The Ambition Condition

The Ambition ConditionClick to see full image
Article by Anna Clark, Illustrated by Meg Hunt, appeared in issue Loud; published in 2008; filed under Social commentary; tagged alternative literary culture, ambitous women, devaluing women's voices, female writers, literary sexism.
Women, Writing, and the Problem of Success

Perhaps you know about Emily Gould's cover story, "Exposed," in the New York Times Magazine last May. Even if you didn't take in all 8,002 words on the former Gawker editor's gains and losses from blogging about her personal life, it would be hard to miss the criticism of the piece elsewhere. From the Huffington Post to the Philadelphia Weekly to an untold number of blogs and listservs, the backlash challenged the magazine for peddling narcissistic Dear-Diary diatribes as a worthy journalistic cover story.


"Exposed" garnered 1,216 comments on the Times' website before the magazine shut them down less than 24 hours after the article went live. The cause? Overwhelming negativity. Whatever the valid faults of Gould and her article, the attacking comments were unmistakably gendered. "Attention whore," was one favorite catcall. "Get over yourself, sweetheart," advised a commenter. Another scoffed, "You are just a stupid little girl"—a comment 67 others recommended. What's more, the comments were full of parental advice offered as if to a 10-year-old and intended to steer the writer away from, well, writing: "Don't you have important things to do?"; "Like your tattoos, I'm fairly sure you'll regret all this by the time you get into your 40s"; and, "You really want to find some meaning?… Go to the local VA hospital and volunteer to spend a week changing bedpans and rewrapping dressings. Or try teaching English as a second language to a new immigrant...or read to the blind."


And then there was this one: "I suspect that one day, when a stalker appears in this girl's life (you can't call her a woman), she will have no idea that she brought it upon herself."


Yep, it's all the fault of the "girl" writer who put herself out there. Add the Gould Incident to the uneasy history of ambitious women writers told that they have nothing of worth to say. 


It's not news that popular culture breeds the idea that women with ambitions of any type other than domestic are doomed to misery and cruelty. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter essayed the archetypal tale in All About Eve (1950), in which Baxter's title character is an ingénue with Broadway ambitions who manipulates her way into the life of Davis's Margo Channing, a revered and aging stage actress. Once Eve connives her way into taking Margo's leading role, betraying those who helped her, the film concludes with Eve admiring herself in the mirror, holding one of Margo's awards. What a bitch, we're left to think.


In a more contemporary portrait, the film Stranger Than Fiction features Emma Thompson as an accomplished author trying to complete her next great novel—and living the life of an eccentric, ill-kempt, chain-smoking hermit. And in films like Network and The Devil Wears Prada, ambitious women are portrayed as manipulative ciphers who choose business politics over personal relationships, their gloss of success only barely covering a core of desperate loneliness.


So goes the equation of female ambition with selfishness and unhappiness. But the translation of this old story into the world of writers takes a curious turn.


Anyone who's stepped into a literary community—readings, performances, writing workshops, mfa programs—will testify to the disclaimers that issue regularly from the mouths of women writers in particular. "This is just something I thought I'd try," and "I'm not really a poet, but…" are words regularly uttered even by those who made drastic life changes in order to carve out time to write. I prepared for months for a major fiction contest in college, for instance, which I entered five years in a row, claiming to others each time that I just "threw something together." Later, I applied to a single mfa fiction program, and told no one until I got in. I just didn't want anyone to know what I wanted most. Perhaps I was preparing for failure: If I said openly that I not only wanted to be a writer but that I worked hard at it, my ambitions could be judged against external rewards—and easily dismissed when I missed out on them.


There's no simple gender indicator for the weird fusion of insecurity and ambition, of the feigned nonchalance and quiet competitiveness that's common in writers of all sorts. But these traits are complicated by the cultural caricatures of ambitious women and the uneven historical patterns that have dictated whose talent is rewarded and whose isn't. 


Whether they write novels or cover stories or op-eds, even the most talented women writers often aren't validated in the same way that their male counterparts are. While there are few Neanderthals who would publicly say that the byline gap in literary journals and periodicals is due to the fact that women can't write as well as men, the usual justifications include shrugging dismissals like, "We don't get enough quality submissions by women." When I pointed out the 5:29 byline ratio of the fall 2006 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review on my website, for instance, the journal's editor, Ted Genoways, commented on the post that, "Unfortunately, the disparity in our issues is, I think, more reflective of a symptom than a root cause; there simply seem to be fewer women who are freelance journalists, travel writers, and political pundits—three areas that now largely compose our editorial content. As a result, the good ones are in high demand and often out of our price range."


