Magnificently Missing the Point on VIDA

The LA Review of Books has an interesting article by Katherine Angel on the subject of gender in literature. Much of it is about the whole VIDA count issue and the various excuses that publications such the the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books come up with to justify their overwhelmingly (white) male focus. Angel does a great job of skewering them, but I can’t help but feel that she missed an opportunity to follow up on some of the material at the beginning of the article.

To me one of the most interesting sections is where she is talking about the contrasting reactions received by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk. I’m not very familiar with either of their work, but I understand that both have written deeply personal, autobiographical works in which they don’t come over as very nice people. The point that Angel makes is that Knausgaard has been fairly universally praised for his bravery in writing such work (despite some rather ordinary prose) whereas Cusk has been viciously attacked because of what she reveals about herself. A “brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist” was how one (female) reviewer described her.

The very obvious point here is that men and women are held to very different standards in their written work (and personal lives). Behavior that is seen as admirable in a man is seen as disgraceful in a woman. But Angel leaves this point hanging. When she goes on to talk about the VIDA count and the various vacuous excuses that publications use for avoiding gender balance, she doesn’t return to it at all, despite having the opportunity to do so.

Angel quotes the LRB as saying that women “often prefer not to write critically about other women”; and that men are “not so frightened of asserting themselves” and are “not so anxious to please.” She responds to this by noting, “I’m skeptical of this characterization of women writers as meekly afraid to criticize.” And, you know, we’d all like to think that we are smart enough, and brave enough, to do criticism on the same level as the boys. Certainly there are some very good, and very brave, women critics out there. But equally we know exactly what happens to women when they poke their heads over the parapet. If a man complains about how badly women are treated on social media he gets praised for doing so; if a woman does the same thing she gets a torrent of rape and death threats.

So is it really surprising that women are less eager to indulge in public criticism of other writers? And that when they do they tend to pull their punches a lot more than a man would? I’m all in favor of editors making a conscious decision to publish more women, as Angel suggests that they do. But I’m not sure that will solve the problem. Before women can compete on equal terms with men as literary critics, or indeed experts of any sort, we need to create a world in which women are seen to have the same right to have opinions as men do.