I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize them for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. My idea is to desegregate everything.

—from Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

April 11th, 2014

Again. Again, today, I was asked if I read. Considering I sit behind the cash register of a small independent book store, day in and day out, surrounded with literature, poetry and philosophy, this question baffles me. It’s baffling but also incredibly insulting. I congratulate these folks on their courage to ask what might be the most absurd and demeaning question available to them while in the book store. I also congratulate them on their grace as their jaws drop when I answer in the positive, adding that I am also an owner of the place.

The woman who asked me this question today was accompanied by a man who, while examining our window display, commented on how attractive Susan Sontag is. “Huh,” he said, “Susan Sontag is actually really pretty.” I cringed. He was pointing at the book on display that contains her famous Rolling Stone interview. Actually, I cringed and muttered some obscenities under my breath, as I have to be kind to all my customers, even these ones.

“Wow! You’re an owner? Who knew!” this woman exclaimed with unbridled astonishment, like others before her. Then the individual invariably walks out, usually without purchasing anything, as the couple today did. Is it really so surprising? Other wonderful questions I receive almost on a daily basis while stationed behind the cash register are: “Which of the owners is your husband?” and “Is your father the owner?” I should mention at this point that I am a woman. I have two male business partners and they have never been asked any of these types of questions. One of my favorite commonplace encounters is when older, typically male, long-time customers come in “looking for the guys” and then walk straight out when I say they aren’t in. Hm.

I asked myself today, what would Sontag do? I like to imagine she’d have a really smart, incisive comment at the ready. She’d hold her head high, she’d tell these people to fuck off, maybe in better prose, but the message would be the same. My imaginary Sontag would stick a bigger-than-life-sized cardboard cutout of a vulva to the door so that when these people approached, they’d be deterred from coming in and she wouldn’t have to deal with them in the first place. She’d hang used tampons from the ceiling with the names of each smug client who asked her if she reads attached to the little string.

Then I thought, what do I want to do about this? The answer is, I don’t want to have to do anything. This fight is not supposed to be mine anymore. That woman today, she was supposed to be my sister. The only reason I can sit behind this desk and field these infuriating questions is because of her. She was in her mid-fifties, part of the generation that supposedly broke down all those patriarchal walls and made it possible for me and my female peers to choose how we live. So why in god’s name is she asking me if I read! What, does she think I’m doing my nails all day? Why, in a place where I regularly sell books about feminism, am I being asked such inane questions in numbers that are likely to induce insanity?

The issues of feminism, and “being a feminist” were never really at the forefront of my mind growing up. It was simply a given. Of course I am a feminist; my mom’s one, my grandmother’s one, how could I not be? It ended there for a short time and I lived in a lovely bubble in which the fight for equality had been won and I could go about my days not worrying too much about it. Then the proverbial pop. Through simple daily exposure to women and their struggles, I knew the fight was still on, albeit a little quieter than in generations past. At first I was ecstatic to continue the struggle in my own ways: flamboyantly rejecting makeup and current fashion trends, smugly correcting my male associates on their use of language, reading revolutionary books on the subject and loudly refusing to acquiesce to the demands that I saw forming around me to “be a lady.”

This was all well and good, but it soon dawned on me that my attention to the matter was verging on the fanatical when I discovered I had isolated myself from everyone I knew by constantly pointing out the obvious flaws that they so unconsciously embodied. I began to feel like a dictator, censoring every minutia that threatened to go against ideals espoused by feminists. So I changed out of fear of becoming exactly what I was against. I focused my attention on other pressing social issues and re-discovered existing for the sake of much more profound experiences than merely pointing out inherent sexism in, well, everything. I hid my mind in the worlds of academia and poetry where interpretation could be what I wanted. I had resumed the insular existence of my childhood, except this time, out of necessity.

I find it endlessly depressing to focus on sexism. There seems to exist an ever-renewing stream of it, in places from home to work to the books I read. As a woman, I have to endure daily episodes that make me shrink inside myself and feel out of place. I am not alone in this, as the everyday sexism project website surely demonstrates. This online forum cum refuge was begun by Laura Bates in 2011, and has since received thousands of submissions by women recounting daily occurrences which are sometimes trivial, sometimes gut-wrenching and in their sheer volume cause one to take a serious second glance.