The byline gap closes in the bookstore: Women publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction at a rate that's representative of their actual numbers. But this is no meritocratic utopia—women's writing is often met with dismissive assumptions. This is why female authors often disguise themselves with pen names and ambiguous initials. From George Sand to George Eliot, Isak Dinesen to E. Nesbit, P. D. James to James Tiptree Jr., there's a long history of women writers who have used disguised names to realize their ambitions. Even J. K. Rowling—the best-selling author of all time—adopted a neutral moniker on her way to success: Before Harry Potter became a phenomenon, Bloomsbury, Rowling's publisher, asked her to use initials to reassure the target audience of young boys who might be reluctant to pick up a book by "Joanna Rowling," a female author.


Ambition is a slippery creature in the lives of writers of all genders; no one is safe from feeling uneasy about affirming one's literary ambitions, and insecurity is the devil of anyone who faces a blank page. But the thing is, women are more likely to be justified in doubting themselves. Yes, a woman is less likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 106 years of the prize, only 11 winners—about 10 percent of the total—have been female. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction's 60-year history, female authors have snagged the award 27 times. Shaking out 57 years of the National Book Award for Fiction reveals a mere 15 female winners. As for journalists, the gender gap indicates that women are far less likely to land their stories in the nation's top magazines and newspapers. Likewise, in the digital world, political candidates made a point of stopping by the YearlyKos conference last summer, headlined by a prominent progressive male blogger, but were absent from the BlogHer conference, which drew top women bloggers together. 


And so on.


Furthermore, to even say that you want to write lasting novels, garner hundreds of thousands of blog hits, or handmake a chapbook is to expose yourself to the "who are you to think you have anything to say?" sort of pummeling that Gould received. It can be tempting, then, for women in particular to write quietly and hope that the work will speak for itself. But by not owning up to her ambitions—whether they are in the public or private realms—a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers. The silence is implicit support for editors who claim that their byline disparity is because women don't want it enough. It sets an example for other writers that ambition is something to be ashamed of. Though it might be the last thing in the world she means to do, by keeping her intentions for her work hidden, a female writer allows others to make assumptions about her work, and to decide where it will and will not go.


Obviously, there are plenty of women writers who aren't shy about declaring what they want for their writing. Jacqueline Wright, a Los Angeles playwright, told me: "Perhaps because I just turned 40, the need to look like I don't work that hard [on my writing] seems absurd. I do work hard at creating my plays, as well as finding homes for them and some money for me." 


There are certainly other variables that might explain away tentativeness in a woman writer—like perfectionism, unfamiliarity with a medium, or worry that she will be seen as careerist or—in the case of nonfiction writing—elevating her opinions above others'. Deborah Siegel leads workshops for writers who want to translate their academic research into accessible books for the larger public. Rather than expressing uneasiness about ambition, Siegel says that women scholars in particular need to hear that "going public with their ideas and making their writing more 'pop' doesn't mean selling out."


Siegel adds that the individual struggles of women writers have public reverberations. "If women scholars and advocates who aspire to a public voice shy away or sit back and wait to be discovered, we'll continue to live in this echo chamber where the same three male pundits make the rounds on the Sunday-morning talk shows and the same 10 guys keep publishing op-eds." 


The narrative our culture creates about the writers it treasures and those whom it merely respects shapes who is and isn't admitted into the literary canon, to say nothing of who publishing houses deem marketable. Take a recent interview with novelist and essayist Gore Vidal in the U.K.'s Independent that called Vidal "the last surviving giant of American literature's golden age." Aside from implicitly brushing aside the still-flourishing likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, the article only reifies how a writer's persona may be more crucial than his or her work. The headline summarizes it neatly. "Gore Vidal: Literary feuds, his 'vicious' mother and rumours of a secret love child. / He slept with Kerouac, hung out with Jackie O and feuded with Mailer." Whatever the value of Vidal's writing, it is, for the moment, beside the point. The details of his biography contribute to the value the culture puts on his work. 


Oates and Morrison are respected, awarded, and published at a rate that is comparable to Vidal's, of course. But without his persona, will they ever be as embedded in the narrative of literary and cultural history? There's nothing inherently wrong with Vidal's colorful biography being entangled with his literary worth. What's problematic is that the individuals who are validated in this way are so frequently ones who fit into a hypermasculine "literary lion" caricature: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Harold Bloom, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, Hunter S. Thompson, John Gardner. Their contemporary digital counterparts might include Matt Drudge and Markos Moulitsas. 


Historically, there's been little room for women in that public story. And for whatever their writing is worth—and some of it is fantastic; some of it is, well, not—these "lions" were told in a thousand ways (fawning reviews, profiles in leading magazines, awards) that their voice matters. Whether or not they always believed it themselves is beside the point. 


Meanwhile, the tradition of women writers is full of ambitions hidden or thwarted. Emily Dickinson's younger sister was the first to discover her poems; the first collection was published four years after the poet's funeral. Zora Neale Hurston—who once wrote to her patron, Annie Nathan Meyer, "Oh, if you knew my dreams! My vaulting ambition… I dream such wonderfully complete [dreams], so radiant in astral beauty. I have not the power yet to make them come true. They always die. But even as they fade, I have others"—died in poverty with all her books out of print. Even Dorothy Parker, who published copiously in her lifetime, was prone to disclaimers that convey the same tentativeness of so many writers who apologize for their work before they share it: She suggested "Excuse My Dust" as her tombstone epitaph, and her obituary in the New York Times featured this statement about her poetry: "I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers."


