This past weekend, I took my two little boys home for a trip to see my family in Texas. About a month before, I did something that one writer friend, at least, thought was crazy: I sent the first third of my novel to my parents. Why would I do such a thing? I guess I just wanted some encouragement and praise, some fuel to help me keep writing, and I said as much in my email. It’s hard to get people to read your work, and only one of the seven friends I sent it to has gotten around to reading it yet. And my mom performed her part admirably, reading it post-haste and telling me how wonderful it was. It was the loving support I needed, and that I’ve always been extraordinarily lucky to count on from both my mom and my dad.
I had begun to wonder, however, why I hadn’t heard anything from my dad yet. In addition to being a physician, he is a some-time writer, too, and a really good one. I didn’t think too much of it, however: I figured he just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. So, over a game of Monopoly with my brother and my boys, I asked, “Hey, did you get to look at the pages I sent?” I was surprised to see a look of discomfort cross his face. “Yes,” he said. “What did you think?” I asked him.
“It’s for women,” he said.
And he said it in that way. The way that’s like, “it isn’t for me,” the way that’s like, “it’s for children,” or “it’s for half-wits.” Caught entirely by surprise, I muttered something like “yes, it probably will have mostly female readers,” and rolled the dice, attempting to conceal my hurt and, to be honest, my sudden attack of embarrassment.
I admit it. On this pronouncement from my dad, I immediately thought: “Oh my god. My novel is a fluffy, silly book ‘for women.’” Why would my dad or any other man want to read such domesticated crap? I still can’t believe that I thought that, even for a second, but I did.
After all, my main character is a divorced mother of two boys. My book does draw heavily on my experiences as a single mother, a career woman, and a woman, period. And my dad is probably right. Mostly women will read it, because while women are expected to read books about men, even those as intimate and “domestic” as my book is, and consider them venerable commentaries on modern times (why shouldn’t they, when the critics do?), men are supposed to look at books about women’s lives and say, “oh, that’s a ‘women’s book’” and dismiss them out of hand. (Why not, the critics do!)
I know this territory has been endlessly gone over. Sometimes I get so sick of reading about it, writing about it and thinking about it that I wish I could ignore the whole “woman writer” ghetto-thing. (A pointless strategy, but one that many women writers attempt — as though protesting that they do not want to be “labeled” women writers will exempt them from the prejudice they face.) But hearing it from my own father, who didn’t even finish reading the pages I sent once he’d made this determination, really hurt, and, when I got over my embarrassment, also made me really mad.
It is a tribute to all my years of therapy that that night, after the boys were in bed, I was able to tell him how I felt. It is a tribute to him that he listened, apologized, and, best of all, asked me to help him understand just how damaging attitudes like this are to women writers (and women in general), requesting that we open a dialogue through letters, phone calls and reading lists. I am so lucky to have a dad like mine. He is a loving, compassionate man who listens, and wants to learn, and we are close enough that we were able to begin to have a dialogue about it. (In fairness, he also admitted it was hard for him to read something so evidently based on my life, and that is something I completely respect and understand.)
So my question to you is: what would you tell my dad? What articles, essays or reflections would you send?
I have the beginnings of a list. I’ll be sending Francine Prose’s “Scent of Woman’s Ink,” of course, a link to VIDA’s “The Count”, Katha Pollitt’s review of “A Jury of Her Peers” titled, “Scribblers, Unite! Are women writers undervalued because of what they write or how we read?”, and a link to the She Writes Radio show I did with Teri Coyne called “Genre, Gender and Race.”
But I would love your help as I begin this dialogue, and as I continue to think about how to teach my sons to read. With an openness, I hope, to all great (and sometimes even just entertaining) writing, and an understanding that reading is meant to immerse us not only in worlds we inhabit, but in stories that ask us to imagine, and sympathize with, worlds beyond ourselves.