February 2011

Alizah Salario

features

Twenty-Three Short Thoughts About Women and Criticism

1. The New Yorker may be known for its covers, short stories, political commentary, cartoons and poetry, but it is revered for its criticism. When it comes to dissecting a recent bestseller or distilling the latest Broadway smash, New Yorker critics cut to the quick with scalpel-like precision. To be a critic for the esteemed publication is to be literary royalty, but that’s not the point. If your name appears beneath that long-necked, pointy-nosed chap pictured on the New Yorker’s contents page, it’s a guarantee your voice will be heard.

2. I enjoy criticism when it validates my opinions, but I love it when it changes them. A film critic like David Denby can make me see why Black Swan, a movie I thought was eloquent and seamless, might also be “trashy and incoherent.” Literary critic James Woods’s crystalline prose illuminates the shortcomings in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a novel I initially considered perfection. Great critics challenge the obvious, keep biases in check, and help their readers have more fulfilling artistic experiences.

3. Now peruse the table of contents of any recent New Yorker, and note that of the four or five names listed under the “critics” section, three-fourths to all of them are men.

4. Shortly after the first of this year, writer Anne Hays posted an open letter to The New Yorker on her Facebook page. She expressed her dismay when, upon receiving her weekly issue, she noticed that of the New Yorkers’s 15 contributors, only two were women. Wrote Hays: “I am baffled, outraged, saddened, and a bit depressed that, though some would claim our country’s sexism problem ended in the late ’60s, the most prominent and respected literary magazine in the country can’t find space in its pages for women’s voices in the year 2011.” Hays returned her first 2011 issue with a refund request and vowed to send back every succeeding issue that contained fewer than five women writers. Ms. Magazine’s blog subsequently republished the letter and started the petition “New Yorker: Women Are Not a Minority!” demanding the magazine change its ways.

5. Should I return my New Yorkers, too? I’m not sure I want to. I really like reading them. Am I weak if I don’t? Will it change anything if I do? What is it I think I’ll be missing out on, besides a few hotshot articles and incisive critiques? Other magazines (though increasingly few) feature outstanding long form writing and criticism. Is something inherently special about content in The New Yorker? I’ll get back to that.

6. Hays’s letter, while bold and astute, was merely stating what many have long known to be true.

7. Because women write for the online version and are editors of The New Yorker, it’s difficult to get a true sense of the publication’s gender disparity (though writing for the print version ostensibly carries a certain amount of prestige that writing for the website alone does not.) I’ve always imagined a sort of literary gauntlet a writer must pass through in order to see his or her words appear in that regal signature typeface. There’s undoubtedly a meticulous editorial process that makes each issue a balanced work of art, and I’d like to think the “fairer sex” isn’t intentionally slighted. My instinct is that the reasons behind the gender discrepancy are far more complex than blatant sexism. I emailed The New Yorker’s media department to find out more about how this selection process works, but received no response.

8. Online literary and culture magazines are letting the numbers speak for themselves. On Feb. 2, 2011,VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts published a comprehensive study on women in publishing. The numbers indicate that across the board, women are getting published less than men, and books by women are reviewed less often than books written by men. Vast gender disparities exist not just in The New Yorker, but in Harpers, Granta, The Atlantic, et al. Are women published less frequently because of gender discrimination, or because they’re not submitting as often as men? Stephen Elliot at the Rumpus says we need to know more.

9. For the numerically inclined, The Millions published an essay titled “New Yorker Fiction by the Numbers” by writer and teacher Frank Kovarik, who kept a spreadsheet detailing the characteristics of the short story writers published in the magazine. Of the 358 short stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2009, 131, or 36.6 percent, were written by women. Notably, Alice Munro was the most frequent fiction contributor, with 12 stories appearing over the last six years.

10. Why don’t I submit my work and pitch stories more often? I know I should. I just don’t. I hesitate. I do the dishes. I come back to my computer and my idea has soured. Is it because I’m a woman, or is it just because I’m me?

11. On December 31, 2010, The New York Times ran a piece titled “Why Criticism Matters.” Six well-respected critics expound on the prompt, two of whom (Katie Roiphe and Elif Batuman) are women. Wrote Roiphe, “If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies -- with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone -- that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a 'sense of the age in his bones.' The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.” In an era of attention deficits and information surpluses, intelligent and insightful criticism is more important than ever before.

12. What makes a good critic? It’s a thorny question, one that prickles when I try to handle it. At her most basic, a good critic must possess a certain amount of chutzpah in order to believe other people will read -- and care about -- what she has to say. Call them audacious or simply arrogant, critics must have the confidence to write with conviction. They must demonstrate to readers why, of an infinite number of interpretations, theirs speaks a truth (but perhaps not the truth). Critics can’t be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings with writing so caustic it goes down the mental hatch like battery acid. They must be assertive, authoritative, outspoken and downright ballsy -- all traits traditionally associated with men.

13. That’s not to say plenty of women don’t have what it takes, but an assertiveness double standard exists. A man who is self-assured and outspoken is often considered strong and simply doing what a man’s got to do, but a woman of the same ilk is bitchy, demanding, and pushy. Where a man is tough, a woman has a lot of nerve. Perhaps this doesn’t apply as much in journalism, a field where aggressive self-promotion is par for the course. Still, I’ve wondered if there are fewer female critics in prominent publications not because we aren’t out there, but in part because the combination of ambition, intelligence, and audacity does not always work in a woman’s favor.