Even more confusing than the well-spring of jokes, cat-calls, fear, discomfort, inappropriate physical contact, rude questions and ruder assumptions that the majority of women encounter, still, is the fact that most people don’t want to pay the issue any mind. The word “feminist” is now so loaded that to break it out in casual conversation is an act one ought to make with great care and only with certain individuals, if one does not want to be thereafter surrounded by uneasy silences. On her website, Laura Bates highlights this attitude well, noting that

[i]t seems to be increasingly difficult to talk about sexism, equality and women’s rights in a modern society that perceives itself to have achieved gender equality. In this ‘liberal’, ‘modern’ age, to complain about everyday sexism or suggest that you are unhappy about the way in which women are portrayed and perceived renders you likely to be labelled ‘uptight’, ‘prudish’, a ‘militant feminist’, or a ‘bra burner’.

These days, I don’t mind being dubbed a bra burner, particularly since it felt great when I did just that in my more “militant feminist” stage. I’ll take this any day over the sniveling insinuation that I don’t read.

Recently, I took a two-month hiatus from work in this gray city and upon returning, was re-introduced to the attitude towards me that I had forgotten about during my travels. Once again being confronted by the “isms” drove me into a furious sort of curiosity, and I started doing research. Were other women experiencing this kind of treatment or was it just me? If they were, what were they doing about it? To be fair, this wasn’t exactly academic research, but the responses to my questions found on popular websites such asmscareergirl.com and the Huffington Post—journals that purport to be relatively legitimate—were grim, precisely because they’re targeted at the so-called “everywoman.” These articles suggest that, in order to gain respect, one ought to focus primarily on altering one’s dress and behavior; then if that doesn’t work, educating oneself, but not too much.

One article written by a Ms. Banks on mscareergirl.com, a forum that calls itself a “community for women by women,” includes such headines as: “Be Statuesque Rather than Sexy,” “Keep the Maintenance Low and the Sleeves Rolled up High,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t be a maneater.” Here are articles written without an ounce of critical thought or genuine solidarity with women who are fighting to keep destructive stereotypes at bay. They blame the woman alone, and never question the system in which these stereotypes are embedded. What finally made me disconsolate beyond repair was the fact that these laughable suggestions mirrored those made to me in conversation with other women I know, and who I know to be intelligent, and who are struggling with the same problem.

The articles I found online are not very different from one another, nor are they far off from the etiquette handbooks I happened upon in my sorely under-funded high school library, and in perusing them, realized I have no etiquette. The nagging voice somewhere in the back of my head wants to know if it’s true. What if I dyed my hair to a more “serious” color (I’m vaguely blonde), wore glasses and business suits instead of jeans and sweater combinations, spoke in aggressive, self-affirming language all day long and at the same time didn’t allow my education to intimidate the menfolk by consciously dumbing myself down? The latter practice borders on art form in contradiction.

The thing that worries me is that I don’t want to be respected on those terms. I know the treatment I am receiving is not, contrary to what a lot of people might have me believe, my fault. Therefore, I continue to choose substance over appearance. What about those women who, out of sheer desperation, end up following and perpetuating the ideas behind these articles? I want to be taken seriously. That’s it. Just as I don’t ask in a condescending voice whether my customers can read, I too deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.

***

Perhaps it is the weather that has prevented me from leaving this entire problem behind, the fact that Spring has been teasing us by appearing for forty-five minutes at a time, forcing me to sit huddled in a blanket on the back porch, soaking up whatever sun wiggles its way through the grime up there and smoking all the half-cigarettes left in the ashtray. It has been nearly a month since ‘the incident’ and, thanks to gloomy skies, I’ve obsessively mulled and pondered over the nagging sensation it stirred up in me, with little resolution. The bits and pieces I’ve gathered in the past month all seemingly point in the same direction, for reasons unknown.

