Dispatches | December 14, 2010

I bought a bag-full of books by only female authors on a trip to Half-Price Books last summer. Recycled Toni Morrison, Sarah Vowell, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion sat in the passenger’s seat while I tried not to perpetuate the stereotype of women drivers.

The first day of a women’s literature class this semester, the professor asked a class of thirty females and one male to list every woman author they could think of. Lauren Conrad and Chelsea Handler made my classmates’ lists more times than any of the authors stacked in my Half-Price Books plastic bag. Lauren Conrad is the former MTV reality star of The Hills, famous for staring blankly at the skyline in various Los Angeles hot spots. Chelsea Handler has a late night talk show on E! and uses overt sexual jokes in an attempt to be outrageous. I suppose every woman has her niche, but it had not occurred to me to categorize these women under Literary. I might have written them down had the professor asked us to make a list of women who are Blondes or On Television or Stereotypes or Fads or Questionably Famous. We continued our discussion with the professor asking, “Why aren’t there more women writers?” Student responses varied.

“Well they don’t really have time. Women have to raise the kids.”

“They’re not encouraged to be writers.”

“No one takes women authors seriously.”

The notion that women are too busy having babies to write was terrifying in its truth. I called the claim ridiculous under my breath and watched the same suppressive swallow stuck in my throat make its way around the room. There wasn’t a female in the class willing to admit that their purpose was not necessarily motherhood, yet we all seemed to understand that when the time came we would have to put down our pens. I walked out of class that day with mixed feelings. I didn’t want to dissuade any women from contributing to literature, especially those who had managed to avoid or trample the long list of obstacles faced by women authors, but are Lauren Conrad and Chelsea Handler really contributing?

I work at a public library. For every Alice Walker book I put away (F for Fiction and WAL for Walker) I struggle to fit ten Meg Cabot books with “Princess” in the title back on the shelf. None of the Jane Austen books I put away come with paperback covers of two girls whispering while a third stands to the side like the cover of Lisi Harrison’s The Clique (or maybe that was the cover of Cliquetionary or was it P.S I Loathe You? Or maybe it was Sealed with a Diss). For a while I didn’t like to shelve books away in the Young Adult section. It was depressing to see an upcoming generation of young girls walking through aisles with scraps of paper, searching for books with Boy or BFF in the title. Inevitably, it is a woman who wants to connect to a profitable middle school audience that writes each of these books, never mind that she might be perpetuating female stereotypes, prepubescent insecurities, and everything wrong with the “Me Generation.” Besides, shelving in the children’s section allows me to sit on the floor while I file away gems like LL Cool J’s hip-hop sing-along book or Molly’s Lies by Kay Chorao.

Historically, the first women writers were the visionaries. They were nuns, one of the few groups of women with any semblance of an education, and even they were only read because of claims they had communicated with God. It indicates progress that I don’t have to include dialogue with Jesus Christ if I want any hope of getting published. It’s probably even progressive that there are enough women writers to allow a distinction between the good ones and the bad ones. It’s a sign of progress that I haven’t read all of my assignments for my Women’s Literature class because there are enough readings to fill a syllabus and too many for me to keep up with. I stop short here of celebrating too much, though, and not just because I feel guilty for never having gotten around to reading all of Frankenstein. Despite a greater quantity of womanly perspectives, why is the quality of writing by pseudo-celebrities making the lists of a room full of college women? Am I obligated to observe the success of my gender for making it on the shelves of the library in the first place? Which Young Adult women writers deserve a place on display in the library (my only, subtle power as a shelver)?

Molly Pozel is an intern at the Missouri Review.