The Occupation of a Woman Writer

Our inherited biases about who should write what live deeper than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

Kiley Bense | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (3,056 words)

 

I woke up to the sound of someone speaking. It was late on Saturday at a large writing conference, nearing midnight. A man was performing a stilted Ginsbergian ode to the empty hallway outside my hotel room, his voice so loud that my eardrums were rattling with couplets. Headphones and pillows couldn’t block the noise out. I shifted and frowned. He must not realize I can hear him, I thought. I shrugged off the sheets and called the front desk.

The receptionist assured me that security would come upstairs soon. A pause in the man’s rambling followed, and the silence held for a few minutes. Then it was broken; again he began to boom. I cracked open the door so that I could just glimpse a sliver of him at the end of the hall, a sheaf of papers clutched in his hands. I sighed, guessing that he had seen the security guard and cut off his reading before he could be identified as the culprit. I called again and again. It took four times before the security guard finally caught him bellowing and asked him to stop. By then, it was four o’clock in the morning.

I heard the elevators contract. A beat. And then: “Fuck you!” he screamed. “Fuck you! You’ve never heard great poetry before! You fucker!”

Alone in the suddenly quiet room, I marveled at the arrogance of this man, surely another writer at the same conference I was attending. How much ego was necessary to power that level of misplaced rage? How would I feel if I realized that I had forced a floor of strangers to listen to my cluttered first drafts? I knew: embarrassment, guilt, distress. His reaction was so foreign to me that I had trouble comprehending it. And yet there was some part of me that had suspected he might not go gently into the night. That inkling had stopped me from confronting him myself. Men can be combustible creatures. Better to wait outside the impact radius, if you can.

* * *

When I wrote as a young girl, I pictured an amiable reader — distracted or skeptical, perhaps, but still somewhat willing to approach my work with an open mind. A playful love for language fueled my writing then, a love for rearranging sounds and spaces on the page. When I found a battered copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel on my parents’ bookshelf, between my mom’s Agatha Christie paperbacks and my dad’s broken-in Barbara Tuchman tomes, I wanted to burrow into her stanzas and live there, to tattoo her metaphors onto both wrists. I’d never read poetry like this: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” I was stunned, and I set out desperately to emulate her. When I wrote those early poems, I wasn’t trying to impress; I didn’t wonder if anyone would question or mock my attempts. I wrote for the joy and sheer release of it. The brutal magic of that book has never left me.

I was and am a stubborn girl; it took a few more verbal smacks before I understood that in order to be acceptable to the world, I needed to become modest, gracious, and self-deprecating, always.

When I was in sixth grade, a relative who was visiting found and read a few of my poems in a notebook that I’d forgotten on a coffee table. “Your writing is very good for a 12-year-old,” she said. “I want to write better than a 12-year-old,” I said. Her mouth turned down. “That’s not how you respond to a compliment. Don’t be so arrogant. People don’t like that,” she said, angry, and I shrank back as if I’d been slapped. It is one of the first times I can remember being chastised for admitting to ambition, though it would not be the last. I was and am a stubborn girl; it took a few more verbal smacks before I understood that in order to be acceptable to the world, I needed to become modest, gracious, and self-deprecating, always. I should pretend that I didn’t know the answer. I should be unsure of my abilities and ashamed of my body. I should never question what adults told me.

Somehow it hadn’t mattered that I was raised by a working mom in an era when “girl power” had long since left the pages of punk zines for the covers of suburban tweens’ mall-bought planners. My mom’s feminism was more lived than proclaimed; she rarely spoke directly to me about what it meant to be a woman in the world, but she had modeled public confidence and forthright ambition all my life. And yet eventually a very different message settled into my skin, lodging there so deeply that by the time I was 14 or 15 I could not imagine living without its shackles. Insecurity consumed me. I continued to write poetry, most of which no one read, but my voice had been choked off. It would be years before I could begin to reclaim it.

* * *

In my early 20s, that picture of a neutral audience that I’d held at 12 was permanently shattered when I met a man who told me that he disliked all writing by women. We were sitting on the floor at a college party. The room was dark and smelled like sweat, hot breath, and cheap beer; he was a clean-cut kid in the class below me whom I’d met once or twice before. At first I was confused. What, exactly, did he think all writing by women had in common? Would he know that a book wasn’t written by a man if there was no name on the cover? He could just tell, he said, matter-of-factly, as if this were the most obvious conclusion in the world, slamming the subject shut.

