“[Tillie] Olsen makes the case that women writers have faced crushing odds, their talents underestimated, their achievements ignored, the themes of their writing scorned, their very attempt to write condemned as a breach of family duty — and of feminine nature. And yet, as she shows, they have written.” This quote, from the back cover of the 25th anniversary edition of Silences, helps place author Tillie Olsen’s (1912-2007) book in perspective.
I reread Silences for Women’s History Month (March) and was appalled by the treatment many women writers have had to endure.
I hadn’t fully appreciated Olsen’s points when I first read Silences in grad school. The annotations in the anniversary edition helped, but so did years of reading many of the authors Olsen quotes, including Margaret Atwood, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and others.
Today, drawing on years of reading, writing, and submitting works for publication — all while trying to balance work and family life — I have the context needed to better understand the book Olsen first published in 1978.
‘The themes of their writing scorned’
In Olsen’s chapter on the “Sense of Being Wrong Voiced,” I circled the quote, “There is a wide discrepancy in American culture between the life of women as conceived by men and the life of women as lived by women,” which Olsen attributes to historian Lillian Schissel, editor of Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey.
Back in the day, I don’t remember connecting Olsen’s points about women writers and women’s lives to the work I was doing with my MFA peers and professors, but I probably should have. Upon rereading Silences, some interactions came to mind, such as…
Although the statement is decades old, I remember who said it. I can still see him in the yellow light of the basement classroom at our Arizona university. Behind him, our instructor (who recommended Silences) seemed like an out-of-reach lifesaver as she chatted with another student critique group.
My peer had dismissed my fiction draft quickly and concisely because, according to him, “nothing happens.” As far as he was concerned, his critique of my story was complete. But we still had almost an hour to fill in our graduate long-form short story workshop. Finally, he asked, “If she wanted a drink, why didn’t she get on the casino bus with the rest of them?”
This peer’s question reminded me of a professor’s feedback on that same writing project: “An alcoholic would drink vodka, not whiskey.” His reasoning involved avoiding detection and costs, since I had specified a female character’s preference for Jack Daniels, her father’s favorite.
‘I speak of myself to bring here the sense of those others to whom this is in the process of happening (unnecessarily happening, for it need not, must not continue to be) and to remind us of those (I so nearly was one) who never come to writing at all.’ –Tillie Olsen, Silences
Apparently, I knew nothing about alcoholics — at least not their tropes of preferring cheap booze, acting out, and so on. But maybe it was just that I didn’t appreciate the clichés surrounding alcoholics? While “good” writers are supposed to avoid clichés in their sentences, shouldn’t they also avoid clichéd tropes in their characters?
I entered both critiques knowing my work-in-progress needed significant revision. The drafts focused on three generations of women and, by extension, the women’s circles of their church as they dealt with the alcoholism of one of their own. But to just dismiss the project as “nothing happens”? To “correct” details when the entire project was still in development?
Both interactions were frustrating. My peer’s underlying message: “Give it up.” The professor’s: “You don’t know what you’re writing about.” (I’m sure my professor offered more useful feedback, but his correction had the lasting impact.) I remember feeling that my work wasn’t being considered seriously. In rereading Silences, I realized (unfortunately) that I wasn’t alone.
‘One Out of Twelve’
“One Out of Twelve” is a rallying point in Silences. Olsen points out that in the literary canon, one in twelve (or less) are works by women writers. Same for publications, awards, anthologies, and more when Olsen’s book was published in 1978.
In the late 1990s, the literary landscape looked a bit better, based on my MFA comprehensive fiction reading list. The readings included 37 women authors among 113 fiction works listed or an improved ratio of about one out of three.
Today, the gatekeepers for publications, awards, and reviews could still do better. Voices silenced — women’s voices, LGBTQ+ voices, POC voices, differently abled voices, etc. — can mean missed understandings and lost connections.
The conversation about the challenges facing women writers continues. If you’re interested in reading more, check out:
- Novelist Meg Wolitzer’s New York Times article — “The Second Shelf: From covers to marketing to awards, why do novels by women get different treatment than books by male authors? In 2012, Meg Wolitzer took on the elephant in the library” — was republished on Oct. 21, 2021, and is available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/21/books/meg-wolitzer-second-shelf.html (Note: The New York Times usually offers a few free article views a month.)
- Novelist and essayist Jennifer Weiner blogs about the New York Times poor track record of reviewing fiction by women at: http://jenniferweiner.blogspot.com/2010/09/back-in-august-when-jodi-picoult.html The blog post dates back to Sept. 21, 2010, but has the representation of women authors among Times (and other) reviews changed much?