The Privilege of Unqualified Knowledge Production (and how it relates to Women Writers and Immigrant Fiction?)

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf calls attention to the obstacles women have historically faced in producing knowledge and cultural artifacts such as novels, historical texts and poetry. She argues that “genius like Shakespeare’s is not born” among the ranks of people that lack economic security and a room of one’s own; the production of knowledge requires emotional and physical space to contemplate and create (48).

When examining the cultural works that women have managed to produce despite their historical deprivation, Woolf often reads a self-consciousness of gender in their words. Woolf explains the truncated prose of Mary Carmichael as the result of an attempt to assert herself as a writer rather than a woman: 

This terseness, this short-windedness, might mean that she was afraid of something; afraid of being called “sentimental” perhaps; or she remembers that women’s writing has been called flowery and so provides a superfluity of thorns (80).

 To read women’s prose is often to examine the underlying anger, bitterness, or apprehension she grapples with in her writing; her words are not taken as simply a story, the pure production of cultural knowledge, but rather a representation of the condition and experience of women more generally. To read men’s prose, on the other hand, is “delightful…. it was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself” (98). 

Here, the privilege of telling a story without the anxiety of defying a category of identity is a freedom exclusive to man. Because his words are taken at face value, he does not have to worry about representing “masculinity” in his prose or content: his story is a story, his prose is prose– the form and content of his work are not subject to serving as allegories for his categorical identification. 

I wonder if today women writers have produced enough work in enough genres to break free of the expectations of “women’s writing.” This discussion of freedom in cultural and knowledge production, of the privilege to present a story as such, reminds me of recent interviews I have read from some of my favorite authors. Jumpha Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Jamaica Kincaid are novelists that are often categorized as writers of “immigrant fiction.” Yet this is not a category that they have chosen for themselves: in interviews, they often talk about the pressure they feel to “represent” the entire population of their cultural heritage when they are simply trying to write a story. Their production of knowledge is influenced by their identity, which is surely a fact that hold for a white man: yet the story of a minority writer is taken as an allegory for the minority experience, whereas the story of the white man is taken as a story, unqualified.

Given this burden of representation under the expectations of a literary audience, to what extent can a writer from a minority category follow Woolf’s advice that it “is much more important to be oneself” (109) than anything else? What does it mean, when this self was shaped by a societal and cultural context that shapes one’s decisions, frameworks of understandings, and production of knowledge? 

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13 thoughts on “The Privilege of Unqualified Knowledge Production (and how it relates to Women Writers and Immigrant Fiction?)

  1. Your post really reminds me of the article we read by Judith Butler. I think Butler’s idea about the confining aspect of labeling oneself as a lesbian or coming out could definitely be applied to the idea of declaring yourself a female writer. Similarly, although women being able to write about the issues faced by women and declaring themselves proud female writers does bring the female community closer and is nice to identify with a group, it also has probably pigeonholed a lot of female writers. In some ways their work will never really belong to them. Instead it belongs to their woman-ness. I don’t think this is necessarily true for all female writers but I wonder what allows some to write freely and not others. I also wonder are all books with a female main character inherently women’s fiction? Can a man really write women’s fiction?

    • Interesting questions you raise! I am trying to think of some of my favorite female writers. Jhumpa Lahiri definitely jumps out, and Hanan Al-Shaykh, and Arundhati Roy. Yet all of these writers are definitely categorized for their otherness by writing about settings in or characters from the East. I think contemporary female writers do not necessarily have to be pigeonholed in the category of women writer (take JK Rowling). I do want to point out that these women writers often write male characters, and I think they do them well- but then again am I in a position to judge?

  2. This reminded me of a line from the de Beauvoir reading: If I want to define myself, I first have to say, “I am a woman”; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth. A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious (5).

    The idea of the self/other continues to be in play. Categories such as women’s fiction or immigrant fiction are always framed as the “other.” Hannah’s point that not all female writers fall into this category is very interesting, too, because it seems like men cannot write women’s fiction (it would just be fiction) but not all women write women’s fiction.

    Another point this makes me think of is how women authors take on pseudonyms that are either gender neutral or masculine, even today–the first example that comes to mind is J.K. Rowling adding the K to her name to broaden her appeal .

    • I guess when I was asking if a man can write women’s fiction I was thinking more specifically about if a man could purposefully write fiction (probably with a female main character) that attempted to capture women’s issues or that came from a place in which the character being a woman is important. I wonder specifically if women would accept it and understand it as women’s fiction. (Does anybody have examples?). It seems that partially female writers are trying to get past the fact that anything they can write must be about being a woman and just be about a person. (This sort of ties into Shira’s articles that Mindy Kaling is trying to just be a writer and actor and get past that she is female and Indian). I wonder if the opposite is true? But you’re completely right that I don’t think anyone would take a piece of fiction written by a man and ever consider it women’s fiction unless he stated himself that’s what he was trying to do. His writing can stand on it’s own and not be taken as a representation of an entire gender. (This I think is what is sometimes most frustrating about gender issues–every woman is taken as a representation of her entire sex.)

      But all this has led me to wonder–do we do this to ourselves, as well? When we read Pride & Prejudice we too talked about Lizzie as a model of womanhood, and a means for women to represent Lizzie as an ideal. I know we’re in a gender studies class but a lot of our conversation focused on how P&P is a window into the world of women in Austin’s time. Did Austin do this or did we put this on her work? Is it ok? Are there different distinctions between right and wrong ways to do this?

