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Where Are the Women At The New York Review of Books?

May 6, 2013, 10:26 am

nyrb052313_png_230x1292_q85One of the paradoxes of being a female intellectual in my generation is that we grew up dreaming about being part of a literary and academic establishment that did not include people like us. This is, of course, doubly true for lesbians and women of color. My life history is informed by what is, and what used to be: sometimes the two collide. These collisions usually occur when I revisit the literary institutions that have shaped my aspirations and career since the 1960s.

My perspective on publishing is a comparatively long one. I have been a continuous subscriber to publications like The NationThe New Yorker and  The New York Review of Books since I was a teenager. When, as a young person, I imagined myself a writer, I imagined myself writing for those publications despite the fact that they were almost entirely written by men. Since feminism was only beginning to make an impact on the eighth grade, it never occurred to me that gender could get in the way. (See my earlier piece on Deborah Copakin Kogan.)

Even though I read a lot in the 1960s and 1970s, I did not really get it that the best way for a woman to position herself as a writer was by attaching herself to a powerful male writer. This may have been a symptom of gender identity disorder, to the extent that, in retrospect, I saw my future self in male writers. After reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964) I understood perfectly why he ditched poor Hadley after she left his manuscript on a train. Similarly, I decided to do as he and all the other (male) writers I revered had and began sending my juvenile short stories, unsolicited, to major publications around 1972. Needless to say, they were all returned in the SASE (stamped, self-addressed envelope) that I had included, as per submission instructions that were themselves entirely out of date in a literary world that was increasingly dominated by agents.

I was encouraged in my fantasies by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which was published in the United States in 1971 over her mother’s objections. This was what a pre-feminist world looked like: people like me skipped the suicide part, and highlighted the discovered by Mademoiselle in 1953 part. One dreadful, self-indulgent story I wrote (probably a version of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again set in suburban Philadelphia in the 1970s), was actually returned by The New Yorker with a lovely note from William Shawn, encouraging me to keep writing. What moved him to such a kind, and undoubtedly unwarranted, act? I have no idea. But it was almost as good as having the story published.

Decades have passed, Sylvia Plath is dead, as is nearly everyone else named in this essay, and most publications have a good complement of women writers. The Nation is edited by a woman (as is The New York Times), and consistently features writers of color; The New Yorker was more or less saved from obscurity by a woman. But The New York Review of Books has managed to hold the line as a bastion of whiteness and maleness. A year or so I asked a successful (white, male) nonfiction writer whether he thought the NYRB had a woman problem. He rolled his eyes in that exaggerated way that means: “Oh my god yes.” Reminding me that Robert B. Silvers had co-founded it with Barbara Epstein in 1963, he also said that in his view the problem had gotten worse with Epstein’s departure from the NYRB (and this earth) in 2006.

The NYRB also clearly has a race problem. “What about Zadie Smith?” you are thinking. OK, name one other writer of color who appears regularly in its pages (reviews of Jamaica Kincaid’s work and regroupsectives on James Baldwin do not count), and any lesbian.

A publication created by and for serious writers (other founding collaborators were writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell), it probably isn’t surprising that the NYRB initially reflected the gender politics of a post-war New York literary world where, to get noticed as a woman writer, you either had to be on your back in a pile of coats all the time or reinvent serious ball-busting.

What is notable, however, is how little has changed at the NYRB since that founding moment. Other publications have rethought their gender and racial politics since 1963 — why not the NYRB? It is hard to assume that the problem is not an ideological one, where existing networks = excellence, and moving outside those networks would signify a disintegration of “standards.” How else can you explain the NYRB‘s obsession with Gordon Wood, a man from the history profession’s stone age who has simply refused the transformation of Early American history by gender, Native American and critical race studies?

In any given issue fewer than a quarter of the essays are written by women, and some have as few as one (numbers for writers who are not white are even more shameful.) Look at the most recent issue (v. 60 no. 9, May 23 2013): out of nineteen essays, only two are written by women.  One of those women writers is not only dead, but is also founding editor Elizabeth Hardwick. To make things worse, the essay is excerpted from one of the most ungenerous reviews of Sylvia Plath’s work I have ever seen, written by Hardwick in 1971 in the wake of Plath’s suicide.

Hardwick’s main point seems to be that Sylvia Plath’s many prizes were entirely undeserved, and can only be explained by the fact that Plath made a spectacle of herself (one can only imagine how frosted she was when the poet’s collected works were awarded a Pulitzer in 1982.)  ”In Sylvia Plath’s work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons,” Hardwick writes. “Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament?”

You would think that, having been married to Robert Lowell, Hardwick would have been a touch more forgiving about mental illness, weird public behavior and the hazards of confessional poetry. But no: she repeatedly castigates Plath for letting her dark, twisty soul loose on the world. What was good for the gander was, in the goose, “destructiveness,” “grave mental instability,” “drama,” “odd,” “defiant,”and  ”a lack of conventional sentiment.” Hardwick also repeatedly describes Plath as “foreign:” I cannot imagine what she meant by this, other than that Plath was Jewish. Added to this unpleasantly anti-Semitic allusion is Hardwick’s assertion that the genocidal themes in Plath’s poetry were an overly dramatic response to the cultural wasteland rather than an early attempt to address the effects of the Holocaust on a generation of post-war American Jewish intellectuals.

It’s a mean-spirited essay, and one that I was sorry to read because I have always liked Hardwick’s work. I have always liked it that she herself continued to write despite having to put up with Robert Lowell’s genuine need for care, his often nasty and selfish behavior, his infidelities, and his numerous hospitalizations. Arguably Lowell’s literary genius was realized because he had wives — writers Hardwick, Jean Stafford and Caroline Blackwood — were willing to take a second chair, and spent a significant portion of their creative energy enabling his. Sylvia Plath was a wife: in addition to writing poetry, she shopped, washed nappies, and cooked. After Ted Hughes left her for another woman, she did it all by herself.

And still she wrote. How could Hardwick not have seen this? One imagines she was almost deliberately refusing it.

“On Sylvia Plath” seems unprincipled, cruel and envious: in the guise of a critical review, it is a deeply personal, mysogynist attack on a woman who changed the rules about what it meant to be a “woman poet.” No one has ever accused Elizabeth Hardwick (or Sylvia Plath, for that matter) of being a feminist, but I also wondered whether, were she alive, she would have wanted this essay to have been republished. Which then provokes the question: why did the NYRB think that it was appropriate, in an issue featuring exactly two women writers, to reprint an essay in which a dead woman takes down another dead woman?

I’m not the kind of person who cancels my subscription to a good publication because I read something I don’t like, but I do call upon the editors at the NYRB to get a grip. How about celebrating a half century of literary excellence, not by trying to make us nostalgic for the whitemale values of the 1963 world, but by re-imagining the nation’s top literary review to serve an intellectual world that respects a writer’s world transformed by the social and political changes of those decades? And what if some of the good, white men who have been transformed by history, who publish regularly in the NYRB, and who benefit from the its consistent exclusion of authors who are women and people of color, made a point of asking for a change in editorial policy before they published there again?

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