh.”

There’s been nary a day in the past decade that I haven’t had to set someone straight about the fact that I wrote my books for people, not women. My female colleagues report much of the same. We swap stories and shake our heads and laugh, but it isn’t funny. Because when an artist has to assert that her intended audience is all humans rather than those who happen to be of her particular gender or race, what she’s actually having to assert is the breadth and depth of her own humanity.

I don’t think there’s a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down. I think we live in a patriarchy, which means that everything we observe, desire and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men. Change can come from acknowledging and recalibrating the context in which we receive the story, the sentence, the sound. It’s about realizing that the truth can be found when we close our eyes and listen.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, was released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.

◆ ◆ ◆

By Pankaj Mishra

Cultural authority has been endowed on those who document men in full.

“The American Will,” George Santayana wrote in 1911, “inhabits the skyscraper; the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion. The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman.” Like many turn-of-the-century thinkers, Santayana was worried about the marginal nature of intellectual and creative work in the United States; he couldn’t help defining it as essentially feminine and contrasting it to the “aggressive enterprise” of men in industry and business.

A split between the public sphere of action and the private one of emotions and feelings characterizes life in the secularized modern world. Santayana witnessed its extreme manifestation in a society predicated on endless expansion — a continuous exertion of the will to action that has made “domestic fiction” long seem interchangeable with “woman’s fiction.” By 1911, the roles of women in post-Civil War America had already moved far away from the prescriptions of “Little Women.” In “The House of Mirth” (1905), Edith Wharton had exposed a growing restlessness even within the more luxurious mansions. But the stereotypes of the expansionist New World — the gendering of the home for women, and the world for men — have stubbornly persisted.

Biology was also deemed to be destiny in the Old World. But the norms devised and imposed by Victorian imperialists were eloquently contested, producing two of the greatest novels of English literature: “Middlemarch” and “To the Lighthouse.” Today, Hilary Mantel belongs to a long line of women writers who were indisputably essential to the making of English literary culture.

In the United States, however, the male myths of proud autonomy and self-­reliance have made for a hypermasculine intellectual and literary culture. Its custodians have ranged from Hemingway, the war reporter and boxer manqué, to today’s TV anchors lying about their proximity to war. Its insidious prejudices make men seem naturally equipped to tackle complex ideas, chart tectonic geopolitical shifts, summarize the diverse American condition and erect literary skyscrapers like the Great American Novel. Regional, racial and ethnic labels have obscured the reputations of, among others, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston and Maxine Hong Kingston. Paula Fox and Mary McCarthy, shrewd observers of the liberal imagination’s insincerities, must suffer oblivion in between occasional revivals. At the same time, cultural authority has been endowed on those who document the men in full (Tom Wolfe) as well as warn against the American will’s enslavement by technology (Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo). Novels about suburban families are more likely to be greeted as microcosmic explorations of the human condition if they are by male writers; their female counterparts are rarely allowed to transcend the category of domestic fiction.

Happily, as Santayana pointed out, “American orthodoxy, though imperious, is not unyielding.” Its grudging concessions to women and minorities have slowly weakened our inherited notions of private and public life. And there are signs that the old literary presumptions are fading: for instance, the general acclaim for Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire,” a triumph of the moral imagination; the recognition of formal and intellectual resourcefulness in the novels of Jennifer Egan and Rachel Kushner, and in the short fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri, Deborah Eisenberg and Lorrie Moore. The old colonial mansion is being rebuilt on a wholly different foundation. Appropriately, its most ingenious architects seem to be ostensible practitioners of domestic fiction — such as Barbara Kingsolver (“The Poisonwood Bible”), Jane Smiley (“A Thousand Acres”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Housekeeping” and “Home”) — who know that the house of intellect and feeling can be more spacious, when left unlocked, than the tallest skyscraper.


Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.

A version of this article appears in print on May 17, 2015, on page BR35 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: Is There a Double Standard for Judging Domestic Themes in Fiction?