Last fall, over dinner at a writing retreat, one of the instructors commented that she would like to see people start referring to the works of male novelists as “men’s fiction.” She went onto say that a man had recently commented “xxx, you’re a very talented writer, but all you write about is family stuff. Why don’t you write about something important, like the software industry?”
I work in the software industry and I found this especially funny. Why do people think of technology as an Important Topic, but consign domesticity to the Fluff bin?
Oh, but wait. It turns out that it’s not that cut and dried. It’s not that the domestic sphere isn’t an Important Topic. It’s just not important when it’s expressed by women. Behold the work of photographer Isaac Layman, who recently showed at the Frye Museum in Seattle. I like some of his work (Cabinet and Otter Pops mostly) but that’s not my point. My point is that Layman, in his own words, focuses on the mundane because, “What staying in the house initially did for me was that it didn’t give me an easy out. I couldn’t wait around and say: ‘I’m going to go take pictures when I go travel.’ I couldn’t say: ‘I’m going to wait to go to an important place to take a picture.’ Or ‘I’m going to wait to go to a difficult place to take a difficult photograph.’ I’m just always here. And always here should be good enough.”
So … I agree, but “(fluffy) women’s fiction” is often set in the home because until recently, that’s where most women spent most of their time. They knew the domestic sphere intimately so that’s what they wrote about. I can’t help but be a little annoyed that when a women writes about home life she’s told that she’s not serious enough, but when a man photographs his home life (sometimes disgustingly, as in the case of his used Kleenex photo) it can be elevated to Important Art.
This isn’t a comment on Layman’s talent or the validity of his art, or on the talent of any “serious” male authors, but rather a comment on how we as a culture decide what is art and what is fluff.
Readers, I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there female novelists whose work you think of as serious? Fluffy? What about men’s work? Do you pay attention to the genders of the authors you read, or do you read for the story and the quality of the writing?
Personally I think the story and the quality of the writing is as important as the subject matter.
As for the gender of the author, I usually don’t pay attention unless I’m looking for a particular writer. Considering that just because someone uses a male or female name does not mean that they really are what the name implies, I think going by gender alone is pointless.
Thank you Kira – I think it’s interesting that some writers are still obscuring their genders in this day and age, but you’re right, it does still happen (J.K. Rowling, anyone?).
I think there is relevance to the gender of the artist or author. For me, this stems primarily from expectations of norms. Specifically, in the case of a female author writing about homelife, I find it to be more expected so I am apt to not give it all the attention it may deserve. On the flip side, if a strong male figure were to write about homelife, or giving up his career for a relationship, then that would seem to be more unexpected and noteworthy, and thus stop me in my tracks. Rightly or wrongly, this perspective probably translates into my level of appreciation of the author’s work.
Thank you for the insight. That explains a lot about why someone like Layman can make such a splash, and I had not thought about it that way before. I still don’t like it though 🙂
Hi Jennifer, my response is a bit out of date but I was interested in your comment. One thought I have is that the antithesis of the female writer writing home life based “fluff” is the male writer of action / adventure. Seems to me you could compare two types of author, say Robert Ludlum to Jodi Picoult, both authors follow a standard (for them) pattern and are targeting a defined audience and the best seller list. So the comment to a female writer “you’re a very talented writer, but all you write about is family stuff” would become “you’re a very talented writer, but all you write about is action adventure stuff” for a male writer. In both cases I agree, writing about the software industry is hardly distinguished as important, unless it is a romantic action adventure with a home-based software developer as the lead character. Hmm I might have big audience for that book theme .
The bigger issue is when a woman writes a “serious” novel is it given the same level of respect as a serious novel by a man. Seems to me there are a number of famed female authors, but how easy is it to get the break, and is it easier for men? I would guess that from a readership perspective it is a wash, the audience is split between genders, but the talking heads who review and set the cultural agenda, now that’s a different story. … Interesting though
Hi Dave, thanks for stopping by. Your last paragraph captures a topic that keeps me up at night. Some have suggested that I use a non-gender-specific nom de plume, but then I do nothing to improve the situation. I do think that critics, awards committees, etc., give women writers the short shrift, but if I manager to sell a bazillion copies, will I care?