Claire Messud’s Interview Highlights Sexism Against Female Authors, Characters, and Actually All Women

In the past couple of years, sexism in modern literature – whether or not it exists, and if so, to what extent – has become a hot topic on the Internet. It arguably started a few years ago when authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complained about The New York Times paying more attention to works by men, and the way that books by men about “feelings and relationships” are treated as deep studies of the human condition while similar works by women are shoved into the “chick lit” section. Weiner and Picoult centered their criticisms on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a work they said would never have been taken seriously by critics had it been written by women. Slate crunched the numbers and discovered that, indeed, The New York Times spends more pages on men’s books than those by women.

Ever since then, female writers seem more and more eager to call out sexism from male interviewers, reviewers and writers when they see it. It flared up again when Jeffrey Eugenides, whose own work is often seen as examples of “would be dismissed as chick lit if written by a woman” (especially his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot), dismissed Weiner and Picoult’s complaints as “belly-aching.” And it’s continued from there, with women authors becoming more and more aware – or perhaps, simply more vocal – about the way the literary world dismisses their work and their lives.

In a recent piece on Slate, Katie Roiphe – herself an author – used a recent interview involving Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, to address whether she thinks the increasing complaints about sexism in literary reception is justified. Roiphe begins:

In the latest fracas over literary sexism, Claire Messud objected to a comment an interviewer made about whether she would want to be friends with the main character of her new novel, The Woman Upstairs.
The interviewer asks: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”
And Messud answers:
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’ ”
Messud does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist, but she implies it, by listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro “for that matter” to make it clear that her list had been about men).

While Roiphe shares her own experiences regarding being asked sexist questions that male writers would never get – “Not one but two male interviewers from respectable newspapers asked me how many people I had slept with. One female interviewer in England took one look at me and wrote about the fact that I hadn’t eaten breakfast directly off the plane and speculated that I might be anorexic. Another writer mused in The New Yorker about whether or not I was a nice or warm person” – she ultimately concludes that the question wasn’t sexist, and that Messud’s complaints seem to be more part of a trend of “crankiness” and “prickliness” among female writers rather than legitimate complaints.

Claire Messud via Slate.

Claire Messud via Slate.

The sexism in Roiphe’s own language describing Messud aside, she may have a point that this particular critique isn’t necessarily based in sexism. Roiphe cites examples of male writers, such as Ian McEwan, whose characters have been criticized on the basis of unlikability. But even if one can’t conclusively prove that Messud is right in this particular instance, it says something that she would be quick to jump to that conclusion. Roiphe is fixating on this particular incident in a way that causes her to miss the larger point.

It’s so easy in criticisms of “social justice” conversations to get stuck on individual critiques that don’t make sense, and may betray what can be easily dismissed as “oversensitivity.” But said “oversensitivity” wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a larger trend of women writers being asked sexist questions. It’s the famous “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The camel’s back has to be pretty weak already for that straw to make a difference.

For evidence of the sexism in the writing world, it’s helpful not just to look at the women writing, but also the women they (as well as male writers) write. One of the things that I thought that Roiphe missed in her piece was not just that nearly all the writers Messud listed were men, but nearly all the characters (with the exception of Antigone, and the “any of the characters in ____” examples she gave) she listed were also male. Is the double standard really just about women writers, or also about the women that they write?

Our culture lionizes “complicated” male anti-heroes, who are dark and troubled and full of faults, such that we’d likely never want to deal with them in real life – but they make for interesting fiction, and so we’re fascinated with them. Yet, female characters with the same problems are rarely given the same kind of slack.

And on the other side of the coin, when it comes to sexism in interviews, it’s hardly limited to female authors. Even outside of the writing world, women are often expected to answer for things that are seen as “no big deal” with men. Recall Anne Hathaway’s interview with Matt Lauer about Les Misérables where, rather than beginning by talking about her film, she was prodded about a “wardrobe malfunction.” Hathaway deflected it expertly, but it is amazing how routine such obviously inappropriate questions have become for famous women. Even Roiphe mentions that she’s had questions about her sex life in interviews about books.

