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Are works by female writers and male writers still received and critiqued differently? Are women writers still taken less seriously than men?
IN THE MID-EIGHTIES, Pirkko Saisio, a leading Finnish author, wrote a play set in a prison. The prison scenes were criticized for lack of credibility. According to male critics, it was apparent that Saisio did not know prison environments well enough to write about them.
Saisio decided to create a male pseudonym. The debut novel of this fictional author was also set in a prison community.
According to the back cover copy, the writer had worked as a professional in prison administration. The prison scenes in the novel were praised by male critics for being authentic and reflecting a high level of expertise.
THESE REVIEWS were written based on the back cover copy alone, as no other information was available about this mysterious debut author at the time. If the critics had checked the author’s background and credentials, they would have discovered that such a person did not exist.
When the book was shortlisted for a major Finnish literary prize, Saisio revealed the true identity behind the pseudonym. The prison scenes she had published as a woman had been deemed to lack credibility, while the scenes she had published under a male pseudonym had been lauded profusely.
IN HER ARTICLE for the Literary Hub, Joanna Russ, the author of How to Suppress Women’s Writing, explains how female writers’ careers are often reduced to a single book: “She only wrote one good book.” In her book, Russ describes the mechanics of ignoring multifaceted bodies of work and focusing on an isolated achievement:
“If a woman writer presents herself as a public, political voice, delete this aspect of her work and emphasize her love poems, declared (on no evidence) to be written to her husband.”
“If a writer is openly feminist, delete everything of that sort in her work and then declare her passionless, minor, and ladylike.”
“If she writes about women’s experiences, especially the unpleasant ones, declare her hysterical or ‘confessional.’”
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