The writer Meg Wolitzer has a blockbuster essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review about the differences between the ways fiction by men and women is marketed, reviewed, and received. There are a lot of elements there, and I’m sure it will be much-discussed, but what struck me most about it was Wolitzer’s explication of the way incentives systems work to reward consumers for reading novels by men and about “male” issues, and to reward female novelists for taking on male characters and “male” themes:
Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so…
Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus. As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.”
Lorrie Moore added, “A female scholar once said to me: ‘I already know what women think, pretty much. I’m more interested in reading books by men.” The problem with this statement becomes clear if you flip it. Were a man to say, “I already know what men think; I’m more interested in reading books by women,” he would be greeted with incomprehension. While there may be no such thing as “male” or “female” writing, to say that the emphases of male and female writers might sometimes be different doesn’t mean that the deepest concerns or preoccupations of women are inferior or any less essential. Literary women novelists can of course do very well without male readers. And some literary male writers have admitted envying women the “femaleness” of the novel-reading (and -buying) community — a community that, from my own experience with book groups and individual readers, I know to be attentive and passionate.
This is exactly what’s happened in television and the critical definitions of the so-called Golden Age. We’ve created the sense that the audience is morally sophisticated for emotionally engaging with the aberrant, sometimes abhorrent behavior with middle aged men (who, for the most part, happen to be white). To contemplate Tony Soprano makes you an ethically sophisticated thinker. To commune with Carrie Bradshaw makes you a consumerist flake.
But what’s so critically important about Wolitzer’s point here is that this is not a natural or permanent state of affairs. If the rise of feminism created a space where the incentives were shifted, and where men got credit in conversation and in their personal relationships for reading fiction that explored the rich inner lives of women, we could create that kind of environment again. Some of that requires some of the right, big books and movies and shows to come along — I wish Karen Russell’s phenomenal novel Swamplandia! had made it further in the Tournament of Books in a way that might have given it some slingshot momentum, and I thought Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones was an unfortunate missed opportunity to give that director credit for his long-standing interest in the inner lives of women and girls. And some of it will require critics, male and female alike, to work together to forge a new consensus. The strong reception Lena Dunham’s Girls has been receiving from the kind of male critics who are at least semi-reflected in many Golden Age shows gives me hope that we might be at a sort of tipping point in television.