Emily Gould, of former Gawker fame and current proprietress of Emily Magazine, has written an article on More Intelligent Life entitled “What Are Women Fighting About?“ Before I even get to the meat of it, allow me to remark that though the title may not be Gould’s own fault, woe betide the editor who ever decides to christen one of my pieces in this incredibly condescending way. But hell! On with the catfight, ladies!
Gould’s ostensible thesis is that women writers ought to be nicer to each other. She can’t bear, she says, “the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood.” I’d tend to agree with her in principle. Because we’re so often fighting over the scraps that the powers that be have left behind, we can get a little vicious with each other about who deserves the scraps, which is really just a distraction from the fact that we ought to have our own chairs at the feasting table. (And an equal number of them, natch.)
Gould would be easier to sympathize with, however, on the point, had she not just spent a couple of paragraphs ripping on a recent novel (A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, which I have not read). Her statement about female critics seems meant as a retraction, but her critique does go into considerable detail about the novel’s “accumulation of petty accuracies to paper over a false big picture.” Ouch!
But then we get to what I suspect was Gould’s real point – Salon‘s lead feminist critic, Rebecca Traister, is the paradigmatic example of the criticism Gould can’t bear:
One of them, an online “feminist” columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She’d said that the question wasn’t why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren’t, “in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.”
Aha! So let’s review Traister’s piece. You can read Gould’s essay in the NYT at the link above if you have not read it already. I suspect what Gould didn’t like was this sentence of Traister’s:
The cheesecakey cover shot advertised Gould’s first-person story, an 8,000-word exploration of what Gould “gained — and lost” by divulging details of her romantic and sexual life on the Internet. The very readable piece had the voyeuristic feel of a precocious, neurotic teen’s diaristic musings; it was all crushy and naive, with ample reference to breakup sex and therapy and panic attacks.
This is the only direct address of the merits of Gould’s piece that Traister makes. But here is what Traister also said:
There is a storied history of bright women writers (many of whom are mentioned in a New York Observer article this week), from generational confessionalists like Joyce Maynard and Elizabeth Wurtzel to cultural critics like Katie Roiphe to novelists like Lucinda Rosenfeld and Marisha Pessl, who have been raised up as media darlings, photographed in appealing poses or in titillating features, and then ripped apart by critics (including, on more than one occasion, me).
But perhaps most maddening is the way the buildup of critical attention to a piece like Gould’s — or to a cultural phenomenon like “SATC” — only affirms that certain kinds of women, and only those kinds of women, are worth elevating to begin with, in part because of the delight people take in tearing them down.
Is this the criticism Gould’s referring to? Because I believe that under any reading this has absolutely nothing to do with Gould herself, and if anything, is making a point that runs parallel with Gould’s – our delight at tearing women down is the problem, and it is what is keeping certain women’s voices to be heard.
But Gould is too wrapped up in the fact that Traister didn’t like her piece to notice this. Gould then offers certain half-thought “solutions” that raise more issues than she seems to realize. For example, quoth Gould:
Is this a real cause for concern? Is there really limited space for women’s writing voices? Some people, myself included, have pointed out that there is unlimited internet real estate available to anyone with the modicum of pioneering spirit necessary for staking out a URL. The opportunity for women’s writing to reach a wide audience online is limitless, at least in theory.
I don’t know Gould, but I have occasionally enjoyed her writing and loved her when she was at Gawker. However, if this is her idea of trenchant social analysis – just write a blog, anyone’ll listen! – I’m not sure her skill with words is going to get her very far. There are, in fact, hundred upon hundreds of websites out there written by women of all kinds. But Gould’s is the only one in recent memory that actually managed to land her a lead article in the NYT magazine. I don’t see anyone offering that kind of deal to the writers of most of the blogs you see linked to in our blogroll or in our posts, and in many cases – Fugitivus comes most quickly to mind – those people write with the same kind of lyricism and quality that Gould does. And what is Gould’s account for that? It can’t be her dismissive suggestion that they lack the “pioneering spirit” necessary to get their voices out there.
I’ll tell you what my suspicion is. My suspicion is that the vast majority of women actually tend to suffer from more than the condition of being women. My suspicion is that they aren’t white, they aren’t conventionally “beautiful,” they didn’t go to expensive colleges, and they don’t live in mythical, writerly New York. All of these are subjects that the powers that be (the kyriarchy, but hell) have deemed to be acceptable and interesting in women. But none of these race/class issues are addressed by Gould’s piece. And why aren’t they? Well, it’s uncharitable to say so, but one imagines they aren’t addressed because they don’t actually get Gould out from under Traister’s criticism, which does, in the end, seem to be her primary concern. After all, witness her weak-sauce suggestion of how we can all improve:
It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.
Look, I know Gould was probably pretty wounded by the reaction to her NYT article. Any sane, self-respecting person would be. But there’s something really wrong with the suggestion that crafting a well-deserved criticism about structural problems (like the fact that the mainstream media tends to fetishize certain kinds of women) should take a backseat to… well, to be honest I’m not sure what here other than criticism of women like herself. Because Gould seems to want a larger chorus, and she seems to be invested in ensuring that one appears. But she is not offering that support here; she demanding silence from the women who too just want more of us to be handed the microphone. And women insisting on other women’s silence is not, in the end, what I think she ought to be fighting for.
I think there are a lot of interesting questions to be raised about so-called “women’s writing” – what it is, why literary quality has so often been defined against the male viewpoint, what kind of content has been marginalized by sweeping it under the rug of “chick lit,” why it would be the job of women’s writing to model “womanhood” at all, what kinds of challenges writing by women could provide to our conventional modes of seeing and imagining. Gould, unfortunately, is not asking any of them in this piece.