Invigorated by the debate sparked by her recent piece, Leah Hager Cohen continues the conversation evolved by her commenters. (Rick&Brenda Beerhorst/Flickr)

Earlier this week, Cognoscenti ran a piece I wrote on the debate over gender disparity in the arts. Because I wrote from a place of genuinely not knowing (that is, I recognized my discomfort with the idea of fighting for equity in art, but was also surprised by this reaction and unsure where to locate it), I was especially eager to see what commenters might contribute to the conversation and to my own thinking. So I’d like to say thanks to many of the people who weighed in. You offered intelligent perspectives and shared them with generosity, integrity and commitment. You also got me thinking about how we think about this issue — and about whether it would be useful to find different ways of framing the questions that could lead to other avenues of understanding.

SMB commented that I failed to discuss how bias plays out in “the marketplace,” where success in the arts delivers practical benefits, from academic positions to money that buys time for more writing. Donna Herbert weighed in on Facebook, “Equity comes not from the creative process itself…It’s about who the gatekeepers are.” And Kim Triedman (a fellow Cog contributor) pointed out in the comments that “it is sadly now a fact of literary life” that writers must also be publicists for their work.

Under what conditions would it be possible for us to step back — really, really far back — in order to view the issue free from the automatic assumption that parity in the marketplace is our paramount goal?

Absolutely. I’m not denying that inequity exists and people get hurt by it. These points are important when we think about art as a means to earn a living, advance in our careers, and reach an audience. They relate to art distribution: if we don’t all have equal access to the channels of distribution (and VIDA and others have made emphatically clear that within the literary establishment we do not), that’s an important social justice issue. But I’m what I’m asking here is a whole different question, one related to art making. Maybe I’m crazy to try to separate the two. Yet I can’t help but think there could be value in it.

A few items that helped crack open my ways of thinking about this:

1. A friend who has spent years studying art in Bali and working with Balinese artists in theater, dance, music, and puppetry, tells me how traditionally, when Balinese musicians release a recording, they do not list their individual names on the CD. Only very recently, she says, has this begun to change. The custom — and more than that: the very definition, the very understanding of what art is and what art means in this culture — has been to value the thing made, without affording emphasis or special relevance to the makers. As she explains it, in the Balinese view of art as a spiritual process, “artists” are simply those through whom the gift passes.

2. In the west, especially in capitalist societies, we are accustomed to placing great importance on the individual. In art, this means we focus attention on the one whose name is signed to a work. We give credit for the thing made to the “maker.” We tend not to ask questions about multiple makers, or about all the various kinds of energy behind the maker, the anonymous or uncredited laborers and supports that helped enable creation.

3. Something I love about the novelist, poet, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry is that many of his more than 50 books include in the author bio: “He lives and farms in his native Kentucky with his wife, Tanya Berry.” His author photo is often a picture of him together with his wife. In words and images he signals that he does not consider himself the solitary creator of his work. In this land where individualism is glorified and the persona of the maker often receives as much as or more attention than the work made, his choice is both wildly unusual and quietly radical.

4. The novelist Gish Jen published an excellent little book this past spring called “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.” In it, she points out that the western tendency to privilege the qualities of “individualism, the isolated, the particular, and the extraordinary” in art is simply that: one tendency, perhaps culturally determined. It is not the only lens, much less the “correct” lens, through which to perceive value in art or to think about its provenance or its uses.

These examples of alternate perspectives get me thinking: Under what conditions would it be possible for us to step back — really, really far back — in order to view the issue free from the automatic assumption that parity in the marketplace is our paramount goal?

I understand that some readers may feel dismissive of my posing such a question, since I have admittedly already enjoyed some success as a writer. Gofigure left a comment scolding me for being hypocritical and selfish, writing: “You can’t reap the benefits…and then yank the ladder up behind you.”

I also know that what I’m proposing means giving up a lot of stuff we think we need or have learned to hold dear: notions of personal excellence and personal worth; individual attachment to the products of our labors; expectations that our art will build our reputations or secure financial stability; even the very human desire for posterity.

But truly: I’m not talking about yanking up ladders. I’m not even talking about a place you can get to with ladders. I’m talking about a drastic reorientation, the leap from viewing the earth from the surface of the earth to viewing the earth from the moon.

Read the original post: “The Debate Over Gender Disparity In The Arts — And Why I’m Sitting This One Out” (8/14/13) 

Tags: Books, Gender, Writing

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Lynn

    I don’t think you understand that, while parity in the marketplace is never an *artistic goal, it is a goal of most people to be able to support their families with things like teaching jobs and grants, which parity in the marketplace help to facilitate. It would be a huge place of privilege to just get to worry about making art, very few people can do that! I do appreciate your trying to rethink on this, though.

