Kempis: In literature, female protagonists still don’t draw interest


Nicole Kempis, Columnist

It wasn’t until I finished Donna Tartt’s male-narrated coming of age novel “The Goldfinch” last month in a fit of post-final hibernation and inactivity that I realized most award-winning novels are written about men.

I didn’t question Tartt’s decision to write her Pulitzer Prize winner from a male perspective until some days later when I picked up another Pulitzer winner, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” this time by a man and from a male perspective. I started to wonder, how many Pulitzer novels would I have to read before I found one written from a woman’s perspective?

I worked back through the list of winning novels from 2015, and I found that a novel written purely from a woman’s perspective hasn’t won since 1999. In the last 15 years, there have been three novels by women narrated from multiple perspectives, but none told from a purely female point of view. The first case of a novel written by a woman about a woman doesn’t surface until 1995.

There are a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon, but I believe this problem has a great deal to do with our expectations of female writers. Could the world of language and literature — subjects that have been dominated by female students nationwide in recent years — be as sexist as male-dominated occupations like science and mathematics?

I major in Comparative Literature at Northwestern, and in all my contemporary literature classes I have read only one novel written by a woman from a woman’s perspective. It has been proven that the paucity of women pursuing scientific careers can be explained, at least partially, by the unwelcoming atmosphere and veiled sexism in these fields.

I believe that a similar situation is occurring in the world of fiction, in which the youth and romance genres, traditionally the less serious pursuits, are perceived as more welcoming to female authors. Nicola Griffith, a British author, studied six different literary awards and found the only award that had more award-winning female authors and books centered around female protagonists was the Newbury Medal, an award given to American authors of children’s literature.

According to Griffith, “The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.” If one looks at Griffith’s data for the Man Booker Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize — the most prestigious prizes for American fiction over the last fifteen years — there are four winning novels written by women about women, eight by women about men, zero by men about women and 25 written by men about men. The rest are ambiguous or a combination of multiple perspectives. The conclusion is fairly clear: if you want to win a literary award, don’t write about women. They aren’t worth it.

I believe the tendency to favor male protagonists in literary awards can be traced back to the archaic way that society imagines women and their psychology. We unconsciously assume female protagonists are overly emotional and unreasonable; therefore they cannot be trusted as serious narrators.

Even in the modern media, women are often portrayed as petty and frivolous alongside their more stoic male counterparts and their fears and concerns are presented as melodramatic. This is not so surprising. Given our long history of trivializing female consciousness and our modern tendency to present women as senseless, books written by women about women are not taken seriously in the contemporary literary world.

That’s not to say that there aren’t significant literary depictions of female life, “Anna Karenina,”  “Wuthering Heights” and “The God of Small Things,” to name a few. The problem is not so much that there aren’t works of literary quality written about women, but that works dealing with the female psyche are not valued to the same extent as those written from a male perspective.

This is an issue that we should begin to address at a college level. Perhaps NU needs to start listing classes that make concerted efforts to teach recent novels depicting women’s experiences.

The literary gender gap is a clear example of enduring and subconscious sexism in an era in which few overtly express the opinion that women’s thoughts are insignificant. If latent gender bias exists to such an extent in a field that has been welcoming to women for many years, how much worse is it in the business world or the political arena? The insignificance with which we regard imagined women is a reflection of the way we understand real women, their rights and their abilities.

Nicole is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.