Gender and Ambition in Literature
Last week, I wrote about Publishers Weekly selecting only male-authored books for their 2009 top-ten list. Today, I want to explore one issue that Lizzie Skurnick wrote about as contributing to this sort of skewed selection: perceptions of ambition. She describes what occurred in the process of judging a literary award:
Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “ambitious,” what I think is “Nice try. Better luck next time. Keep shooting for the stars!” I think many things, but never among them is the word Congratulations.
But, incredulous, again and again, I watched as we pushed aside works that everyone acknowledged were more finely wrought, were, in fact, competently wrought, for books that had shot high but fallen short. And every time the book that won was a man’s.
My question then is whether women do, in fact write less ambitiously. In other words, is the problem that ambition rather than success recognized or that our perception of ambition is off?
Certainly, it is easy to pick out historical pairs that seem to support the hypothesis that women write less ambitiously. Compare Emily Dickinson‘s miniatures in hymn stanza to Walt Whitman‘s sprawling poems. Even HD‘s longer works do not encompass as much as Ezra Pound attempted to include in The Cantos (which, incidentally, even the poet himself acknowledges to have fallen short in the final drafts and fragments). It’s also easy to point to cultural factors that might lead to such differences. Men are encouraged to assert themselves, to dare: women have to prove their competency. Women face more pressure not to fail because women’s failures are taken to represent the failures of their sex or gender.
Then again, it’s hard to think of a contemporary poet who has taken on the epic as boldly as Alice Notley did in The Descent of Alette. Groups like pussipo illustrate the extent to which women today take on the challenges of experiment in play. And lest we conclude that it women being ambitious in literature is a recent occurrence, there’s always Lady Mary Wroth‘s long remaking of the romance in The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania.
All this, however, misses an important question: how do we define ambition? Is it really more ambitious to write in an extended form than to do the difficult work of miniaturization? What about content: is it really more difficult to write of sweeping vistas than of the intricacies of domestic life? How do we know what is experimentally ambitious? Many of the traits Otto Jespersen wrote of as characteristic of female language (without considering them innovative) such as parataxis and lack of punctuation have since been associated with experimental writing. However questionable his observations are, they help to illustrate a double standard.
We are conditioned to see male writing as ambitious writing. Thus, whatever traits we associate with male writing, however valid that association is, is looked at as daring. With women’s writing it’s the opposite.
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