Deborah Copaken Kogan is a novelist whose most recent work, The Red Book (Hyperion), will be out in paperback on May 7. The Nation.
The author’s 2002 book about her career as a war photographer was titled “Shutterbabe”—against her wishes. Illustration by Milton Glaser Incorporated.
My latest novel was just long-listed for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize. I cried when I heard. Then I Googled it. Here are a few things I learned: it was founded in response to the 1991 Booker Prize, whose nominees were all men; it is frequently modified by the adjective “prestigious”; and it is controversial. Why do we need a separate prize for women, ask the columnists, year after year, in one form or another, following the announcement of the nominees.
“The Orange Prize is a sexist con-trick” posited a prize-winning male novelist in 2008. “The past is gone,” he wrote. “Get over it.”
The 2012 VIDA statistics have been out for some time now, so I won’t linger over the current and quantifiable inequity—yes, even in this magazine—in the frequency with which male and female writers are reviewed today, five years after the past was deemed “gone.” It’s a proven fact, backed by simple math even my first grader can understand: the number of reviews of books by men is greater than the number of reviews of books by women; the number of male reviewers is greater than the number of female reviewers. Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.
What I will do, however, is open my kimono and make it personal, though I’ve been warned not to do this. It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you. But never mind. I’m too old and too invisible to said establishment to care. And I still believe, as Carol Hanisch wrote back in 1969—when I was having my then three-year-old feet forced into stiff Mary Janes—that the personal is political.
So. Let’s rewind and take a look at my so-called post-feminist life in arts and letters.
Born in 1966, I came of age at the dawn of a revolution. The past was gone; we would move on and get over it! Except getting over it, as it turns out, takes more than an ashcan full of bras and access to the pill. It takes years—decades even. My whole life, in fact, and still counting. Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, when I was 6, but only the girls born many years after me got to reap its rewards. Who knows? Instead of a novelist, I might have become a really short, nebbishy soccer player.
Fast-forward to 1988: I am raped by an acquaintance the night before my graduation from college. The next morning, before donning cap and gown, I stumble into the University Health Services building to report the crime. I’m advised not to press charges. “They’ll smear you,” I’m told by the female psychologist assigned to my case. I don’t want to be smeared. I’ve got a life to live. Twenty-five years later, while watching CNN lament the effects of the Steubenville rapeon two promising lives—the rapists’, not the victim’s—I’ll hold two competing thoughts: nothing has changed; I wish I’d been braver. I decide to Google my rapist’s name, something I’ve never done in the quarter-century since the crime. His promise, I note, has been duly fulfilled. He’s successful. He’s married—to a woman who recently spoke on a “Lean In” panel with Sheryl Sandberg.
Because life’s like that.
Let’s head on over to 1989. I’m a 23-year-old war photographer, on the eve of my first professional exhibit at theinaugural Visa Pour l’Image Perpignan photo festival. I share this honor with photojournalism heavyweights Sebastião Salgado and Jim Nachtwey. They and all the other men—except the identical Turnley twins, who are paired for obvious reasons—are given solo exhibits. I share mine with another female on the slate that year, Alexandra Avakian. Ours is called “Les Deux Femmes Sur le Front,” which translates as “The Two Women on the Front Lines.” Of the twenty-six photographers featured in that first festival, we are the sole women.
It’s now 1998. I am the mother of two young children. I am my family’s primary breadwinner, working full time as a producer at NBC. I have an Emmy, but it’s no big deal: work in TV news long enough, you eventually get one. Returning to work after my second maternity leave (which left my family broke, as it was unpaid), despite my specialty in international news I am assigned three stories in rapid succession: “Putting Your Kids to Bed”; “Fussy Babies”; “Picky Eaters.” I am one of the few mother-of-small-children producers on the show, but there are plenty of father-of-small-children producers in our ranks. I punt the “Picky Eaters” story and take a leave of absence to try my hand at my first passion, writing, which my (male) freshman expository writing professor had once dissuaded me from attempting, though I’d previously been a young columnist for Seventeen.
It’s 1999. I sell my first book to Random House, a memoir of my years as a war photographer, for twice my NBC salary. I’m thrilled when I hear this: a new job; self-reliance; the gift of time to do the work I’ve been dreaming of since childhood. The book is sold on the basis of a proposal and a first chapter under the title Newswhore, which is the insult often lobbed at us both externally and from within our own ranks—a way of noting, with a combination of shame and black humor, the vulture-like nature of our livelihood, and a means of reclaiming, as I see it, the word “whore,” since I want to write about sexual and gender politics as well. Random House changes the book’s title toShutterbabe, which a friend came up with. I beg for Shuttergirl instead, to reclaim at least “girl,” as Lena Dunham would so expertly do years later. Or what about Develop Stop Fix? Anything besides a title with the word “babe” in it.
I’m told I have no say in the matter. The cover that the publisher designs has a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. I tell them it’s usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina. I fight—hard—to change the cover. Thankfully, I win this one, agreeing to shoot the cover photo myself, gratis. When my publicist tries to pitch the book to NPR’s Terry Gross, a producer tells him that Terry likes the “Shutter” part of the title but not the “babe” part.