The first Master of Fine Arts program was founded at the University of Iowa in 1936. Over time, women writers nurtured their ambitions there and at other programs around the country. Today, women writers dominate mfa programs and journalism schools, reveling in a space for their work that once didn't exist. Their ambitions are encouraged, and often funded. But there's a difference between being a "student writer" and a working writer—as is apparent in the uneven welcome offered to our culture's better-known authors.


Rather than replicate the established patterns of literary stardom of Vidal and company, we can create a new landscape. We can make new ways to have a public voice through writing, one that writers of all genders might welcome, and that, being mostly outside of it, women writers are in a unique position to create. 


What might this alternative literary landscape look like? Artificial hierarchies of genre and "seriousness" would not define it, and it wouldn't glamorize a writer's substance abuse, domestic abuse (as in Mailer's case), and prejudices as evidence of can't-be-contained artistic genius. Instead, writing from any medium, by any writer, would be welcomed and read with a generous mind. Online, in print, or out loud, its words would determine its value. To get there, though, we must consider the assumptions about our own ambitions, our own reading habits, and our expectations of literary value.


Which brings us back to Emily Gould, who had the opportunity to respond to readers in a Times-hosted online q&a after the publication of her controversial article. When asked if "the tenor of the posted comments [is] going to change what you write about, or are you going to dismiss the opinions of hundreds of NYT readers and keep on with that blog of yours?" Gould contended that one source of the negativity was that "blogging has democratized and devalued writing, which used to be the exclusive province of professional writers. Now that anyone with five free minutes can start a blog, it's unclear who gets to call himself a 'writer'." 


We might consider the democratization of online writing not as a devaluation, as Gould suggests, but as an enhancement. Considering that the existing literary canon has excluded or remained ambivalent to an untold number of voices, why wouldn't it be cause for celebration when that trajectory changes? While our alternative literary culture would be misguided to consider the Internet its sole saving grace, we might trust the vibrancy of the Internet to push our narrow definitions of who gets to call herself a "writer" in ways that influence print and spoken-word cultures as well. 


It would be a mistake to simplify the ambitions of writers, particularly female ones, as solely measurable by big-time accolades, fame, or presence in mainstream media. There are those, after all, who pursue writing after a career in another area. There are those who return to writing after decades away from it. Many who write simply want to express themselves or create something beautiful. Being uninitiated into the culture of "literary lions" and not winning public accolades doesn't denote a lack of ambition; it's simply writing to a different standard. It may be a part of the creation of our alternative to the traditional literary culture.


Any writer might feel trepidation about introducing her or himself as a "poet," or avoid admitting to wanting to win a literary prize. But we must change the game so that when women writers publicly pish-tosh their ambitions as being pipe dreams, they no longer have reason to believe that they are. 


Anna Clark lives and writes in Detroit, Mich. Find her online at http://isak.typepad.com

Comments

46 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Thank you. Seriously,

Thank you. Seriously, though. Thank you.

I can't deny that the literary world is ridiculously intimidating at times. Gender issues permeate every area of every career, but the idea that to be "serious" about it you must also be male seems to be even more prevalent when talking about writing. I'm currently a student, and the English department at my school is dominated by women - but the actual writing professors? All men. And in getting to know them during my studies here, it's obvious that none of them really take me seriously when I tell them that writing is my intended career. I get the impression that they see me as silly and unfocused, and that really freaking sucks. Because the truth is that I can't ever see myself doing anything BUT writing, and that's the way it's always been, and nothing is ever going to change that.

It just makes me feel a million times better to read articles such as this; when I see that I'm not completely alone it gives me a sense of security that I don't get at school. So thanks.

We need creative outlets and education

I felt it a very true observation, the fact that women will be voluntarily dismissive of their own work. A person cannot hope to be read and respected, let alone published, if she does not have confidence in herself! This is not to say that publication should be the primary aim of writing: rather, as the article explained, writing is more of an outlet for expression, a self-created outlet, that allows women the space for expressing their own ideas and emotions (often contrarian to a patronizing and patriarchial mainstream). But publishing/blogging/independent printing creates exposure, which in turn will inspire more women to write and express themselves, and the cycle continues...

Ernest Hemingway, one of the "literary lions" mentioned in the article, is actually one of my favorite writers. I especially admire that he learned through experience, not by attending some storied institution and edifying himself into muddled muck and layers of scholastic confusion; he never went to college, and his writing has such clarity and truth. It's easier to relate to and understand. Because there is still such a disparity of access to education, let alone higher education, for women in this country and all over the world, I feel that empowering women through literacy and education--not snobbery and exclusivity--will help us all understand and relate to each other better as women. There is no education that can substitute for an original and creative mind--and women do have original minds, contrary to the opinions of some.

