Women Writers or Male Sex Scenes: Which Would You Read?

How Kate Roiphe silenced a serious discussion about sexism. We should be past this by now-it's 2010-but it appears the question...


How Kate Roiphe silenced a serious discussion about sexism.
We should be past this by now-it's 2010-but it appears the question of sexism amongst book readers, writers, publishers, and award-givers is not yet moot. The last month has seen a flurry of activity on the issue.

In early December, Publisher's Weekly listed the top ten books of 2009, and all were written by men. Only twenty-nine books by women made the top 100 of the year. followed with their 100 best of 2009, sporting only two women in the top ten. The Millions, a wonderful litblog that has commented on the Publisher's Weekly blindness, posted a "Most Anticipated Great 2010 Book Preview" that is sadly and surprisingly male top-heavy.

We have women writers and women readers, but the awards go to men. Is it simply sexism? Julianna Baggott wrote an on-point essay about this in the Washington Post which sadly ends by admitting that feminists have failed to a certain extent.

One salient fact to add to the above is that women readers outnumber men-women buy more books than men. Some novelists joke that they write for middle-aged women, since they comprise such a large market share. Writing arguably has fewer barriers to entry for women than other vocations-one need not travel far and wide (thus raising work-family issues, for instance), nor has it been difficult for women to enroll in creative writing courses-the majority of college graduates and creative writing MFAs are female. Whether or not editors and agents keep more women at bay than men is a question worth asking.

This flurry of punditry on the "best of" lists and the question of women writers was quieted by a long essay in this week's New York Times Book Review by Kate Roiphe, "The Naked and The Conflicted." Roiphe is a well-known feminist writer whose themes invariably involve sexual identity. In the essay, Roiphe analyzes the sex scenes of male novelists, from Philip Roth to Dave Eggers (the younger generation of male writers, she claims, tend towards scenes involving heroes who prefer cuddling to threesomes, or even simple intercourse. An absurd graphic maps this slackening of virility). The essay inspired a slew of responses, including Steve Almond's funny and trenchant "Katie Roiphe's Big Cock Block." Elsewhere, a whole bunch of humor and indignation has been posted commenting on Roiphe's piece, and sexually punning tweets are helping the literati celebrate the new year.

Hold on. Wait a sec. How did we go from discussing the fate of novels by women to analyzing the sex lives of young male novelists? Roiphe is discussing sexism in the works by men. It sure is fun-more fun than decrying "best of" lists for being too testosterone-heavy. It is so terribly hard to pursue the former topic without seeming a shrew, a harridan….well, you know the stereotype. And there is no easy answer to the persistence of men at the top of the novelist ladders. Roiphe's essay comes as a welcome distraction to that matter, but ultimately it lacks gravitas or importance.

I am afraid I have no wondrous conclusion to help advance this debate, other than to say I would prefer to keep our "sexism and books" discussion focused on women writers and leave bad sex scenes to sidebars or the pages of lad mags. Maybe we could get the New York Times to do a cool infographic mapping the careers of women writers, or neglected great literary works by women? The rest of us need to make a conscious decision to read, buy, and write about novels written by women.

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