14. When writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner coined the term “Franzenfreude” on Twitter, they started an Internet kerfuffle. It pivoted around the fact that women who write novels about family drama and suburban malaise are relegated to that literary backwater know as “chick lit,” but when Jonathan Franzen explored the same topics in Freedom, he received critical acclaim. Is it because his book is better than their books, or does it have to do with the fact that we’re not critical of those doing the acclaiming? We all love to see ourselves reflected on the page, and that’s part of it. If the majority of critics are men, they might have a harder time seeing themselves reflected in a book with pink stilettos on the cover, even if the content isn’t all that different from Franzen’s manly forest-covered, lumberjack-sized tome.

15. I contacted Susan Orlean, who became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1987. When I read her book The Orchid Thief some years ago, I remember thinking it was the type of writing I wanted to do: explorations of something seemingly random and obscure that blossomed into larger truths when you’d least expect it. Since starting at the magazine, Orlean has worked with about seven editors, five of whom are women. Orlean is not a critic and cannot speak for all women at the magazine, but she experiences The New Yorker as a meritocracy and hasn’t encountered discrimination in her tenure there. The reasons why fewer women get published than men -- at least in the realm of long-form journalism at the New Yorker -- has more to do with harsh social realities than outright sexism, she suggested. “I happen to think writing long-form nonfiction is a tough undertaking, ideally suited to a single person with a good set of suitcases and few domestic demands,” she said in an e-mail. “That fact often starts to screen out people -- usually women -- who have obligations to home and hearth, especially children. That's where I see the disparity arising; not from the magazine or any institutional attitude at all, but from an uncomfortable fact about life in general, and how much responsibility falls on women.”

16. So am I returning my New Yorkers? I’m still not sure. I like being at ground zero of culture and then reading commentary that trickles down from there. I like challenging my dwindling attention span to handle dense reading marathons when I’ve grown so accustomed to online click-happy sprints. Also, in my attempt to achieve something of literary merit, I often feel like one of those Arkansan blackbirds that supposedly died from blunt force trauma. Reading magazines like The New Yorker somehow makes me believe I’m barreling toward something other than cold cement.

17. “There is a different set of standards regarding women and credibility and aggressiveness on the air," said Keith Olbermann of Rachel Maddow when she started her show. When it comes to criticism and commentary, whether political or literary, in print on the air, do women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves capable?

18. Enter Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Keith Olbermann (even though he just exited). Cultural critics who garner mainstream attention are not just critics, they tend to be “media personalities,” aggressive and excitable in all their prime cable slot glory. They piss people off. They are famous precisely because they lose their tempers and wreak havoc. Maddow has been criticized for being too emotional, too butch, too partisan, too wishy-washy. A woman shows a little edge, and suddenly she’s erratic and emotional. A man does the same thing, and he’s a star.

19. Jon Stewart’s irreverence for authority and his “I’m just a comedian” alibi work in his favor. People take him seriously precisely because he appears not to take himself too seriously. Could a woman pull this off? Could she be a goofball and still be considered intelligent? Well…

20. Sometimes I think I should brand myself as the Kim Kardashian of journalism. No, really. Lets say, hypothetically, a young-ish woman like… oh I don’t know, like me, for example, aspired to write in-depth long form articles, like the kind found in The New Yorker. How would she go about doing so? Get a good education? Check. Read voraciously and write obsessively? Check and check. Work hard, make connections, and pray lady luck is on her side? Check, check and check. Then comes the realization that pithy phrases and good ideas can only get you so far in a short amount of time. People crave more than a byline. They want a story, a face, and a human being. They want someone interesting, and for a young woman that often translates to beautiful and/or sexy. So what’s a gal to do? Strengthen her online brand, of course! And how does she do that? Tweet saucy pics while reading something intense and Russian! Come up with a provocative moniker! Create a celebrity scandal! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to put on my hair extensions and fake eyelashes and have an illicit affair.

21. “Negative criticism is particularly exciting, not only because of schadenfreude, but because once limitations are identified, we glimpse how to transcend them,” Elif Batuman wrote in the Times series on criticism. I admire great critics because they make me harder on myself, and that, I hope, will make me a better writer. Not a better woman writer, but simply a better writer.

22. There are critics, and then there’s critical, like this: Who do I think I am? Will this be perceived a whiny rant? Does she have some kind of feminist ax to grind? Is she suggesting preferential treatment because she’s a woman? Some kind of tokenism? Honestly, really I just want to figure out why.

23. Perhaps seeing fewer women critics in The New Yorker is a relatively small injustice. I live in a country where I can freely express my opinions, and my gender has not inhibited my options. I can honestly say I’ve been judged, for the most part, by what I put on the page. I recognize that women’s voices are muted in ways that threaten their safety and well-being, and for this, I’ll keep subscribing to The New Yorker. Not just because it contains the type of writing that makes me pause and say to myself, ah yes, this is how you do it, but because in its pages lies a reminder of why I must remain bold. Yet it’s also a reminder that I don’t need to be between its famous covers to write stories that are insightful, analytical and audacious. I’ve already been given the chance, and at the very least, taken my best stab. If the gender disparity still bothers me, then perhaps it has less to do with The New Yorker and more to do with the fact I, like most writers, wish to be heard.