Because Life’s Like That: Shining a Light on Literary Sexism

Shutterbabe-coverI recently read a brilliant article by Deborah Copaken Kogan, a well-known writer and feminist.  I was attracted to the title of the article about her so-called post feminist life “Life in Arts and Letters.”  It immediately brought to mind the TV show with almost the same name that I relished in the 1990s and I was curious what Kogan had to say about her life as a feminist.

And her piece hit me like a bomb.  As I am sure it hit the whole of the Internet. I read how it hit the writers at Women & Hollywood and Jezebel hard – 17,000 shares on Jezebel alone.  Here is a brilliant, accomplished female who has so many accomplishments as a war photographer, a TV producer and author. From the outsider looking in, she is a courageous, out-spoken woman who for the last 25 years has been living her life on her own terms.

But in reality she’s a lot like you and me.  She’s someone who has faced chauvinism and sexism more times that she’d like to admit during her career. She’s kept quiet out of fear of not getting smeared in the literary world and beyond, but recent events, one in particular, has compelled her to speak out.  She has always worried that speaking out would limit her work from being published if she spoke out and that would lead to professional suicide.

And her answer to it all: “Because life’s like that.”

But after reading Yvonne Brill’s New York Times obituary, the incident that propelled her into action, a few months ago, she has been prompted to finally speak out.  Brill was a rocket scientist known for far more than her beef stroganoff but her obituary kicked off with these words:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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.

Here we have a successful woman who created a propulsion system being remembered as the world’s best mom.  And we’re all sure she was. But she was so much more than that.

This propelled Kogan into action.

After years of being labeled a soccer mom in her own book reviews and being over-looked for countless literary awards that go traditionally to men, she has clearly had enough.  She now wants to know what a woman has to do to get herself known in a man’s world. So she breaks down her post feminist life in arts and letters and it makes for one fascinating life, that is for sure.

1988: She was raped in college and told to keep quiet.  Now the wife of her rapist sits on “Lean In” panels next to Sheryl Sandberg (she recently Googled him out of curiosity and notes this with irony). She writes: “Twenty-five years later, while watching CNN lament the effects of the Steubenville rape on two promising lives—the rapists’, not the victim’s—I’ll hold two competing thoughts: nothing has changed; I wish I’d been braver.”

1989:  She is a war photographer at age 23 and her work is professionally exhibited alongside male heavyweights who are given solo exhibits.  The exhibit is called “Les Deux Femmes Sur le Front,” which translates as “The Two Women on the Front Lines.”

1999: Random House changes the name of her first book from Newshore to Shutterbabe.  She is told she has no say in the matter: “I beg for Shuttergirl instead, to reclaim at least “girl,” as Lena Dunham would so expertly do years later. Or what about Develop Stop Fix? Anything besides a title with the word ‘babe’ in it.”  Salon picks up the story and publishes both my full name and their own take, in which the critic’s amusing if false hearsay is printed as fact, without ever having called to ask me for a rebuttal. The name of the essay? “When Authors Attack.” (“They’ll smear you,” I think to myself.)”

2006: She calls her new novel Suicide Wood about a mother who kills herself and her children. The original title is a spin on Dante’s Inferno but she is told that women will be turned off by Dante.  The name is changed to Between Here and April, despite her protests.

2009: Her third book, Hell Is Other Parents, a collection of personal essays, is published with a pink cover and placed in the parenting section. On that experience, she writes: “Prior to publication, I try changing the color to robin’s egg blue, the classification to memoir, and the title to Screwing in the Marital Bed, the title of one of the essays, which I think better encapsulates the thrust of the book. I am told, for the third time, that I have no say in the matter.”

2012: Her latest book, The Red Book, gets passed over for a review in the New York Times Book Review despite the fact that it’s a future nominee for the prestigious yet controversial Women’s Prize for Fiction.  For that reason alone, bookstores won’t stock it.

Did you know that most female authors do not get reviewed in the New York Times? I was surprised to learn this fact. Who can blame Kogan for feeling held down after years of name-calling, having decisions about her work made against her will and overwhelming sexism?  She writes: “This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it.”

Kogan’s story is a sad reality of where the feminism movement stands over 40 years after its origins.  Here’s hoping for major changes to take place before my own 10-year-old enters the real world. Meanwhile, I’ll be stopping in my local book store to ask for Kogan’s new book.  

Every store should have it in stock.

Holly Rosen Fink is a marketing consultant, freelance writer and theater producer living in Westchester, NY.

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  • This is such an important issue for female writers! Why do women have to get stuck in the “mommy” blogger/chick lit genre? Why can’t they write about their families, politics, motherhood, and economic policy (the same way that men do!) and be recognized the same way that men do in reviews and awards? Why do women who write about family/personal issues get lumped into “women’s lit” or “chick lit”? And serious male authors who do the same get called “introspective” or “complex” and win awards? I remember that Jodi Picoult and other female writers (who often get called “chick lit” writers”) wrote an editorial a few years ago about this.

  • Elissa

    This article hit me like a ton of bricks – I had NO idea about the literary worlds’ anti-woman stance! I wonder if it were women who told Kogan “she had no say”…..

  • Oy. Of course we knew all this but reading it in black and white hurts. Good piece, bad news.

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