Progressive Christian Channel
Writing for a Sexist World
Note: In this Religion Roundtable, we've asked the authors of three prominent faith memoirs to write about their views on—and experience of—female spirituality. Check back here every few days to hear Jana Riess, Lauren Winner, and Sarah Sentilles discuss the unique religious questions facing women today.
Dear Jana and Lauren,
Thank you, Jana, for starting this conversation about whether writers, who are women and who are feminist, have a responsibility to write overtly feminist books—and thank you, Lauren, for pointing out that simply being a woman who writes, especially a woman who writes about religion, is in and of itself a feminist act.
I am working now on an article for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about how women's memoirs are received and reviewed, and during my research, I read Francine Prose's "Scent of a Woman's Ink" in Harpers, which was written in 1998 but is, unfortunately, still relevant. She's asking questions that, I think, are driving the conversation we are having here: What is a "woman writer"—and does that question make sense at all?
Prose quotes Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself (originally published in 1959) at length, and I will share a small sample here:
I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault of mine, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.
And Mailer goes on from there, describing the "sniffs" he gets from "the ink of women"—sniffs that smell to him like "old hat," sniff that are "dykily psychotic," "crippled," "creepish, "frigid," and "stillborn." Mailer ends his rant with this little gem: "a good writer can do without everything but the remnant of his balls."
Good to know.
I bring up Mailer's quote and Prose's article because I think as women who write we have to be feminist, explicitly feminist—because the reception of our work will often be sexist. I don't mean to argue that our feminism should dictate our content. I mean, instead, to argue that even if you don't understand yourself as writing an explicitly feminist text, you are writing in and sending your words out into a sexist (and racist and heterosexist and classist) world.
Mailer's view of "women's ink" is alive and well in many reviews of women's books today, even if the sexism is not always as blatant. Initial reviews of Breaking Up with God called me "hysterical," "wimpy," "immature," "depressed," and "off-kilter." I do not believe these words would be applied to a book about God written by a man. One reviewer from a respected newspaper called Breaking Up with God "micro" and "claustrophobic," and though I am 38 years old, he referred to me as "a twenty-something."
I don't write this to try to get back at any of the people who wrote negative reviews of my book—although some day that might be fun—but rather to highlight how our words are received in a certain way because they are words written by women.
I sometimes wonder how Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (a book I enjoyed very much) would have been received had it been written by a woman. The New York Times called it a "masterpiece" with "majestic sweep." I suspect if the author's first name were Jennifer, it might have been called "narrow" and "domestic" and "small minded."
The statistics for women writers and for the reviews of women's books are not good. As VIDA's excellent statistical analysis for the year of 2010 reveals, most book reviewers are men, most books reviewed in major publications are written by men, and the "Best of" series continues to be dominated by men.
And now, Lauren, on to your pointed question about your use of the "romantic metaphor" in Girl Meets God and my use of it in Breaking Up with God, and whether our engagement with that metaphor somehow reinscribes exactly the kind of unfeminist, sexist theologies we might be working against. I am afraid I have to answer your question with a yes. Yes, I think that by figuring my relationship with God as a romantic relationship, I risked falling into exactly the trap from which I was trying to escape, but at the same time, I was using the metaphor to make a point, to show that this is the kind of God in which I have been asked to believe: a male invisible God sitting in the sky on some random cloud judging me. And this is exactly the version of God I broke up with. I can't make my mind or my heart bend into that shape anymore.
Lauren, you asked a question about what to do with women with explicitly unfeminist commitments, and I think the only thing to do is to write against their unfeminism. (Is that a word? Perhaps I mean to say "sexism"?) There is unfeminism in each of us, despite our vigilance. I have absorbed and internalized many of the messages of my sexist culture, and they come out of my own mouth when I least expect it—often when I am standing in front of the mirror.
I read Flunking Sainthood this weekend in preparation for our exchange, and I read Still last week, and they are wonderful (and very different) books. I have a question for both of you: You both use "he" for God throughout your books, and I am curious about your language choice and what it reveals about your faith, your understanding of God, and your feminism.
Let the conversation continue!
Sarah Sentilles is a scholar of religion and the author of three books, including her recent memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. She is now writing a novel about a conscientious objector during WWII and a book about deciding whether or not to become a parent. She lives in Portland, Oregon and tweets as @sarahsentilles.