Wednesday, January 30, 2008

where the girls are

The true test is to find work, whether past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued…by that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds – still matter.

--Harold Bloom, skeptical of feminist criticism, kind of a douche

Kris Vire posted a good writeup on the Time Out Chicago blog of the Chicago Dramatists "Feminine Dilemma" panel discussion. Clicky: I wanted to go, but I was face down in my apartment trying not to drown in my own phlegm. Too much information? It's a topic of interest to those who write and have a vag, but gender disparity in the arts and, oh, THE ENTIRE WORLD, should be of interest to folks, vag or sans vag. It's a conundrum where the answer isn't about Affirmative Action, or quotas, or equality on programming a gender-balanced 50/50 season.

Ward Six has a post tackling the concept of female writers and levels of "American literary greatness," and how women rarely make it to the top of that mountain. Who is making that distinction and why would that be? Author Rhiann Ellis makes this curious personal observation regarding girls and boys:

Is it that worthy literary achievements by women aren't being recognized? ...But it is also that worthy literary achievements by women aren't happening, too. I've been in writing classes -- taking them and teaching them -- from first grade on up through graduate school, and you can watch it happen: little girls write circles around the boys, they love writing more than boys and care more about doing it well and produce reams of it. This is true right through college, when boys begin to catch up. And then, by the end of college and into graduate school, something happens: boy writers begin to become more experimental, daring, and confident, and the girl writers begin to self-destruct.

-Rhiann Ellis, Ward Six

I'm not exactly sure what she means by "self-destruct" unless it means the opposite of being experimental, daring, and confident. Viewed from the perspective of the theatre business, the case of "daring and experimental" may be viewed as a liability -- daring and experimental will, more often than not, make producers nervous as hell. But, I wonder, to what extent is the feminine perspective a liability in theatre? Another curious point made if you spelunk into the comments of the post:

I feel as though the parameters of that concept [literary greatness] favor "masculine" ways of seeing the world. (Please take those quote marks to heart.) Personally, I am not terribly interested in the Big Picture in fiction, or rather it only interests me as a context for presenting the Small Picture, which is all I really care about. I think a lot of women writers approach their work in a similar way.The Big Novel has to be seen to be GRAPPLING with something, to be TACKLING some big PROBLEM, and for whatever reason, this approach seems to appeal more to guys. And then the world of publishing rewards them for their efforts.

-J. Robert Lennon, Ward Six

Is this Big Picture/Small Picture true of male and female playwrights? I don't know. If anybody who sees more plays than I do has a thought, please share. What is true, I think, is a lot of theatres want their programming to seem relevant in the Big Picture, however you define THAT. And if it's true that men write towards the Big Picture programmed by male artistic directors looking for that Big Picture, then that might be one possible explanation for more productions of plays written by men.

I always wondered what difference it would make if I had followed through on the impulse to write under a gender-neutral or masculine pseudonym -- granted, the initial impulse was to at least write under a last name that wasn't a total Polish mindfuck. I test-drove a pen-name when I first started sending things out, but it didn't feel right and it didn't feel like me. Would it make a difference if my plays were written by a man? You'd hope that rejections are based on content and not preconceived notions of what a female playwright will write, or to what audience they appeal.

My one anecdote involves a table reading of an early draft of "The Butcher of Baraboo" a couple of years ago. The cast of that play is 4 women and 1 man; the man is resigned to an important, but small, role -- y'know, like a man-Ophelia. Anyway, the actor reading the lone male role came up to me after the reading was over to tell me why he liked the play. Decipher this how you will: "It's a play about women who just happen to be characters, y'know? It's not a "woman's play", y'know? It's unusual."