If you are not a subscriber to The Nation you may have missed author Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “My So-Called Post-Feminist Lit Life.” Riffing off the title of the TV series about adolescent female angst that introduced us to Claire Danes back in 1994, Kogan rips the lid off what it means to be a female author in a literary world where men rule.
Kogan’s reflection follows her nomination for the Orange Prize, a British literary award given only to women, and is a reflection on the perennial (male) complaint that the time for “women’s” anything has passed. Because feminism finished the work — and anyway, if it’s for women it’s got to be second rate, right? Unlike things for men, like, say, Augusta National, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or President of the United States.
Revealing that she has not yet been allowed to pick a title for one of her four books (Shuttergirl, a 2002 memoir of Logan’s first career as a war photographer became Shutterbabe, thanks to the tender ministrations of marketing), she recounts the numerous ways in which women don’t get to set the rules in publishing, and hence, get no respect. “Men,” she argues “are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.”
Kogan recounts numerous ways she has been dismissed, belittled and sabotaged — and shockingly, despite all this she continued to write. Talk about leaning in: listen up, Sheryl Sandberg. This woman has been leaning so far in that the literary world has been playing ping-pong with her tonsils. When Shutterbabe came out (she managed to fight off the pink cover with a naked woman holding a camera over her vageejee, but not the noxious title, which was a compromise between the title she wanted and Newswhore):
nearly every review refers to me as a stay-at-home mom. One such article is entitled “Battlefield Barbie,” which calls me a “soccer-mom-in-training.” I look nothing like Barbie. My kids don’t play soccer. The general consensus is that the book is good, but I suck. The character assassinations are intense. Talk asks if I’m worried I’ll be labeled a slut. I object to both the word and the question; the journalist prints them anyway.
Taking the leap from being an Emmy-winning television producer to becoming a full-time writer — which would be understood as courageous in a man — is widely understood by reviewers as Kogan’s decision to devote herself full-time to her family. Of course someone would become a war correspondent to train for motherhood! Makes perfect sense to me (although oddly, I don’t recall anyone saying that Wolf Blitzer, Sebastian Junger, or Ernest Hemingway dreamed of fatherhood as they risked death to bring the war back home.)
Later, after absorbing numerous abusive reviews, Kogan writes to
the publications who called me a slutty Barbie stay-at-home mom and/or an insult to feminism, not to ask for a public retraction, but to request privately—privately! I don’t want to get smeared—that they carefully reconsider how they’re reviewing women. “Would you call a male author a stay-at-home dad?” I ask, among other rhetorical questions.
It goes on and on: more pink covers, more titles from marketing that land a serious book of non-fiction essays in the parenting section — if bookstores stock her work at all, so trivial does it become once Kogan is permanently typecast as a castmember from Sex and the City run amok. ”It’s 2013, the day I sit down, with trepidation, to write this,” she says about the moment she decided enough was enough and decided to write this piece for The Nation (although, five will get you ten that it was shopped other places and only The Nation agreed to print it.) “The Times‘s obituary for Yvonne Brill, renowned rocket scientist, winner of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, leads with, ‘She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”
The heck with rocket science: it’s the meatloaf and wifely that counts. Kogan makes a powerful argument for why women need, not just feminism, but a new feminist movement, women’s institutions that celebrate our achievements, and more conversation about how we are treated. How many of us have been told, as Kogan was, that it is “career suicide” to complain about how we are treated, or that we are just imagining it that our hard work goes unrewarded? There’s nothing wrong with being the world’s best mom — but when was the last time an accomplished male scholar in your department was memorialized as the world’s best dad?