Associations like VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) and its Canadian equivalent, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), have presented yearly research since 2009 that demonstrates, in concrete numbers, that female writers are (still) wholly under-represented in the literary world. VIDA “annually, painstakingly tall[ies] the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews” in order to “assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed.” VIDA takes a full survey of articles currently being published by the major literary journals, and the numbers are fairly staggering.

For some, this conversation is old news, and many would prefer to ignore it altogether, which a part of me wholly sympathizes with, creating a major paradox I continuously struggle with as a reader and a pusher of books. Paying too much heed to this imbalance could have dire consequences on the quality of work being published, namely through censorship and potential quota-plenishing. It might further segregate male and female writing, giving female writers power only in the realm of “female writers” as opposed to the realm of literature as a whole. Consider Sontag’s metaphor: if we’re going to play chess, are we going to play differently because we’re women? However, I have the particular misfortune to be confronted by the inherent problems in how female writers are represented in the publishing world every time I look at a stack of books that have just come into the musty back-office of the bookshop. It is increasingly difficult to ignore.

I am forced, for the sake of stocking shelves, to sift through many catalogs put out by publishers. I say forced because rarely am I satisfied with what I find there. Random House is perhaps the best example of what I detest about the publishing industry at the moment. If one were to go through its front list simply by looking at the covers of the books, one would surely notice the fact that almost every book written by a woman is packaged in a rigid and formulaic manner. Generally, there is an image of a woman, or parts of a woman, composed in such a way as to evoke feelings of forlornness, helplessness/brokenness, melancholy and/or loss. The font is almost always cursive and ‘pretty’ and the blurbs, more often than not, contain at least one review from a women’s magazine such as Elle,Vogue or Vanity Fair. These magazines are filled with trite, mostly fashion and beauty-related articles. Following a brief stint in high school during which I read these things, I have never since gone to them, particularly for my reading list, lest I contract illiteracy while stuck in that purgatorial region that births articles with titles like: “Panty trade: women who sell their underwear to men. Seriously.”

In fact, I didn’t even know these magazines reviewed actual books, or that they were considered respectable resources, until I noticed their blurbs on the covers of books (mostly) written by women. For me at sixteen, these publications were always goldmines for silly horoscopes, celebrity mishaps and sex advice for girls who had yet to experience the act, not a place to discover anything remotely serious. These magazines are primarily targeted at women, and perhaps publishers assume that all women read these magazines and that these same women will inevitably like other women’s writing, which is why reviewers from Elle and Vogue are given a stance of criticism on serious works written by women. My question is, do we trust monthly magazines that offer 1001 ways to “please your man” to be critical enough of literature to tell a comma from a condom?

Publishers of popular best-sellers are not the only culprits of this horrifying trend. New Directions, one of my go-to peddlers for fresh, interesting and innovative work has recently adopted a similar method of presentation under new editorship. I was so aghast by the way it presented the newly-translated works of Clarice Lispector that I fired off a (perhaps ill-conceived) letter to the editor asking that they reconsider their current practices. Clarice’s work is demanding and intelligent, effortlessly probing deep philosophical questions about the self without becoming dogmatic or elusively high-brow. There is a wonderful anecdote in Colm Toibin’s essay, “A Passion for the Void,” that describes Lispector’s peculiar behaviour, which tends to come through in her writing:

At the time when Lispector was writing [Hour of the Star], she was herself glimpsed by the writer José Castello…looking into a shop window. When he greeted her, he wrote, ‘it takes her a while to turn around. She doesn’t move at first, but then, before I dare repeat the greeting, she turns slowly, as if to see where something frightening had come from, and says ‘So it’s you.’ At that moment, horrified, I notice that there is nothing in the shop window but undressed mannequins. But then my silly horror becomes a conclusion: Clarice had a passion for the void.’