Random thought

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English, emphasis in Creative Writing and I must say, that I did learn a lot about technique and things (most of it I already knew and even the prof said I was good at, better than most of her students). The student workshops were horridly designed, as was most of the creative writing curriculum--the literary analysis classes were pretty good and I read some great books that I've added to my favorites. But the focus was on publishing and catering to an audience. There was definitely a lot of snobbery and exclusivity and pretentious writers who walked around with their 'holier than thou' noses in the air, affecting angst at readings, even among and between writers. There were plenty of fellow student writers that were good, but they knew it. Many of them were women, oddly enough. Even the prof favored some people for their ideas when their style was no good. Those classes I took put some writers up on a pedestal they didn't deserve and discussed Literature--with a capital 'L'. I don't even know what I'm trying to say. I think writing classes can help, and they do, but it teaches writing students to take themselves and the publishing world too seriously, to shift away from writing for yourself, for fun. And if anything, I learned that I never wanted to be one of those elitist writers with their noses in the air, affecting angst to get attention, doing all the stereotypical 'writerly' things just for show. That I would write what I wanted, hoping someone else would like it. And so far, they have. I'm learning to have a little more faith in myself, though I still find myself involuntarily discounting my work when someone asks to see my stuff.

To be honest, this is the

To be honest, this is the kind of convoluted diatribe that could give women writers the bad name you claim we have. Do you honestly believe women writers/journalists aren't taken seriously? Have you ever watched Washington Week on NPR? The women almost always out-number the men. In the creative field, look through Best American Shorts, Pushcart, you name it. To create issues where they don't exist just makes it all the harder to call attention to those areas where women's contributions are not valued as highly. Criticism of one piece of writing is not the same as denigrating the accomplishments of the entire gender.

Bitch might consider publishing poetry...and creative writing

I must agree with Nancee, writing in September. And Bitch could help by recognizing that older women
have anger issues and have worked successfully while raising families. Experience helps one temper and focus the anger into more positive channels in my view.

I'm with Nancee

Nancee hits it on the head--"criticism of one piece of writing is not the same as denigrating the accomplishments of the entire gender." Further, the writer of this article seems completely oblivious of the fact that internet commentary toward male bloggers is just as rude as anything this female writer has experienced.

But this is the style of Bitch Magazine's writing, just as I remembered it from when I stopped reading it ten years ago.

And by the way, Dorothy Parker's epitaph, "Pardon My Dust?" That's humor. She was good at it.

I agree that it's harder for

I agree that it's harder for women to have a strong, colourful persona without appearing like a hobo. The range of acceptable personality is still wider for men. To me, this is part of the problem. Here in Canada, there are fabulous women writers like Kim Moritsugu, Elizabeth Harvor and Karen Connelly, but the names you hear most often in the press are those of David Adams Richard and M. G. Vassanji - both of whom are excellent, of course; it's just that they're not the only ones.

The voices of all genders

The voices of all genders need to be heard, not just male ones.

I am part of a spoken word community on the west coast of Canada. Many of the prominent spoken word artist in this community are female. Our current slam team, of four, consists of three women. These three women are not ashamed of being writers. I have never heard them apologize for being who they are. In fact, they are looked up to and greatly admired in our community. Not ever female writer is ashamed of being a writer. Nevertheless, their voices are still small in a world of male writers.

I must admit that I don't read female writers as often as I would like. This article has opened my eyes to it. On the other hand, I am listening to more female musicians, especially ones that have something to say about the world we live in. Joyce Carol Oates was mentioned in this article; she is a writer I like. I only found out about her for the first time this year. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is the story that introduced me to her. It is an amazing story.

Again, the voices of women writer must be heard.

Women's Voices Need to be Heard

The voices of all genders need to be heard, not just male ones.

I am part of a spoken word community on the west coast of Canada. Many of the prominent spoken word artist in this community are female. Our current slam team, of four, consists of three women. These three women are not ashamed of being writers. I have never heard them apologize for being who they are. In fact, they are looked up to and greatly admired in our community. Not ever female writer is ashamed of being a writer. Nevertheless, their voices are still small in a world of male writers.

I must admit that I don't read female writers as often as I would like. This article has opened my eyes to it. On the other hand, I am listening to more female musicians, especially ones that have something to say about the world we live in. Joyce Carol Oates was mentioned in this article; she is a writer I like. I only found out about her for the first time this year. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is the story that introduced me to her. It is an amazing story.

Again, the voices of women writer must be heard.

This was fantastic. It's my

This was fantastic. It's my first time to this site - I was directed here by my bra-burning feminist mama, who always pounces on my blase claims that women are equal to men now, duh - and your article guaranteed that I'll be back to this site again soon. Thanks so much for writing a truly beautiful article. (And thanks, Mom.)