The conversation festered in my mind for days. I wondered, hopefully, if it was a strange and unfunny joke. It was one thing to think privately that one kind of person couldn’t write a good book. It was another to spit that opinion at a girl with dreams of publishing. It wasn’t that I particularly cared what this kid thought about literature. It was more that his certainty, his utter inability to understand my anger, suggested that he might not be alone in his opinion.

Looking back, I think he was serious, and that he was as confused as I was. To him, his stance made the most perfect sense. What he couldn’t understand was why I was so flabbergasted and furious. He’s not the only person who feels this way; he was just one of the few still willing to say aloud what luminaries like Norman Mailer used to profess openly: “I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today,” Mailer wrote, in 1959. “Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them.” Like many misogynists, Mailer’s disdain for women’s creative work was merely an extension of his violent hatred for women as human beings; he nearly killed his wife Adele Morales with a rusty pen-knife at a party in 1960. “Let the bitch die,” he reportedly said, as he stood over her bloodied body.

It was one thing to think privately that one kind of person couldn’t write a good book. It was another to spit that opinion at a girl with dreams of publishing.

The more I thought about the man who hates women’s writing, the more I wondered if part of the reason for his ridiculous position was that he hadn’t read enough to know that there were books written by women on almost any subject, in any genre, in any style. It is still possible — probable — for students to undergo many years of American education and wind up believing that the majority of great literature in the English-speaking world was written by white men, and that men write books about politics, science, and adventure, while women chronicle the domestic and the lovelorn, the heartsick and homebound. Men can write about anything. Women are supposed to tell stories of the hearth. Our stories are meant to be small and contained, trivial and sentimental. Francine Prose was right when she wrote in her 1998 essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” (a title inspired by Mailer’s scornful comments) that “there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian,” but many readers don’t see it that way, perhaps because of the kinds of books we swallow at a young age.

* * *

If you attended an American public high school, chances are your reading lists in English class contained the same names as mine did: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain. Vonnegut, Salinger, Hemingway, Kesey, Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury. Maybe Brontë, but only Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, never Villette. Perhaps George Eliot, Margaret Atwood, or Toni Morrison, if you were lucky.

It’s not different in college. The Open Syllabus Project has collected hundreds of thousands of syllabi from universities around the world. You can use their database to search for the most popular texts in a field; there are more than 90,000 syllabi on file for English. Of the top 100 novels, plays, or poetry collections assigned in English literature courses, only 19 were written by women. Just 11 of the top 100 titles were written by people of color.

I never regretted reading the many male authors whose work populated my English classes. With a few exceptions, I enjoyed reading these books and could find something about them to delight in or learn from, no matter the era or plot. On my own time, I sought other kinds of books to read. Without meaning to, I was filling in some of the gaps in my education.

Of the top 100 novels, plays, or poetry collections assigned in English literature courses, only 19 were written by women. Just 11 of the top 100 titles were written by people of color.

As a teenager, no one instructed me to read Flannery O’Connor or Zadie Smith or Isabel Wilkerson or Jhumpa Lahiri or Edith Wharton. All of these writers I would have to find and dissect on my own, and I was better for it. I was taught Morrison’s Beloved in high school, but consuming The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Sula required extracurricular work. I don’t remember being assigned any Virginia Woolf until college, and I only came across her essay on the Angel in the House by accident, while researching a paper on a related subject.

Reading Woolf’s Professions for Women, which she originally delivered as a speech to the Women’s Service League, illuminated many things I had felt but not articulated as I struggled to learn how to become a writer and found myself pushing against boundaries I had never expected to encounter. “I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom,” Woolf wrote, in 1931. She called the phantom the “Angel in the House,” after the famous Victorian poem, written by a man, which depicted the archetypal woman of the period. The poem features lines like these, outlining a woman’s duty to fall at her husband’s feet: “Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf / Of his condoled necessities / She casts her best, she flings herself.”


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The Angel stalks Woolf’s pen, encouraging her to flatter and soothe rather than write the truth of what she knows. The Angel smothers her:

I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.”

In order to write freely, Woolf had to kill the Angel, this specter that constrained her, because she could not truly be a writer while the angel hovered above her. To kill the Angel was “part of the occupation of a woman writer,” difficult but essential. “Had I not killed her, she would have killed me,” she writes. “She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”

I was taught Morrison’s Beloved in high school, but consuming The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Sula required extracurricular work.

Woolf writes that the “younger and happier generation” may be lucky enough not to know the Angel. She was too optimistic. Sylvia Plath, born in 1932, would know the Angel, too, though she thanked Woolf for her pioneering: “Virginia Woolf helps,” she wrote in her journals. “Her novels make mine possible.” Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, published in 1995, when Boland was in her 50s, also calls back to Woolf’s essay. “By luck, or its absence, I had been born in a country where and at a time when the word woman and the word poet inhabited two separate kingdoms of experience and expression,” she writes. “I could not, it seemed, live in both.”

