Monday, February 8, 2010

Claire Messud's non-statement on women writers

Oh, Claire Messud. What exactly is your point? In the introduction to a feature on Guernica, Messud writes:
The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”

As an American writer of the early twenty-first century, I agree with her wholeheartedly. An artist’s work is in no way limited or defined by her gender. To allot space, then—such as this fiction section of Guernica—to women writers specifically is, surely, to limit and define them—us!—by an irrelevant fact of birth.
[W]hen given the chance to gather a selection of writers for the magazine, I didn’t hesitate: I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists.
I'm annoyed by this kind of non-statement that wants to have it both ways. She wants to go on record as thinking that women-only prizes and lists and sections in bookstores and journals are ways of ghettoizing women writers as "women writers" and not just writers, and this segregation is detrimental and limiting and in its own way sexist. But at the same time she wants to celebrate women for their wonderful writing, which is often unfairly neglected, and so she's carved out this space specifically for ("younger") women writers. She agrees with Bishop "wholeheartedly" and yet her actions directly contradict Bishop's statement.

So is the section she edited limited and defined by gender or not? Are the writers she chose just "writers, plain and simple," or are they women writers?

It isn't balanced so much as confused. Pick a side, propose a third option or don't invoke the argument at all.


  1. Fair enough comment. I actually kind of liked the article because she *was* drawing attention to an issue. But you are right about the fence-sitting.

    But I do wonder how many women would be clear between the showcase position and Bishop's. I'm not sure I am.

  2. I think a lot of women have trouble deciding between these two positions. Because they would rather not be judged by "an irrelevant fact of birth," they feel like they have to ignore the relevant facts of what happens to each gender post-birth.

  3. I think it's acceptable to recognize gender as part the recipe for a poet's work, but in my own "close readings" I prefer to do so only when the poet references the role of gender in their own work. If a poet writes AS a mother, daughter, wife, sister, nurturer, sex goddess, feminist, etc., then that poet obviously thinks of HERSELF as a "woman writer."

    "Identity politics" make me uncomfortable in any arena, though. I know I should feel that I owe my life(style?) to the women who came before me. But that gratitude is something I wish to express personally to those women, and not by taking a stand with my art.

    I don't mind others thinking of me as a "woman writer" --but I'd prefer they didn't because that's not how I think of myself. I would go crazy if I lived/wrote that way.

    Poets who write self-consciously from within a "context" make me uncomfortable, too.

    If I were Claire Messud, I would have skipped the editorial. ... Incidentally (and equally lame), I have a copy of the Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (edited by Fleur Adcock), in which 25 pages of Bishop's poetry is prefaced by a note from her executor saying that Bishop objected to such projects ("art is art"). Overall, it's not even a strong, worthy anthology. Apparently, it wasn't her executor's priority to honor Bishop's objection. :)

  4. I like that she draws attention to unconscious, self-perpetuating gender biases. I just don't like how she seems to condemn other women-only projects while excusing/promoting her own.

    I've seen women come down on one side or the other publicly, but perhaps not often someone so high-profile.

    My feeling is that the value in such projects comes down to their intention. If the suggestion is that women couldn't make a "best of" list or win a prize on their own, that's belittling. (For example, if a magazine releases a "best of the year" list and a separate sublist of the best books by women. Ugh.) If the intention is to offer exposure to writers who are underappreciated simply because they are women, I applaud it.

  5. "I know I should feel that I owe my life(style?) to the women who came before me. But that gratitude is something I wish to express personally to those women, and not by taking a stand with my art."

    --And not just the women who came before me, but the women who make my life so amazing -right now.- I express my gratitude these women (along with the men) daily. I don't have anything else to add to that expression in my poetry.