Women are treated

Women are treated differently according to context. It is slowly getting better. I have to say that the sexism, however, is deeply entrenched, especially on the homefront. As an academic, I've had relationships with men in both the arts and medicine--both of whom valiantly tried to talk me out of any self-worth I desperately clung to. They were the acknowledged brains (simply by being born male) and I was 'neurotic' and "hysterical." When your own loved ones see you as inferior, it's no wonder we still need to fight for any little scrap of validity we can get.

getting better?

i think its cyclical, and we are on an upswing

I'm sad to say I have to

I'm sad to say I have to agree with this comment. Although my father means well now, I was raised with his sexism and constant berating of my mother. My sister and I were constantly being told in subtle and not so subtle ways that we were not capable of much. These are enormous psychological scars to overcome. I feel thankful as an adult to have a handful of friends who make me feel valued. I would rather share my creativity with this small support group than risk being belittled and berated by the larger sexist world. I don't feel I am contributing to sexism by hiding my ambitions, I am contributing to my own sense of self protection. Perhaps I will get stronger as I get older, but right now I would rather contribute to the world through my job (librarian) and keep my creativity and myself safe from any further psychological damage. I applaud other women who may have been raised in a healthier environment or who are just more psychologically healthy for pursuing their ambitions openly. Thank goodness for their bravery, because I couldn't live without the many women writers whom I love. Many years ago Harper's published an article by Francine Prose called "Scent of A Woman's Ink" that addressed similar issues. I went to a forum about it at the new school. There were many fantastic women writers on the panel including Jessica Hagedorn and Joanna Scott. They were fantastic in regards to this issue. However, I do not put myself in the same category as so many talented women I admire, and I fear that I might even do the cause of womanhood an INJUSTICE because I do suspect that my writing will be judged harshly because it may not be that good, and I wouldn't want to contribute to the view of women as inferior writers by producing work that might actually BE inferior. (funny how that never seems to concern Carrie Bradshaw.) It's sad that one's confidence and self esteem can be so damaged by misogyny that one may think "why bother". I've never once had a boyfriend who encouraged me in any of my creative endeavors, since they thought they should be my priority. (Which is why I am alone right now.) Sorry to be so negative. I do admire women who are able to overcome the obstacles that I continually struggle with.

Wait until you are a "senior"

One context is "over 65." Every day, someone (men as well as women) make a condescending comment, try to complete a sale by grabbing my credit card, are just plain rude. Then, the other side is thinking we are SWEET! Or not sexually inclined. Or there to be Grandmother and bake cookies. I write senior rap. Try this:

Here, Hair!

Hair on my head
Hair on my chin
Losing an earring’s
Original sin.

Nuttin, but nuttin
Is where you want it
Where the ___ is it?
I never can find it!

But see, it IS me--
Hair on my lip
Fat on my hip
I’m pluckin and tweezin
Bleachin and burnin—

To turn back the clock
Is how I was yearnin’
Not now, boy!
Don’t toy with me…

Nuttin, but nuttin
Can keep me from grinning
‘Cause losing an earring
Is original sinning.

If I could find it--
Would I be blind to it?
Is that YOU, boy?
Who cares!

Now see me grinning
The sky is sunning
If losing my earring
Is original sinning
Just nuttin you
Can do about it!

Let it go,
I mean the earring!
Sin is a word some man made up—
To keep us in our shoes.
Come to me now, boy.
Enjoy, enjoy!

Kay Weeks Senior rap – hear the beat
3-25-08

The Ambition Condition

As a personal essayist and poet for over 20 years, I appreciate this piece and the “trepidation about introducing [oneself] as a “poet.”” And as a former subscriber and continued reader of Bitch Magazine, I must also admit disappointment in the editors four or so years ago when I sent a letter asking them to publish more reviews of current books of poetry by women.

For many decades female poets have been made to feel like they exist in a lower media caste, merely journal writers who indulge in line breaks. It’s an unfortunate oversight of many brilliant minds. And quite frankly, women poets get this judgment at the hands of other women artists, editors, publishers and more mainstream genre writers, that poetry is pretty, inconsequential, and soft. Ironically, some of the most violent, pissed-off, in-your-face expression has occurred in this environment – simply because no one is perceived to be looking.

Clark says "It would be a mistake to simplify the ambitions of writers, particularly female ones, as solely measurable by big-time accolades, fame, or presence in mainstream media.” Exactly. Why women poets feel foolish is entirely an issue of the entire culture not thinking outside the box…so to speak.

Women’s poetry is quite simply ground-zero of feminist statement; it’s personal and measurable. In some cases, you will even find anti-feminist statement. Students of feminism would be smart to research women poets for 1) new ways of looking at feminism, 2) a treasure box of brilliant pithy quotes, and 3) raw, free case studies.
It’s gold.

