Bestselling author Allegra Goodman ponders the double standard in literary criticism
I’ve been reading a beautiful book called Boundaries by artist/architect Maya Lin. Lin is perhaps best known for designing the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. Her design for black granite walls cut into the earth was the surprise winner of a huge international competition. A surprise not just because the design was so unusual, but because it was the work of a 21-year-old Chinese-American senior at Yale. Maya Lin was unknown, unproven and also a woman.
Maya Lin herself suggests that if the competition for the memorial had not been anonymous, she would not have won the commission for the memorial. Her design was simple, elegant and masterful — not qualities you’d expect in a student. She writes: “One of the comments made by a juror was, ‘He must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naïve.’” This juror assumed Lin’s anonymous submission was the work of someone with experience and authority — and most telling, he assumed Lin was a man.
How fortunate that this competition didn’t require names, or photos of the competitors. Maya Lin escaped the assumptions, conscious and unconscious, that the jurors would have carried with them as they examined her work. Her design looked like the work of a master, not a beginner, and jurors viewed it that way, without considering her gender or her youth.
Like Maya Lin, I’m an artist — although I work with words, not with space. Like Maya Lin, I’m a woman. I can’t help wondering what it would be like to publish a book or even a story anonymously — to meet the reader without my author photo or my feminine name. Would critics read me differently? Would they think of Dickens or Tolstoy when they read The Cookbook Collector instead of Austen? Would they call my prose muscular instead of nuanced?
I understand why Mary Anne Evans published under the name George Eliot. She wrote ambitious, serious books. Her range was huge, her ideas unorthodox. She was immensely learned. She wanted and she deserved to be read like a man. Of course times have changed: The educational and artistic opportunities for women now far surpass those available to Eliot. And yet people do read men differently than they read women. Literary novelists write about family, relationships, politics, culture, moral ambiguities. However, readers come to male novelists for playfulness and energy and manic experimental power and, yes, epic Greatness. Readers come to women for subtlety, delicacy, elegance and, yes, sweetness. Few describe an important novel by a man as “delicious.”
I don’t mind the word delicious. I aspire to it. But I aspire to other responses as well. I’m curious about what assumptions my readers bring to my books, and which they might leave behind if they read me without knowing my name, my previous work or my gender. When Virginia Woolf wrote “anonymous was a woman.” she spoke of women’s forgotten work. Maya Lin reminds me that anonymous might mean freedom.