Boland goes on to explore how, as a young writer and a young woman, she felt alienated from the literary tradition in her home country of Ireland. No matter how well she mastered the technical aspects of her craft, there were things she was excluded from and topics she may not comment on. Boland tackled those topics that poetry had rarely touched from a female perspective. She would write about motherhood and daughterhood and a woman’s love. The domestic belonged in literature; it had always been worthy of words, but for too long the canon had excluded anything that revolved around a woman’s view of the world, branding it as insignificant. She would reclaim, too, the women who populate Ireland’s folk tales, letting them speak for themselves.

As a student, Boland also found inspiration in Sylvia Plath. She writes that she wanted to honor, but not emulate Plath, that she was committed to writing “in the shadow” of Plath’s “single act of desolation,” her death by suicide at 30 in the midst of a frigid London winter. “I could see increasingly the stresses and fractures between a poet’s life and a woman’s,” Boland writes. “And how — alone, at a heartbroken moment — they might become fatal.”

* * *

When I was about 13, not long after I’d first realized what kind of ambition was permitted for a girl to admit to, I became obsessed with the movie Annie Hall, despite understanding less than a third of its cultural references. 1970s New York City seemed like a fantastical dream when compared with the sleepy Pennsylvania suburb I was growing up in. Though it would be years before I grasped the full picture of Woody Allen’s warped attitude toward the women in his life and in his films, in watching this movie I zeroed in on the moment in Annie’s apartment when Woody Allen’s character picks up a copy of the same edition of Ariel that I had stolen from my parents’ bookshelf, a flimsy, plain paperback with the title stamped across the front in black block letters. “Sylvia Plath,” Allen says, “Interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.”

Today, just as Francine Prose argued two decades ago, women are still expected to write in a certain way about a certain set of subjects.

I struggled to make sense of this comment, though it was only an aside, another “smart” joke in a script that was brimming with them. It puzzled me because I had never romanticized Plath’s suicide, or Woolf’s, even when I was too young to know for myself what Woolf meant when she said she had to slay an Angel at her desk, before I’d read Plath’s journals and A Room of One’s Own. It had never occurred to me to romanticize their deaths. What I had wondered was why any mention of Sylvia Plath’s life seemed always to be followed by an echo of her death, why her writing, her vital work, her genius, seemed also to be an aside, an afterthought to her tragedy, her instability, her motherhood, her symbolism.

Today, just as Francine Prose argued two decades ago, women are still expected to write in a certain way about a certain set of subjects: “It’s not at all clear what it means to write ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman,’ but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women — or at least that they should,” Prose wrote. When I have strayed from those strictures, some of my readers inevitably try to push me back into a box labeled “Women’s Writing.” These rules are enforced in subtle ways: peers and professors are more likely to praise my essays about love or family; they tend to resist and question my writing about war and history. (That stubbornness of mine again: did I want to write about war because I knew that readers wouldn’t always accept it?) “Is this fiction?” one asked, of a chapter with 43 footnotes attached. “Why would you want to write about that?” another wanted to know, when I submitted two scenes of historical narrative about World War II. Our inherited biases about who should write what live deeper than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

* * *

I hear the Angel too when I write; she’s been with me for more than a decade. Sometimes she is shaped like doubt. She asks me what authority I have to propose that argument or state this opinion, reminding me that I am not important, not famous, not anyone. She tells me to start every sentence with “I think,” softening and qualifying each statement. She likes to bring up my rejections and disappointments, listing them off until one lingers. She needles and nitpicks; she wants to know who I might offend, infuriate, or annoy with my words, who might attack me if I commit to trying to form my ideas and memories into paragraphs or verse, giving them weight when perhaps they don’t deserve any. She sits on my shoulder and whispers: Do you really have anything worthwhile to say? And who’s going to listen?

I will never be like the poet in the hotel, so sure that my words deserve to be heard that I could scream them until no one else can sleep. I don’t know how it would feel to live cocooned inside that kind of wild confidence, though a part of me wishes I did: What futures might I imagine then? But although I’ve gotten better at banishing her, although I know now how to shake the Angel off and return to the sound of the sentences and the joy of turning thought into language, although I am learning every day to raise my voice, it’s futile to wonder what might be possible if the Angel didn’t dog my steps. I know I’ll be killing her for the rest of my life.

* * *

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist who has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was a 2018 winner of the Poets & Writers Amy Award for poetry.

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Editor: Ben Huberman