Gender and genre

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Antonio Martin/Staff

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There are many different words to gesture to the role of an author’s biography in narrative fiction: autofiction, confessional, memoir-storytelling. Some critics see these offshoots as a departure from the traditional novel, while others see them as the form’s death. Plenty of contemporary writers insert themselves into their narratives (Martin Amis, Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgård, Chris Kraus, Rachel Cusk) and there were pioneers before them (James Baldwin, Lucia Berlin, the “New Journalists,” such as Joan Didion, and the supposed original autofiction writer Serge Doubrovsky). Unfortunately for the literary critics seeking consensus, there is no rulebook or glossary of terms to help categorize the many diversions from standard fiction. It certainly would be easier if there was an indicator we could use to determine how much of themselves the authors are writing into their narratives.

Examine these definitions:

Autofiction: a genre of fiction heavily influenced by the life experience of the author

Autobiographical novel: a novel with elements of biography, especially one based on (a part of) the author’s life

Memoir: a history or record composed from personal observation and experience

Despite how similar these terms may seem, not all genre categorizations are created equal. As an aspiring literary novelist who has internalized some snobbishness from her longstanding subscription to The Paris Review, I can attest to the idea that differences between these categorizations do not necessarily refer to craft and content alone. I argue that the categorical label determining how much a work will be taken seriously often has to do with the author’s gender.

Compare the male author Karl Ove Knausgård and the female author Maggie Nelson, for example. Both authors serve as their novel’s protagonists. Both draw from their real lives. In interviews, however, these writers show different attitudes toward genre. When an interviewer asked Nelson how she feels about genre categorization, the author quotes the poet Eileen Myles: “I think literary categories are false. They belong to the marketplace and the academy. It’s the obedience issue that I’m saying ‘f— you’ to, the scholar or the editor trying to trap the writer like a little bug under the cup of ‘poetry’ or ‘prose.’ ” While Nelson’s approach to craft relies on rejecting the question of categorization, Knausgård’s looks to genre as a starting point. Sometime in 2006 or 2007, he found himself sick of fiction, finding the diaries and essays to be the only valuable genres. Nelson concentrated on content rather than her writing’s categorical container, while Knausgård’s philosophy suggests that form gives meaning to the story it contains. I argue that the difference between Knausgård and Nelson — a celebration of the genre “container” versus a conscious aversion to categorization — reflects a difference between the way male and female novelists are affected by literary classification.

It is likely that the many ways to describe autobiographical writing (rather than a conscious effort to designate masculine and feminine literary camps) are the reason Knausgård’s book was deemed an “autobiographical novel” while Nelson’s is a “memoir.” One article dubs Knausgård’s work as “genre-defying.” Another calls that of Nelson “genre-bending.” This might be an example of two critics trying to say the same thing and using arbitrarily different words. Nevertheless, a reader like me (with internalized gender stereotyping of my own) still might interpret these differences in language as the coronation of a male writer (Knausgård) as a revolutionary, while a female writer (Nelson) is deemed only a rule-breaker.

This sensibility that genres can be divided into men’s and women’s spheres lead the memoirist Ken Budd to wonder: “Does memoir belong to just one gender?”

I started considering whether there is a link between an author’s gender identity and the way their work is categorized when I learned the French word “le genre,” which is a homonym for both genre and gender. Many critics mark France as the birthplace of autofiction as we know it. While writers from this initial movement involved both women and men (Marguerite Duras, Vassilis Alexakis, Christine Argot, Annie Ernaux), some contemporary analyses pose the question of whether there is a feminine characteristic to writing about the self. Take Knausgård, for example. His personal presence in his narrative is the reason one critic said he “writes like a woman.”

This sensibility that genres can be divided into men’s and women’s spheres lead the memoirist Ken Budd to wonder: “Does memoir belong to just one gender?” Curious as to whether recounting personal experience does function as part of a womanly realm today, I checked out Goodreads’ Listopia section, which allows users to explore books in categories. While the “Memoirs by Women” list contains 2,448 books, “Memoirs by Men” features only 1,252 titles, as of press time.

As an aspiring writer, I had thought that by devoting myself to art and concerns of the mind, I might avoid the perils of gender-role stereotypes. However, I argue the assumption that women are better off in the emotional and personal realm often corners them into memoir, a genre in which celebrities tend to be bestsellers. For this reason, certain genre categorizations such as memoir and autofiction can be more of a detriment to a female writer’s ability to be taken seriously compared to their male counterparts.