Agreed, Mary!

I wish more outlets like Bitch, Bust, etc, that claim to be pro-feminist, would publish more on women's poetry. It is an area where a lot of women are doing interesting, innovative, and clearly feminist writing.

Excellent, but

As a male writer who gets very frustrated with the boys network of male writers, I appreciated this piece a lot. I can't complain of running into gender bias, but the gender bias I see frustrates me.

Two things, though: I wish you hadn't used Emily Gould's Times piece here. I thought her article was badly written. So did my wife. Also, Markos Moulitsas as a "hypermasculine 'literary lion' caricature"? Really?

In defense of Karen Eiffel

I appreciated this article, and I agree that "popular culture breeds the idea that women with ambitions of any type other than domestic are doomed to misery and cruelty." How many times have we seen films that feature successful, career-oriented, unhappy women who suddenly realize that all they ever really wanted was a nice man? But I take issue with your characterization of Karen Eiffel, the writer that Emma Thompson portrayed in Stranger than Fiction. If Eiffel is miserable, she is miserable because she is experiencing writer's block, not because she is too focused on her career (whatever that means). Eiffel appears to me as a woman deep in contemplation, tortured by her inability to find that elusive, perfect idea that will end her book. Her misery, in other words, is cool. She's that "tortured artist" type, but finally, mercifully, female! I fantasize about being that brilliant, so connected to my art that I feel the need to stand on my table and feel the air with my fingers as I imagine my protagonist plunging to his death.

This may seem like a relatively petty grievance, but it's important to recognize those rare positive portrayals of women in the media. Not because we need to redeem big Hollywood movies, but because we need our fantasies. That feeling of connection to a person in a story, or onscreen, isn't that what so many of us are looking for, particularly as women? Women are told in no uncertain terms that there are limits to the types of people we can become, just as this article rightfully points out. Yes you can write a book, but if you're not going to have kids you won't be happy. Or, yes you can write, but perhaps you should stick to something "pretty, inconsequential, and soft" like poetry (as Mary Ladd said above).

So we need characters like Karen Eiffel to contradict those voices that would confine us. Eiffel allows me to dream about art taking over my life. She dares me to hope for that much ambition, that much unwavering commitment to creation. And she does it all without even the mention of a man, woman or (romantic) partner of any kind. I mean, that rocks.

Thank you...

for writing 10 minutes worth of excuses. Do you ever talk to men? Most men are so pussy-whipped they'd publish a woman's book just to have sex with her. If you seriously think the average male is a prejudiced fool you're obviously not in touch with too many males.

Also using 2 or 3 movies as evidence for your case is ridiculous. The media demonizes men to an extreme extent. In the average TV show (something that a regular viewer will spend at least more than times as much time watching than a movie) all men are bumbling idiots that are lucky to have their wife. Women are smart, independent, and rude to their husbands with no repercussions (not bitchy).

Finally, there is no excuse for women having less published, except for their quality. The man who told you it was because they were not freelance journalists or pundits was just trying not to avoid being dismembered by a group of fat ugly feminazi whores. Women, in my opinion, are worse writers because they are too emotional and have no life experience. Girls are obviously more emotional. Girls basically break down crying whenever they don't get exactly what they want. No I'm not interested in the fact that Edward just broke up with some girl, she's probably just a clingy bitch. And by no life experience, I mean look at the female writers of today. There experience includes: went to college, was on the high school baseball team. That's so interesting. Look at great male writers like George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway who both fought in wars (even Faulkner joined the British Air Force after being denied entry to the US Army for being too short).

In conclusion, there's a reason you're writing for an obscure internet magazine. You're a god-awful writer, an attention-whore, and a stupid little girl. Like your tattoos, I’m fairly sure you’ll regret all this by the time you get into your 40s. Also if you really want to find some meaning?… Go to the local VA hospital and volunteer to spend a week changing bedpans and rewrapping dressings. Or try teaching English as a second language to a new immigrant...or read to the blind.

You have no idea what people

You have no idea what people go through. You can go through just as much in a quiet atmosphere as in a war. All writers, emotional or not, and experienced or not have just as much to tell. All human voices deserve to be heard. "Emotional" is a very general term. Don't generalize, seriously.

You can't write a book about

You can't write a book about going to the grocery store and making some shitty pasta for your pussy-whipped boyfriend. Even if he yelled at you afterwards. Not everyone is equal. Get over it. Men>Women at writing

Hmmm...

Men>Women at writing? I am astounded and moved by the philisophical insight in that comment. I guess since this Dick thinks we should all go home and make shitty pasta for our pussy-whipped boyfriends we should all give up our ambitions to be writers.

I guess that if this is the best argument you can make, that constitutes you as a literary genius? Learn the fine art of constructive criticism or else go back to your "No Girls Allowed" website....I mean playground.

Don't feed the trolls...

... it only keeps them coming back for more.