  • Marcella O’Connor

    If we all stopped paying attention to the identites of artists and writers and just focused on the work produced…we’d end up with a lot art and novels that reflect the experiences and interests of the gatekeepers (the editors, the publishers, the syllabi-makers), who are overwhelmingly well-off white men. We’d end up with a lot of art that reflects the status quo and keeps the powerful in power.

    The idea of putting the work of art at the center and displacing the identity of the maker is nothing new. In the last century, this attitude was part of classical revivalism. But if you live in a culture where the playing field has been distorted by racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination and you’re looking for the best art, then you can’t afford to be race blind or gender blind when you go looking for it.

  • Ellen

    I remember an essay in which Wendell Berry praised long-hand writing
    over the word processor, then added, as an aside, that his wife typed up
    his handwritten drafts. How lucky to have unpaid labor right in your
    own home! Now you are suggesting that his wife is part of the creative

    If Wendell Berry truly wants to be radical, he should
    leave his name off all of his future book and essays and only submit
    under “Tanya Berry.” I wonder how well they’d sell then?

    In a society
    where women have been and continue to be silenced for centuries,
    surrendering my name and individualism to the community (aka
    male-dominated community) holds little interest to me.

  • Venice Gee

    I would suggest you go reread A Room of One’s Own. While women today may have access to an education that Woolf’s hypothetical Shakespeare’s sister did not, being able to create still requires resources of time, money and space (emotional and physical). In today’s world, this means being a part of the art marketplace. Without equal access to the marketplace, women (and artists of color) are handicapped in their abilities to continue creating.

    I was at a writer’s conference last summer and, at a panel of editors, an African-American woman asked, “Who decides where my book goes in the book store?” The entire panel played dumb and flat-out refused to answer her question, pretending they couldn’t understand what she was asking, though it was pretty clear she wanted to know who decides if her book would go in the general fiction section, the women’s fiction section or the African-American section. Those distinctions can literally mean the difference between her being able to support herself as a writer OR continuing to need several jobs just to pay the rent. Furthermore, the editors refusal to UNDERSTAND her question left her feeling as if she wasn’t making any sense. The very fact that these EDITORS refused to engage in the question, the very valid question, she was asking says a lot about how unlevel the playing field is actually. African-American characters? Well, that can’t be general fiction, off to the African-American section with you (and, be honest, how often do you go to that section of the bookstore to see what’s there?). A family drama written by a woman? That’s obviously women’s fiction (despite the fact that Tolstoy wrote family drama and is considered literature of the highest form).

    Your argument in both essays strikes me very much as in the same vein as the old “women should stay at home and let the men earn the money” just dressed up in different clothing. Wendell Berry was not unique in having a wife who acted as his secretary, so did Nabokov – she transcribed all of his lectures, typed his manuscripts, AND raised his family. These acts are not the same as collaboration. But where are the husbands who did the same for their creative wives?

    Like it or not, our culture is very tied to the idea of individual genius – that’s the model within which we need to work. Saying how nice it would be if we didn’t think of work this way doesn’t solve the issue, it dodges it.

    • Julie Wittes Schlack

      I think you’ve perhaps misinterpreted Leah’s comments about the collective nature of most forms of art. In no way do I think she’s saying that “women should stay at home and let the men earn the money.” On the contrary, I think she’s trying to acknowledge that even geniuses have muses, critics, and typists whose work is as essential an element of the finished product. And why shouldn’t we, as writers, more actively try to recognize and promote that.

      I think Leah’s absolutely right to urge us to protect the process of creating art from the process of selling it, but I also think that at some point, the separate domains of generating and distributing literature cannot help but intersect. After all, writers write – or at least revise – to be read, given that at some point in the process we try to see our own work through the eyes of our imagined readers, we do need to consider how our work and those readers find each other. The beauty of literature lies precisely in that mutual recognition of a reader seeing something with which they can empathize in a book, and in the book finding the readers to whom it offers joy or meaning. That question generally takes the form of discussions about parity in the marketplace, simply because it’s easier to measure numbers and ratios than to address the more fundamental challenge of how can we enable readers and books to find each other without relying on pigeonholing and constraining classifications (e.g. chick lit, Black lit, etc.). That, I think, is the challenge that your colleague at the writing conference was posing, and I agree that it’s a crucial one for us to take on.
      But as we do, let’s please welcome questions like Leah’s. The open expression of uncertainty or ambivalence is all too rare, and we should treat is as an invitation to respectful discourse.