The Italian novelist Elena Ferrante admits to the autobiographical aspect of her writing, but she won’t categorize her writing as autobiography or autofiction. I argue part of this is because women writing themselves into their narratives are less likely to be taken seriously than men. Autofiction may be safe for a male author like Knausgård, but for Ferrante, veering toward autobiographical categorizations might move her out of the realm of literary fiction where women can be taken seriously.

I am instinctively protective of women in the writing community. Once, at the beginning of one of my creative writing workshops at UC Berkeley, a professor asked the class to share their favorite genre category to write in. When a young woman like me said “memoir,” I flinched as if this was an attack on all women trying to be taken seriously in writing. Not only had I internalized the notion that memoir is less respectable, but I also believed someone like me needed to be famous in order to write about themselves. In my mind, there was only so much space writers like us could take up, and we had to be careful with having egos.

Despite my protectiveness over the image of female writers, plenty of women who have written themselves into their narratives have garnered literary respect — Lucia Berlin, Elena Ferrante and Sylvia Plath, to name a few. Still, I can’t help but wonder why it is that many of these female autofiction writers’ fame has to do with a retracted or retired presence. Besides being a talented writer, much of the media’s interest in Ferrante has to do with the fact that her identity is a secret. Despite being celebrated for her writing today, Berlin only had a cult following during her life. Plath’s work, I argue, is too often read with her death in mind. Maybe the way we celebrate invisible or long-gone women who write about themselves has to do with our society’s lag in the appreciation of women, but maybe it also has to do with the notion that female writers are not allowed to have as much ego as male ones in order to be successful.

Before I started my staff writing position at The Weekender, I mostly grappled with fiction writing. Out of respect for the conventions of genre and an aversion to exposing my ego, I steered clear from writing about myself explicitly. In my last piece, however, I confessed some details about my pre-pandemic life in Paris. “Good thing you didn’t use real names,” a friend from France teased on the phone, referring to my ex the essay concealed under a pseudonym. I think my friend was surprised — I had never published a story in which I was the protagonist before.

As an aspiring writer, I had thought that by devoting myself to art and concerns of the mind, I might avoid the perils of gender-role stereotypes.

As an aspiring literary novelist, publishing that very personal essay gave me a slight identity crisis. I couldn’t help but ponder what it meant to bring my experience, rather than my invention, to the forefront. Had I exchanged my fondness for thoughtful craft and figurative language to become a Gossip Girl?

The piece that caused my identity crisis contained all the elements of a personal essay: a personal narrative, a personal incident, a personal opinion. However, when it came time to share it with others, I dropped this adjective: “Check out my essay,” I said. “Personal essay,” at least in my head, sounded too Oprah Winfrey, too Medium.com sex column. In my head, you already have to be famous to write a memoir. Besides, I’m trying to become a literary novelist, remember?

Of course, it is possible to read something without considering the writer’s biography. In creative writing workshops, we usually do not discuss the degree to which our fiction resembles our real experiences. Aligning with the formalist camp in literary criticism, workshops usually keep content separate from context and talk about character reliability and desire, plot progression and language instead. In some cases, I think the effort workshops make to separate the art from the artist is a useful way to avoid hierarchical categorization in literary criticism, especially with authors whose life story is fetishized. With Plath, for example, it could be helpful to sometimes comment on her work without bringing up her tragic death and relationship with Ted Hughes. Of course, life is never separate from art, but examining how we concentrate on biographies for some authors more than others may allow us to develop different judgments.

Just as I envision a future where gender binaries dissolve, I also like to imagine one where traditional genre categories fade. In this utopia, literary critics continue spiraling into naming neuroses. Bookstores, fed up with shuffling Maggie Nelson’s books from poetry to nonfiction to gender studies, are forced to reconsider their organization by genre altogether. Of course, books drawing from the methods of the classics we know and love exist, too, but there are even more choices than ever for readers. There is more room in the market than ever for imaginative fiction. As we venture into this new generation of novelists revolutionizing literature, we as readers must remember to question where the judgments of the work come from. Are our criticisms founded on what we know about the author or the craft of the work? As we consider the standards for women and how we internalize stereotypes, it is important to remember that what we know about an author may determine whether they are categorized as literary or not.

Contact Cate Valinote at [email protected].