While Roiphe may have a point that said sexism may not be as widespread as some of the women pulling the punches think, there’s a reason we’re so quick to take offense these days. We’re fed up with the double standard, fed up with the idea in some circles that we’ve “achieved equality” when we’re still forced to endure lines of inquiry no man has ever heard. Even if it’s more about your character’s likability than it is your own, it can feel like the last straw.

Perhaps rather than chastising women writers for raising their hackles, we should question why they’re so quick to be raised in the first place.

Avatar of Rose

Rose is a Michigander currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. In her spare time she also writes music, collects too many books and cats, and inhales Diet Coke at alarming speeds. For more of her many opinions, you should follow her on Tumblr.

Rose has written 66 articles for us.

26 Comments

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    I am incredibly annoyed by the suggestion (in that Slate piece) that women writers’ anger, sorry, ‘prickliness’, what a wonderfully dismissive term, is merely a ‘trend’. We can’t even allow women to feel real emotions, to be really angry at their oppression, even if that anger is misplaced, it always has to be something superficial, faked, something their inherent womanly stupidity and flimsiness causes. UGH.

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    Pretty typical Katie Roiphe. Honestly, when I see her name in a byline I just don’t read. Whatever she writes can pretty much always be summed as, “feminists ruin everything and are oversensitive.”

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    The way white male writers keep refusing to acknowledge that their unearned advantages are connected to the media coverage they get is infuriating. And is is just like Roiphe to defend them. Rose, I’m impressed you could take such a balanced approach to Roiphe. I start breathing fire when I read anything by her!

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    “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

    I know that I should be discussing the content of this article as a whole, because this is something that, as one who takes pride in being called a bookworm, I have spent time thinking about, particularly when someone asks me for a book recommendation and I always furiously shuffle around books in my head, trying to find one to talk about that they could enjoy and also avoid the stigma of reading something that falls under “chick lit.”
    However, the above quote is just too great. This is what I wanted to get up an yell in my literature classes in high school. And grade school. And at all the patronizing friends of my parents who ask me what I read recently and raise their eyebrows because I enjoyed something that wasn’t in Oprah’s book club or on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

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    As a novice poet myself, I’ve gotten so many questions from men asking me why I hate them, and in one case, during a workshop, three things stood out to me: 1) There were two cis, straight white men that were really upset they couldn’t immediately relate to the narrative presented in my poem and asked if I could put something in there about them to make them feel like they could relate to me and the poem better (no joke, one man said, “You could put something in there about a little boy who can’t hit a baseball.”) 2) Of the straight people in the room, they kept asking me where “my sexuality” was in the poem, it didn’t seem obvious to them at all. (Perhaps because the vast majority of people writing about women in romantic/sexual regards have been cishet men and that queer women write about women in romantic regards in a different way). 3) The people in the workshop were very quick to write off my piece as a “lesbian” poem, that it didn’t hold any universal truths because it was so unique to my experience as a queer woman, but there were no reciprocal “this is a straight, cis white man’s narrative” for all the cishet white men in the room.

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      Oops, realized something in my language: I should say “Perhaps because the vast majority of people writing about women who have been canonized in romantic/sexual regards have been cishet men”

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      I can completely relate to this. I went to school for creative writing and was stuck with the same critiquing group for a semester. One of my group members dismissed my work as focusing to much on “female feelings” that were “unrelatable to his strong male sensibilities”.

      Also, having just recently come out as bisexual, I was writing a lot of poetry that focused around women and my feelings toward them. I came in one day with a poem about an ex-boyfriend (which included language that tends to be used to describe men more often than not) and was demonized by the same group member for being ‘inconsistent’ in my sexuality. I patiently explained to him that I didn’t just have feelings for women, but for people certain people in general and he dismissed my poem as a whole without taking anything craft-related into consideration.

      His comments were often both sexist (to me and the only other woman in my group) and bi/homophobic, as well as racist (the other woman and another man in my group were both POC). That’s probably the worst experience I’ve had, and this was only at school level. I can only imagine how much worse it can get when some of these writers have the prestige to back up their opinions of women.

