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BUENOS AIRES, Jul 11 2009 (IPS) - An Argentine woman’s first novel, narrated by a character that eludes female literary stereotypes, has surprisingly met with some nasty sexist comments from spheres where such biases were previously unheard of, such as literary criticism and sophisticated readership.
"The book has sparked verbal violence and a sexist uproar precisely because it doesn’t deal with the issues that are traditionally associated with ‘women's literature,’ but instead contains a sociological critique that is both intelligent and satirical, which are apparently traits solely reserved for men," she concluded.
The "Pola case" is emblematic but far from rare. Elsa Drucaroff, a literature professor at the University of Buenos Aires and essay and novel writer whose work includes literary reviews of young Argentine authors, told IPS that a scandal breaks out every time a woman writer "strays from the flock."
The stereotype dictates that "a woman writer talks about herself and about her love life," Drucaroff said.
Within that mould there is also a body of literature by "independent women." It’s what’s been termed "chick lit," a post-feminist sub-genre that portrays stylish, independent, young women, and whose earliest bestseller was Candance Bushnell’s "Sex and the City", which later gained global success as a U.S. television series.
In her view, while sexist prejudice in the literary field has of late reached appalling levels, under the guise of critical reviews, it also has a long-standing tradition.
She recalled the words of Uruguayan novelist and short-story writer Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994) who in 1939 said that there was something peculiar about female writing, which he described as "doubly belles lettres," a play on the French term for literature that is valued more for its aesthetic characteristics than its subject matter. "Women used to devote themselves exclusively to poetry. They sang to their lover, God, the trees, newborns," she quoted Onetti as saying.
"Every region had its local female poet and everyone was happy," Onetti reminisced when he discovered women who "were no longer satisfied" with sonnets and had begun writing "about Christ, Marx, the Universe or the technique used by the creator of the Bison of Altamira (famous cave paintings in Spain)."
According to Drucaroff, these prejudices are still present, even if they’re not expressed as freely. Now women’s literature is pigeonholed, both by the market and by literary criticism, and punishment befalls those who refuse to be constrained by that corset.
That’s the case with Oloixarac and her novel. But it’s also the fate of Samanta Schweblin, Alejandra Laurencich and Cecilia Szperling, to mention just a few new names in Argentina.
In April, Schweblin, winner of the 2008 Casa de las Américas Literary Award for her short-story collection "Pájaros en la boca", received a sexist critique from her fellow Argentine writer Patricio Prom, published in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra.
Commenting on the writer’s visit to Spain, Prom wrote: "Schweblin opened her eyes wide and said nothing. She looked like a doe trapped in the headlights of a truck speeding towards her, frozen in her tracks by fear. Maybe she realises she’s come as far as she can go."
In Drucaroff’s opinion, Schweblin’s stories "are among the best pieces of the new narrative." Her fiction doesn’t fit the stereotype. But Prom doesn’t see it that way. "Samanta’s work is among the best written by women in Argentina in the last decade, not exactly by any merit of her own, but thanks to the shortcomings of her contemporaries," he wrote.
Oloixarac’s novel, printed by a small publishing house in late 2008, is a bestseller that sold out in just two months. But it also drew fierce criticism. Most of the critics, Drucaroff says, confused the narrator with the writer, and attacked the author for the ravings of her creation.
"It wouldn’t be right to define Oloixarac as a right-wing writer. She’s no writer," two Planta magazine critics said about her, while only devoting some 300 lines to this "non-writer." They also faulted her work for being "a novel without love."
Oloixarac gives her interpretation of why the novel provokes such a negative reaction. "It’s deliberately political, establishing a strong relationship with knowledge, playing simultaneously against different disciplines and reconstructing the fraudulent positions of the cultural left," she said.
But her explanation doesn’t satisfy everyone. The review in the newspaper Crítica was searing. "Poor Pola. She’s pretty, talented, but she’s still writing for her teachers," the reviewer said.
Others valued her work but could not avoid seeing a man in her writing. One such critic defined her as "a Fogwill in skirts," in allusion to innovative Argentine writer Rodolfo Fogwill.
But it’s in the blogs of intellectual readers, writers and students of literature where the most vicious comments were unleashed, augmented by photos of a writer who’s not only smart but attractive, and not afraid to flaunt her beauty.
On a blog featuring her picture, for example, dozens of inappropriate remarks have been posted. One of the more delicate bloggers anonymously wrote: "I’d like to give her a trade-in plan: 10 seconds of pleasure in exchange for eternal silence."
"What’s surprising is that a woman could reach that level of verbal violence, that she could master irony with such ease. My guess is there’s a fair amount of editing behind her writing," another reader, reluctantly seduced, ventured.
"I’m not saying a woman can’t do irony, I just think that Pola couldn’t have done it without some prompter feeding her lines," the reader continued. "Usually, whenever there’s a rebellious ‘chick’ in the School of Philosophy and Literature, the academic system itself eventually makes her toe the line, and she either drops out or simmers down."
If she drops out, according to this reader, she fades into "insignificance," and if she stays "she has no choice but to keep some things to herself or risk losing her footing."
Then there are those who lavish their own particular brand of "recognition" on Oloixarac. "She’s built this persona for herself – a promiscuous, intellectual-type snob – and she’s had a lot of success with it," one critic said. In another’s opinion: "if it’s really true that she’s done all that, then you just have to admire her ambition to get to the top."
The prejudices that lead people to believe a woman who writes well "writes like a man" also befell Cecilia Szperling, author of "Selección natural" ("Natural Selection"), recently published in London. The author told IPS that a London critic praised the novel while assuming it was written by a man.
"In the world of literature there are very few female popes – strong, exceptional women who achieve the degree of acclaim men receive," she said. "There’s a hegemonic system that determines who succeeds and who doesn’t; it’s a system dominated by men and it’s hard for a woman to be admitted.
"Like in other spheres, in literature there aren’t many women who gain recognition if they don’t fall under the category of ‘women's literature’," she said. "A much greater effort is needed for an equal amount of merit."
Szperling vindicated other Argentine authors who broke the mould in the past, like Silvina Ocampo and Alfonsina Storni, and were ignored or criticised. On that list, Drucaroff includes Ana María Shua, an author whose novel "Los amores de Laurita" ("Laurita’s Love Affairs"), already caused in the 1970s the tendency to identify the narrator with the author that affects women writers today.
Shua offered IPS a different angle of approach to the evolution of the issues addressed by female writers. "We’ve had, at least until my generation, a certain limitation in our subject matter, conditioned by our limitation in life experiences," she said.
"We’ve been, above all, writers of the private sphere. Childhood, love, eroticism, family relations – for centuries that was the extent of our experience of the world and, therefore, it was also where we drew our themes from," the award-winning author said.
These new writers are trying to break through the invisibility that condemns anyone who refuses to conform to the established cannon. But they rely on small publishing houses that are not afraid to print new material, and on blogs and other alternative distribution channels that put out their work.
But a gruelling battle awaits them. "Most critics are against us, and the world of literature doesn’t seem to have caught up with political correctness when it comes to women," Szperling said.
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