06/13/2011 03:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

Feminine Tosh

Breakfast at Printer's Row: (clockwise from top): Meg Waite Clayton, Kelly O'Connor McNees, Eleanor Brown, Ann PackerI spent an inspiring and entirely too short weekend gathering with readers and other writers at Printer's Row Book Festival in Chicago last weekend. If you've never been, imagine thousands of readers and writers gathered together to share chat about the art of the word. And war stories. And food and drink and late night earnest discussions we won't admit to in the morning. And breakfast and coffee and more of the same.

A big topic of conversation -- over breakfast and at panels and in those late night sessions -- was a remark by a prominent male writer that no woman writer was his equal. He dismissed Jane Austen as "sentimental." Women are limited, he said, by our "narrow view of the world." He used the term "feminine tosh."

"Tosh" swiftly became the buzz word of the weekend. We used it as often as possible on my "Ladies of the Write" panel -- after first dispatching the idea that we were "ladies," with all that implication of good behavior. We talked about why women are so often stuck in literary ghettos (breakfast), whether the testosterone roots of the Great American Novel might be leavened with a sprinkle of estrogen any time soon (panel), why men don't read women (panel, and again over dinner), and whether the world would be a better place if women simply refused to have sex with men who weren't Austen fans (one of those late night sessions that perhaps ought not to be admitted to; alcohol was involved).

The point we kept circling back to, though, was: Think of all the great stories one would miss if one didn't read women. Beloved, Middlemarch, Bel Canto, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Alias Grace.

The particular challenges women face making their way in the world is the turf of my writing. When I left the business world behind for the world of books, it wasn't a challenge I expected to follow me. I expected, forty years after the women's movement and more than a hundred after women gained the right to vote, that it would be long moot. But even today, most women are happy to read about male protagonists, whereas very few men will follow a woman protagonist the length of a novel. Even the novels written by women which have found large audiences with men lately -- Wolf Hall, say, or Visit from the Goon Squad -- are stories at least in part about men.

Women are acculturated to care about men's lives, while the reverse is less true. And for much of history, a woman writing was frowned on in proper society. What we think of as "literature" has been shaped largely by men. Another explanation for why men may be reluctant to read stories about women that was mentioned over the post-panel signing was that men fear they'll be seen as weak if they read books focusing on women -- never mind that most women would find that a sign of strength.

The why of it all is not something that could be solved over the course of a weekend, even if we'd devoted full time to it and skipped the other fun of festival-going: the white tents, the bands, the t-shirts and book bags and the laughter, the discussion of what we were reading, what we wanted to read, what we'd just read. But thinking about it on the plane home to California, I did find myself wondering: If women read about men and men don't read about women, which gender really does end up with the narrower view of the world? -- Meg

Printer's Row Lit Fest "Ladies of the Write": Kristine Riggle, Cavanaugh Lee, Beverly Jenkins, Meg Waite Clayton, and moderator Cristina Henriquez

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