Citing Alice Munro’s Nobel win as the cap on a year of stellar writing by women, Gilbert listed Donna Tarrt, Jesmyn Ward, and Rayya Elias, among a list of the authors of her favorite 2013 books. “Somewhere in the vast library of heaven,” she continued, “George Eliot, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton and a bunch of other fantastic female phantasms are having a celebratory bottle of champagne, smiling proudly over of us.”
Her declaration seems especially timely not only because of the preponderance of acclaimed female authors that received recognition this year (see Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton and the illustrious literary ladies that shared the shortlist of six with her: NoViolet Buluwayo, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki, for example), but also because of the sheer volume of column inches and internet bandwidth given to issues directly related to women. This year, it seemed pop culture was particularly obsessed with the challenges impacting women’s lives from how decisions regarding marriage and fertility impact workplace ascendancy, to questions of sexual objectification.
It started with Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In, released in March. The Facebook COO’s book reignited the “woman’s place” debate for a new generation, adding to the ongoing viral discussion sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s June 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It seemed every outlet had to weigh in with the Wall Street Journal‘s Nikki Waller quipping “We are in a bull market for think pieces about Sheryl Sandberg,” in a post rounding up coverage of the book from Cosmo to Forbes.
Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking episode at MTV’s VMAs poured gas on the conversation, eliciting fiery back and forth across the web. The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica advised Cyrus’ detractors to “Get Back, and Just Let Miley Cyrus Grow Up” while Entertainment Weekly ran Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to the young star in which she warned Cyrus: “you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.” Then there is all the grousing going on about Beyonce’s decision to sample writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” on her surprise December album.
Writer Lauren Sandler waded into the wider conversation alleging female authors might do better with just one child — drawing instant clap back from authors Zadie Smith and Aimee Phan among others who also happen to be mothers. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling (who opted not to write under her name Joanne because “her publisher, Barry Cunningham…thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman”) released a new book under a more explicitly male-sounding pen name “Robert Galbraith.”
Though Rowling was clear her reason for publishing her latest bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling as Galbraith was because she “wanted totally unvarnished feedback,” it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t choose a female pseudonym. Does she feel adult male readers would also be wary of a book written by a woman — just as George Eliot née Mary Anne Evans did when she was writing in the 1800s? If so, Rowling might not be wrong.
This summer, sci-fi writer Ann Aguirre expressed deep frustration and anger at sexist attitudes aimed at her by both male readers and male writers. Likewise, VidaWeb.org noted that, in 2012, male reviewers (the gender of most literary reviewers) disproportionately reviewed books written by men. Author Jodi Picoult tweeted about the phenomenon this summer: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”
So, yes, 2013 was a great year as far as stellar writing and bestsellers by women — just as 2012 was, but it’s obvious our culture has a lot more growing up to with respect to women’s stories. We’ve always had talented female writers. If there is a celebration going on in heaven, I’d like to believe Phyllis Wheatley and Christina Rosetti, are also clinking glasses with the heroines of prose Gilbert mentioned. Here’s hoping the male readers and reviewers who might be just a little bit wary will catch up in 2014. And here’s looking to a day when the next Mary Anne Evans and Joanne Rowling won’t have to worry about their gender detracting them from being taken seriously either way; when our literary mothers, sisters and daughters can toast to something else.