Clarice was one of Brazil’s most well-known and loved authors in her time and New Directions thought the best cover design for the newly translated works would be Lispector’s face, cut into four sections (one per book), so that one might buy all four and have on one’s shelf her renowned beauty. This, at least, is how I interpreted the action when I noticed that the biographical blurb on the back cover of her last novel, Hour of the Star, repeats Gregory Rabassa’s exuberant claim that Lispector was “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” The ever constant binary between women’s looks and their inner capacities sometimes appears in the most unlikely places. Rabassa’s claim is almost hilarious given that the novel in question is an antithesis to the demands placed on women to be beautiful. The protagonist, Macabea, represents all that is despised in women: plainness.

All of her was a bit grimy since she rarely washed. During the day she wore a blouse and skirt, at night she slept in her underwear. A roommate never knew how to tell her she smelled stale. And because she didn’t know how, she left it at that, since she didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Nothing in her was iridescent, though the parts of her skin between the blotches had a slight opal glow. Not that it mattered. Nobody looked at her on the street, she was cold coffee.

New Directions makes a serious mistake in using Rabassa’s claim here, exhibiting a blatant disregard for the fact that there has been and still is so much literature being printed about the very problem at the root of his claim. That there are countless feminist presses dedicated to this cause. That universities devote entire faculties to this realm of research. I suggested in my letter to New Directions’ Ben Moser that they cut in four a close-up of Lispector’s hand, which was severely burned when she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, for the republication. I am still waiting for a response.

What statements such as Rabassa’s, as well as praiseful blurbs culled from women’s fashion magazines, do is re-establish the oppressive mind-set that is placed on women to be beautiful, and then, when women adhere to this demand, the assumption is made that their adherence is an example of frivolity and a lack of substance. I myself am guilty of this latter assumption, spurred on by the pap contained in fashion mags. My guilt brings to mind Sontag’s essay, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source,” in which she lays out the paradox of society demanding a woman to appear a certain way and then being told one is flighty or less respectable for adhering to this demand. She contrasts the common stereotype that the male essence is centered around strength, effectiveness and competency, whereas “[t]o be called beautiful is thought to name something essential to women’s character and concerns.” Concerns. Women are forced to concern themselves about their physicality, and this is what Sontag takes issue with: the “obligation to be [beautiful]—or to try.” It is an obligation to adhere to standards out of women’s control, standards that are essentially based on myth, part of a system, and as Sontag claims, “from which men scrupulously have exempted themselves.”

The adage about not judging a book by its cover should always apply, and is my aim as a reader. However, with books becoming more and more of a so-called “niche” market and publishers focusing more on creating whole works of art when designing a book, the cover is now extremely important. As such, one would expect the cover of a work of fiction to attempt to represent, in an image or a series of images, that which is contained within. I do expect this, and for the most part, there are increasingly innovative designs being produced every season. Take for example Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions, 2010), a metres-long piece of writing dedicated to her dead brother, folded up accordion-like and contained by a box. Such innovation makes the failure on New Directions’ part, as well as Random House, ever more obvious and disheartening. From my vantage point, this trend in book covers, a relatively minor aspect of the publishing industry, is enough to sound certain alarm bells.

Looking at book covers is admittedly a superficial take on sexism in the literary community; however, it ties in with the articles I found online that stipulate how a woman might act or dress in order to gain respect. Nothing about what a woman might accomplish in herself. One can’t help but wonder how this focus on the package might affect how a person writes and thinks. In her essay, Sontag states:

To preen, for a woman, can never be just a pleasure. It is also a duty. It is her work. If a woman does real work—and even if she has clambered up to a leading position in politics, law, medicine, business, or whatever—she is always under pressure to confess that she still works at being attractive. But in so far as she is keeping up as one of the Fair Sex, she brings under suspicion her very capacity to be objective, professional, authoritative, thoughtful. Damned if they do—women are. And damned if they don’t.

Originally posted in Encore Literary Magazine by author Amy Carlberg



 

Tagged in: women, thought piece, montreal, Meaghan Acosta, literature, independent business, From Behind an Ancient Cash Register, female co-owner, female business owner, essay, Encore Literary Magazine, canada, business ownership, business, bookstore, Argo   

The opinions expressed on the BUST blog are those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the position of BUST Magazine or its staff.




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