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    I’m impressed you were cool-headed enough to take the time to break down Katie Roiphe’s remarks. Honestly, at this point Roiphe has absolutely no credibility with me. If something smart occasionally pops out of her mouth, I attribute it to mere statistical inevitability, not any critical thinking skill on her part.

    The interviewer’s question to Messud about being friends with a character reinforced a sexist notion that writing (and reading) is, for women, mostly a touchy-feely emotional experience and not at all an intellectual one.

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    I write in fanfiction, and one thing that bothers me is the number of women/teen girls writing slash/yaoi in my favorite anime fandom. I feel bad b/c here I am, a bisexual woman, not being all “Yay, gay men as leading romantic characters!” but I hate how the writers trivialize or dismiss female characters. I’ve read scholarship on fan fiction (yes, it exists) and one critic states that slash/yaoi is not sexist because it is produced by women for women. Yet when I read female readers’ comments that “they hate (female character X) or call “female character Y) a bitch because she is paired with a male character (whom they prefer to see in a male x male pairing), I wonder what is going on. I tend to write het fiction or yuri, because I want to see female characters handled in depth and to increase their presence in the fandom.

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      Talking about slash is a bit off-topic, I think, but I’m going to respond to you because this is a topic where I have a lot to say; after all, I’ve written a couple of articles here about it and I’ve been in a lot of discussions on Tumblr lately re: this topic.

      And I’m going to have to disagree with you at least somewhat. I agree that slash can often produce sexism in terms of dismissing female characters, but I find that’s just as, if not more often, true with the het fanfiction I read. They slut-shame the woman who gets in the way regardless of whether the person they prefer the male character with is male or female. And also, I’ve found that with a lot of the het pairings I like, there’s often sexism in the way the writer handles the romance itself – not just who else gets in the way – that makes it hard for me to enjoy a lot of their fanfiction. Like, romanticizing messed-up gender dynamics or sexist traditions, the kinds that aren’t as present in same-sex relationships.

      Maybe it depends on the fandom? I assume from your username you’re a Hetalia fan, and I’ve heard their fandom in particular has a lot of problems with fetishizing gay men and misogyny from slash fans. The main anime fandom where I read male slash (as opposed to femslash) is Fullmetal Alchemist, and I haven’t noticed that nearly as much (though, certainly, there’s still some of it, but it’s easier to find stuff that doesn’t have that). There’s also the fact that a lot of the FMA slash fans I’ve met are queer women, which I assume is likely because there aren’t a lot of significant relationships between women in that anime to make good femslash fodder. They feel better represented by same-sex relationships regardless of gender, and they latch on to the male characters because, generally, the most significant relationships in FMA – really, in most fiction, unfortunately – are those between men.

      Honestly, because, as the commenter below points out, most of the really sexist stuff in slash is coming from teenage girls who are mostly projecting their own internalized misogyny, it’s kind of hard for me to get angry at it compared to, say, the rampant fetishization of lesbian and bisexual women elsewhere in the media. Because the women writing this are as much victims of the patriarchy as we are. Even if they’re perpetuating sexism, they’re not perpetuating it to the degree that someone with real power and agency has. So I personally think a lot of the time and energy that fandom spends criticizing “yaoi fangirls” could be better spent elsewhere, like criticizing the people with real power in the media who perpetuate sexism and homophobia.

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        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. What you said about identifying the real cause of the misogyny and sexism versus complaining about yaoi fangirls is a good point. Bhan’s point about fandoms with older women writers and slash as a feminist, yet problematic, phenomemon is also good. And that’s why I struggle with it. Maybe I just don’t find sexy times between men to be my cup of tea, but I’m not going to deny it to others.
        I’m writing between appointments, but as a Hetalia fan (and one much older than the average fan), I see the perpetuation of poor relationship models in the fanfiction I read there. You have the traditional het model, but also the male-female binary model applied to the yaoi couples also, which doesn’t jibe with the real-life gay male couples I know. I also see the freedom in imagining one as male, with the autonomy over action and body that we traditionally associate with that.
        Bhan’s point that not enough women write femslash is one that inspires me to do that in the Hetalia fandom and see what happens.
        Again, I’m just happy to get a thoughtful response from you, and it warms my heart that you read FMA fan fiction. That anime was my gateway into anime long after I had been away from it.