Anti-Misandrist

Your total ignorance and insults aren't worth responding to as you have discredited yourself Anti-Misandrist while attacking another quite unnecessary. You reflect something that isn't worth getting near it. A counselor may be able help you. Peace.

Anon delivers.

Anon delivers.

So sorry for your small willy....

you are rude and you sound like a bigoted idiot.... I am soooooo sorry for your family and all the women unfortunate to be related/associated with you.

depressing

Wow, it's unbelievably depressing to see this sort of misogynist bullshit spouted at my online oasis. Isn't there some sort of website for unenlightened assholes that you could go haunt instead? Just an idea.

Response to the MENSA candidate that said "feminazi"...

...Why are you still carrying that grudge from when Betty Sue chose someone else to take her to the 8th Grade Prom? Ever thought that maybe your Limbaugh-baked douchenozzlery might have something to do with it?

If anything, those of us that have moved out of our parent's basement can comfort ourselves in knowing that misogynists like this fool will eventually have a female boss, supervisor, legislator, senator, President, etc.

While I do not care for Gould's writing, the silly idea that the entire gender is represented by one person makes less sense than asking John McCain to lead a conference on marital fidelity. I love the looks on a fellow dude's face when I tell him that the screenplay for the film American Psycho was written by two women. I am thankful that women do not judge all male writers by an encounter with only one of us.

Because what if it was THAT guy? Ggghhhhhgggghh!

This writer is obviously

This writer is obviously good enough to provoke some strong emotions from you. Your arguments completely lack support. Please do your research on the great female writers, their stories may surprise you. Then again, it seems as though you have an incurable case of ignorance...

bigoted comment by Anti-Misandrist

The comment by Anti-Misandrist contained so much long discredited misogynistic stereotyping and outright donkey dust that it's hard to believe it wasn't taken from the script of a retarded cartoon character. While some right wing wackos like Ann Coldsore or Flush Blimpo's ditto-heads might be dumb enough to believe that tripe, anyone who lives in the real world knows that the upper management and boardrooms of most companies are still disproportionally over-weighted with bigoted white males which explains the continuing glass ceiling effect. Since I am a white male and spend very little of my time in drag I've been privy to the way guys talk when women aren't around. Men are by and large disgusting pigs who think with their penises which is where half their brains are. From what I read on the internet I'd have to say that the female authors (including at this magazine) are generally more articulate and think more clearly than most of the pre-hominids like Anti-Misandrist whom I suspect advocates war and acting macho to try to compensate for insecurity about his (or her) manhood. Am I being to harsh? After all, he (or she) could be suffering from congenital rectal-cranial inversion. That could explain his reference to bedpans since he could have left some brains there. Also notice the reference to women's weight. I don't notice men being judged by their weight that often. He uses the words 'stupid little girl'. What a gender biased lame comment. Most men are not pussy-whipped. Many men are bullies. The repugnance of men like might help explain my distaste for my own gender and why I feel more comfortable with lesbians.

I love you. This completely

I love you. This completely made me feel better about that...I seriously can't think of an insulting-enough name for him...things post. Awesome.

I haven't read the article

I haven't read the article from The Times in question. However, I know how hard it is to put your writing or art or what-have-you out on the 'front street' of the moment and watch it being praised one moment by a critic and torn apart by another. It's even harder for a woman, against whom many prejudices and various roadblocks to actually seeing/reading/interpreting her particular message exist.

I know, in part, because people have mistaken my screen name for that of a woman, and I've found I am much more easily disrespected and torn down in person or behind my back with this identification attached to me. It is unfortunate, and sad. So much intellectual, spiritual and other profound knowledges are not shared, are lost or discounted out-of-hand merely due to a woman's sex difference. The problem is further worsened if the woman is bisexual, a lesbian or transgendered. She is further made a mockery of, or a victim of those who would detract from what, if they were made by a man, would be potentially thought-provoking, world-changing pieces of art, writing or poetry. Women should, in my opinion, and need, in my opinion, to be competitive and become more fierce in their declarations of Self and expressions, their goal-seeking and attainment. There is nothing that should hold them back any more than there is something that should hold a white man back.

Big outlets not interested in women's writing?

I would also say for anyone trying to actively contribute as a literary critic or literary journalist that many of the biggest, highest-paying outlets for this kind of work are actively not interested in work by or about women's writing. They simply don't think it's important. And if you've got a feminist edge to your critical writing, well, forget about it. At least that's been my experience. It's much easier to get a query accepted if it's about a man's book; if the article addresses men's writing instead of women's. It's discouraging.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Reading Ms. Clark's article was quite a profound experience for me. As a young writer, she's given me something big, bigger than I can say here and now, and she's inspired me to "go public" with my until-now secret blog (http://www.whatisthislight.blogspot.com). I want to be heard and I always did, but Ms. Clark has just provided the extra push to make it happen. Sincerely, thank you.

sick and tired of the same old voices....