It’s now 2001. After two years of painstaking work to produce the book—having never written one before or attended grad school, I had to learn on the job—nearly every review refers to me as a stay-at-home mom. One such article is entitled “Battlefield Barbie,” which calls me a “soccer-mom-in-training.” I look nothing like Barbie. My kids don’t play soccer. The general consensus is that the book is good, but I suck. The character assassinations are intense. Talkasks if I’m worried I’ll be labeled a slut. I object to both the word and the question; the journalist prints them anyway.Brill’s Content and The Women’s Review of Books insinuate that I brought on my own rape and various other crimes that I experienced at the hands of men—armed robbery, a knockout blow to the skull from a crack addict. Salon resorts to slut-shaming and libel. New York thinks I’m an insult to feminism for having left a promising career behind.
My book is a bestseller, gets taught in journalism schools. I haven’t left anything behind, I think; I’ve started something new. (Years later, the Internet, reality TV and citizen journalists with smartphones will decimate both of my former professions anyway, forcing many of my ex-colleagues to scramble both for work and for new ways of working.) A proponent of “leaning in” before it ever became a topic for panels with my rapist’s wife, I write to the publications who called me a slutty Barbie stay-at-home mom and/or an insult to feminism, not to ask for a public retraction, but to request privately—privately! I don’t want to get smeared—that they carefully reconsider how they’re reviewing women. “Would you call a male author a stay-at-home dad?” I ask, among other rhetorical questions.
The Barbie critic was at that time a freelancer, so his editor suggests I call him at home for his e-mail address, a relatively new thing at the time and not easily obtainable otherwise. A few weeks later, I’m publicly shamed by this man at the National Book Critics Circle Award, where he has won the Balakian Citation. In his acceptance speech, though he stops short of naming me, he tells the story of the crazy woman writer who called him at home to complain about her review, though I was just calling for his e-mail address. Salon picks up the story and publishes both my full name and their own take, in which the critic’s amusing if false hearsay is printed as fact, without ever having called to ask me for a rebuttal. The name of the essay? “When Authors Attack.” (“They’ll smear you,” I think to myself.)
It’s now 2006. I’ve just sold my first novel, Suicide Wood, a modern-day allegory of Dante’s Inferno about a mother who kills herself and her children. I’m told books with the word “suicide” in the title never sell and that I should keep my mouth shut about the Dante business: women—my novel’s alleged audience—will be turned off by Dante. And suicide. I explain that I would like women and men to read my novel, that it’s actually about suicide, and that an understanding of the Inferno is not a prerequisite for understanding it, just a bonus for Dante nerds. I remind everyone of the success of Jeff Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. Its cover featured my friend Phyllida’s blond hair, which is how I originally came to know of the book, but I would have picked it up anyway because, though female, I’m drawn to novels about suicide. (I can’t be the only one, can I?) “His title has ‘virgin’ in it,” I’m told. My title is changed to Between Here and April. I’m not sure what this means, but I’m told, once again, I have no say in the matter.
It’s 2009. I should be getting over it by now, and I’m trying, I really am, but then my third book, Hell Is Other Parents, a collection of personal essays, is published with a pink cover and placed in the parenting section. Prior to publication, I try changing the color to robin’s egg blue, the classification to memoir, and the title to Screwing in the Marital Bed, the title of one of the essays, which I think better encapsulates the thrust of the book. I am told, for the third time, that I have no say in the matter.
It’s now 2012. My fourth book, The Red Book, future nominee for the prestigious yet controversial Women’s Prize for Fiction and New York Times bestseller, gets passed over for a review in The New York Times Book Review, just like its predecessors. One morning, I hit a few independent bookstores to sign stock. Our publishers urge us to do so during a book’s first weeks. “Was it reviewed in the Times?” one bookseller asks me, searching his computer for any sign of the novel, which he was unable to locate on the shelves. I tell him no. “Then we probably don’t stock it.” I hear the same story from three more booksellers before heading home with my pristine Sharpie.
I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it. A few months later, after delivering a lecture on the media-invented “mommy wars” at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, a song pops up on my iPhone as I’m walking back to my hotel room: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “When you ain’t got nothing,” Dylan sings, “you got nothing to lose.”
Yes, I think. Yes.
I suppress the three words that have haunted me my entire adult life—”They’ll smear you”—and choose Dylan’s instead, composing a carefully worded private e-mail to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, alerting him to his neglect of all four of my published books. He responds graciously with two sentences in which he promises to share this information with his colleagues. Eight months later, the novel remains unreviewed.
It’s 2013, the day I sit down, with trepidation, to write this. The Times‘s obituary for Yvonne Brill, renowned rocket scientist, winner of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, leads with, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”
The past is not gone. Or as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Until it is, we should not be expected to get over it.
I’m proud of my nomination for a prestigious if controversial British literary prize given only to women. I’m honored to be mentioned in the same breath as my fellow nominees, whose books I’ve been tearing through of late with relish and awe. Past winners—Helen Dunmore, Anne Michaels, Carol Shields, Suzanne Berne, Linda Grant, Kate Grenville, Ann Patchett, Valerie Martin, Andrea Levy, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rose Tremain, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Téa Obreht and Madeline Miller—include authors whose novels I know well or not at all, but it is for the latter, as a reader, I am most grateful.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction—and three cheers for the transparency of its new name—is not a “sexist con-trick” by any definition of sexism that I know. To the contrary, it redresses centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” In fact, I’m thinking about starting a women’s prize here in the United States, to be given out once a year, every year, until gender parity in the arts is achieved.
I figure that should take me from now until my obituary.