April 19, 2019

Literature’s MeToo Moment

“It has been a year of math. How many less-famous women equal one famous man? How many female words of accusation equal how many male words of denial? How many reported articles does it take to topple one network executive? How many women’s careers derailed add up to nine months of a man’s professional banishment? How many credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault render a Presidential candidate unelectable? (Answer: some number greater than twenty.) #MeToo has made us all into algebra students, solving and re-solving for x and y.

There is something almost cathartic about turning into a number, about seeing your value, or lack thereof, confirmed with frankness and neutrality. Math is the enemy of gray areas. Math is pay inequalities and rape statistics. The literal meaning and the enthralling promise of the phrase “held to account” is that one might open the books and force a settlement.

In the arts, too, gendered power analyses often manifest as quantification: How many male writers do we read versus how many female? How many books by men versus women earn reviews in how many magazines, and how many awards do the books receive, and what are the gender compositions of the judging committees? The understanding is that decisions about who gets noticed and praised have implications for what kinds of viewpoints and behaviors are enshrined as valid. In May, the author Lauren Groff submitted a “By the Book” interview to the Times that functioned as a rebuke to previous iterations of the column, in which prominent men of letters frequently proved themselves unable to name any female literary influences on their work. (A subsequent analysis found that, in the hundred most recent “By the Book” ’s, half of the fifty-four male authors featured did not mention a single woman.) “Why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?” Groff asked, after outlining a remedial, all-female syllabus. Her critique energized a hashtag, #ReadMoreWomen, that had emerged in March, along with a no-men-allowed book club run by the Web site Electric Literature. Implicit in these salvos was the notion that the ledgers need rebalancing—that until parity is achieved, the number of male-authored stories that anyone should consume is zero.”

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