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          Actually my point was that there often aren’t enough female charactors to write femslash about. There’ll be one or two compared to four or five men in the main group, and shoving them together just because they’re the only women feels contrived.

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          True, on reading more closely, I see your point. But there are anime, movies and other genres with more female characters or central ones that could be paired with minor ones. Sailor Moon is an oldie but a goodie. Even Hetalia has more than a couple of female characters to be paired together, and there are female variations of the male nations that can be used in pairings.
          I don’t want to derail this topic from the original article’s emphasis on legitmate, original published work. So I’ll just add that I usually found myself as a child and teen preferring “girl’s literature” compared to books targeted towards boys or with male protagonists. The former had what I sought, which was emphasis on relationships (not necessarily romantic, but friends and family), introspective passages, and self-development. “Boys’ books” just seemed to be filled with a lot of surface action and noise, which I found boring, but others find exciting and adventurous.

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          I think the point is that particularly there not only needs to be female characters, but ones with significant relationships with each other. FMA is a good example; there are a number of important female characters, actually a lot for a shonen, but most don’t have relationships with each other. The first anime has a few Bechdel-test-passing moments between Winry and Sciezka, and I think between Winry and Gracia Hughes, but I don’t think Brotherhood has any – despite it actually having more female characters – because they’re all surrounded by dudes and when they do talk (like Riza and Rebecca), it’s usually about dudes.

          So with FMA there’s very little material on which to build any sort of femslash, unless you are going to go OOC or be really contrived, or you’re going to do genderbent versions of the male characters. Whereas, there are a ton of guys with significant personal or professional relationships on which one could base a romantic story.

          Looking at anime in particular, I think it’s notable that in the series that have a lot of important female characters with close relationships with each other – like a lot of magical girl shows – even the straight women in the fandom ship them together. It really shows the importance of representation and how we all, ultimately, are working with what we have. Because that’s the reason people read and write fanfiction – because we’re already invested in these characters and their relationships. If you’re not invested, you may as well just create your own characters from scratch and write original fiction.

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          Well yeah but the Sailor Moon fandom is full of femslash. Just freaking full of it. My computer desk top is an outer senshi non traditional family montage one of my girlfriends made me.

          I had the opposite experience because while I wanted deep and meaningful relationships I found the plots in “girls books” boring beyond reason. I wanted sci fi and action and that led to me being in fandoms with mostly male charactors and identifying with them and their non canon queer relationships (because I have never liked heteronormativity even when I wanted to be straight). And this is the experience of a lot of women and why fandom and slash is predominantly female.

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          That’s good then, that there are certain fandoms where femslash flourishes, and that it’s being written by and for women who want to see the development of relationships between fully-realized characters. Gives me hope for a Fem!Germany x Fem!Prussia Hetalia fan fiction I’ve been planning.

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          @ Rose.

          Yeah, and personally I love that. Straight girls shipping lesbians because they’re invested in the relationship. It feels hopeful you know?

          On that note I am still cross that the first few minutes of the Bones pilot lied to me and Angela is not Bones’ girlfriend.

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          Oh cool! So I must know: which do you prefer? I’m much more of a fan of the first anime myself. But I like them both.

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      That tends to be true of younger writers. At least in the fandoms I’m in slash writers who are older than about fifteen try to represent the female charactors in a positive light.

      One of the reasons for slash fiction is porn. Straight and bi girls want to see men having sexy times. But there’s also the fact that men are usually better developed charactors in fiction, that women are often written as nothing more than women, as in being a woman is their only charactor trait, so the fans find it hard to identify with them and instead identify with the male charactors. Or that there just aren’t enough women to write femslash (which is one of my major complaints).

      Basically slash is a predominantly feminist thing that can be problematic because of fetishisation of gay men and because there are anti feminist overtones in it due to internalised patriarchal bullshit in the writers. But its still feminist because its women taking something male dominated and turning it into something for their enjoyment that actively excludes most straight men. Its by women, for women.

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