We have been forced from day one to accept and identify with the white male perspective.. The woman's voice is heard through a critical ear, seen through a judging eye, and experienced through suspicion. Until we can accept the women's voice the same way we unconsciously accept the male voice, there will never be equality. Men need to get over the fear of identifying with a woman's experience. I'm force fed stories of little boys finding themselves in AMerican culture, I'm expected to identify with this. I don't. Hardly did they touch on my experience of being a bi-racial girl with a disability. These classic stories never spoke to me. Even "To Kill a Mockingbird" with Scout's voice is still being berated as non-literature. All I hear are critics saying Harper Lee wasn't really an author and that her book wasn't really good literature... Why should we listen to the same critics that expect everyone to accept and identify with the white man's point of view. If it's about a woman it's "chick -lit", or "chick-flicks", or "feminist prose". We, women will always be labeled by the status quo . It's up to us to filter through this male centered paradigm and create critiques that we can all identify with.

Where to start?

As a freelance journalist (aka, very poor ambitious writer), Ms. Clarke's piece definitely got my attention. I was mildly aware of Gould's writing before the NYT explosion (and ended up blogging about it as well). I found the reaction to the piece fascinating; however, I'd like to add that I didn't see it as overwhelmingly negative. If you were to check the comments on Gould's blog, your opinion about the backlash may be slightly different. I thought that she received a lot of accolades for it (as she should have). Nonetheless, I would agree that Gould's overall reputation does tilt towards being a narcissist -- which easily supports the thesis behind Clarke's piece.

And just for the tally sheets -- I would have to agree with many of the author's ideas behind the insecurities amongst female writers. For every woman who proudly declares herself a writer, I know at least two more who dismiss their ambitions and try to "move on" from their writing goals.

Keep up the good work ladies.

Not the strongest example

Obviously women's writing is subject to more scrutiny than men's, especially from the hipster demographic (see Vice vs. BUST), but I think using Emily Gould as an example is sort of, well, weak.

As a former senior designer at BUST, I got to know plenty of writers who challenge the validity of the hipster culture from a feminist point of view--see Emily Rems, Colleen Kane, and Tracie Egan--who don't engage in the 'poor little rich girl' routine Gould so readily pronounces.

Thanks...

The critical double-standard

Thank you for this fantastic well-thought out and beautifully argued piece. My Hons thesis was devoted to precisely this issue - the continuing gender imbalance in literary criticism, especially in relation to autobiographical writing.

In the Australian context, this happened with Helen Garner’s first book Monkey Grip, published in the late 70s. The reviews who panned it attacked the “gritty realism” and confronting immediacy of the narrative. What critics hated most about it was that to them, it was thinly disguised autobiography – that is, that it was autobiography masquerading as fiction.

For me, the issue is not just about critics wanting a clear distinction between genres, but it’s about the way in which genre and gender become conflated and hierarchised. In the Garner case the negative criticism was less about style (Garner is now recognised as one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors) than it was about the expression of the personal. In fact, Monkey Grip was based on Garner’s diaries. How dare the diarist pose as a real writer, the critics railed.

Now, 30 years on, I’m not sure how much this critical standard has shifted. Garner has attracted the exact same controversy with her newest novel. Everybody knows it’s based on her life, but she calls it fiction because she plays around with facts and invents things, changes timelines to give her story a workable narrative thread. She’s been writing this kind of stuff for years, and yet still, the one question she is continually asked is: why do you call this a novel?

This continuing anxiety of genre alludes to a deeply entrenched problem of gender bias in literary criticism. This critical obsession with genre and proper boundaries is absolutely connected to gender. It’s simple – historically, interior narratives (coded feminine) have always played second fiddle to grand narratives (coded masculine), and canonic fiction is always going to be privileged over autobiographical texts. So wherever there’s a cross-over critics start having conniptions, and are more concerned with meta-textual effects than the actual text itself.

Bitch as a word.

Lets stop for a second, I am having a problem that my professor is making us choose sides of the word bitch; which is supposed to be just an essay and optional to what we think about the usage of the word. But now i feel am being graded depending on what side i choose. Im judged as if I support the usage of the word instead of the proffesor focusing on my construction of vivid paragraphs or relation to the topic and, the structure. I have come to notice that the essay is talking about the side that the proffesor is against. Which I think is not Right to judge like that because it is an Just English essay not a class like Hummanities. It shouldnt matter which side i write about as long as I complete the assignment. I mean the proffessor could have found another topic for us if (proffesor) was to judge depending on the side we choose to write an essay about!!! I dont support people calling women the b-word, am just writing a paper. Some of the women not all of them use the word playfully between women-friends and agemates. I need to know if am right or wrong? Am confused!!

**Sorry for not being specific of who the proffesor is- man or woman.

And yet....

........the answer is simple for women.

Keep writing. And writing..... and writing...

I want to see Women

I want to see Women Successful !

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