      • Andrea mentioned Junot Diaz, a favorite author of mine, in terms of his status as being categorized as a minority writer and the burden of such a status. Not to throw the word “intersectionality” around flippantly, but Diaz also has some really interesting thoughts on what it means to be a modern male author trying to write in a female voice and the large failures of male authors to do so, while female authors are remarkedly successful at writing male characters. Diaz argues that men need to actively work and practice to write in the female perspective, which is an inversion of Wolf’s criticism of female authors’ voice. I think my own personal prejudices tend to agree that while female authors can easily write compelling male characters, male authors often struggle to do so. I’m not sure if this is a prejudice based upon the reality of our current state of modern literature, or whether I just think women are special entities that can only be captured by same-gender authors.

        Diaz had a really interesting and insightful interview in the Atlantic on this topic:
        http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/the-baseline-is-you-suck-junot-diaz-on-men-who-write-about-women/262163/

      • I think that it’s entirely possible for men to write women’s fiction, they just typically choose not to. I just posted a video of a speech Joss Whedon gave explaining how ridiculous he thinks it is that people wonder why he writes strong female characters that you might enjoy. While Whedon’s work isn’t the literary fiction that you were going for, he’s the first example I drummed up – sadly it’s difficult for me to think of more.

        I feel that the reason why female author’s often find that they’re compelled to write about being a women is because their position as women in literature is still considered remarkable. Women have a deprived historical past in literary production (often using pseudonyms if creating literary works at all). Being the spear-heads of knowledge production for women in literature may put special pressures on them to produce the areas of fiction that we’ve been deprived of for so long. While I wouldn’t say that it’s the job of a female author to have to accommodate a lacking past, I can understand why socially there is a pressure to fill that emptiness. Thus, maybe the reason why women seem to represent their entire sex in these situations is that they are in a unique position of power and influence that not many have had before her.

        I don’t really think that we were unfair in our discussion of Lizzie as a model of womanhood. I mean, Analyzing characters within the scope of their gender is a fair discussion of character development and how that character represents models of society. Conceptualizing Lizzie as a model of womanhood opens up a discussion of the social, economic, and political imbalances and power struggles specifically determined by sex. While Austin may or may not have meant for us to conceptualize her work in this way, discussion framed in this manner does not devale the literary work.

      • I agree– I think we definitely take characters as symbols rather than characters with rich subjectivities in themselves. Yet, I am reminded by a previous reading in the first cluster… I forget the author, but she talked about the brain organization of men and women. She started off the discussion by claiming that stories are how we make sense of the world, that fiction is allegorical for reality. In this light, is a character ever really just a character?

        I am also reminded of Scott– how can we approach a piece of fiction from a historical perspective? This is still a question I don’t feel like we have developed an answer to. I feel like there should be a methodology.

      • So there’s been a lot of talk in the comments about men writing male characters and females writing male characters and generally I think people have agreed that women do it better, but I wonder if that’s because our expectations of male and female characters are a bit skewed. We’ve mentioned Rowling a couple of times so let’s go with her. She writes male characters and they’re pretty well done but does Harry Potter really have men’s issues? (Not that I think he should. I don’t want to say that all male characters need to be dealing with particularly male issues to be male or the opposite for females. Sometimes a story is about magic and friendship not about gender, which is great).

        I think this may stem from the fact that male perspective is deemed neutral but this got me wondering have people read any books that really had a male character dealing with issues of masculinity–about feeling like they had to match up to a certain ideal of manhood, etc? Fight Club comes to mind but I can’t think of any others (I will readily believe that’s because of my limited knowledge of fiction though). Anybody read one in which a female author wrote it?

      • Re: a female author who wrote about men’s issues/masculinity: Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth”, which definitely does have some feminist themes in them but is very much a book about fathers, sons, and family. Arguably, she was probably writing “more” about China than about men and family. Thinking more broadly to other types of media, I think recently, Kathryn Bigelow (with “The Hurt Locker”) and Sofia Coppola (with “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere”) have created films that somewhat explore men/masculinity (though Kathryn Bigelow’s recent films’ screenplays were written by a man).

        Just trying to think up works of literary fiction, though, that were written about men by women, or even literary fiction with “strong female characters” written by men proved difficult (admittedly, I’m not that widely read). It was much easier for me to think of films/TV series with “strong female characters,” e.g., Joss Whedon’s work as mentioned above, Mad Men, Quentin Tarantino’s work, Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, etc. I wonder if the so-called “strong” female characters of visual media are remembered much more vividly than their literary counterparts because there’s still something fetishized about the woman as portrayed on film (à la Mulvey), regardless of the character she portrays. Or if it’s because TV/film is much more easily accessible/digestible that they can embed themselves in our culture much more easily. Or if it’s because not enough time has passed to determine whether these TV/movie characters are actually memorable and impactful in the long-run. Or something else entirely.

  3. This post also reminds me of an interview I recently read between Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling for Rookie: Yearbook 2- http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/lena-dunham-hilariously-candidly-interviews-mindy-kaling-20131111
    In it, Kaling comments on the nature of common interview questions, and they’re certainly not specific to her- successful women in that industry are constantly asked about the politics of their appearance, mostly weight. Kaling in particular is Indian, not skinny, and a woman, and as a result, she ends up doing more work regulating her own identity as a spectacle for others to comment on than a white male of the same career path who is asked about the content of his art does. Kaling obviously isn’t ashamed to be a woman or a minority, but it’s not particularly interesting to her to talk about the obvious aspects of her appearance when she is working so hard to create art, to have a room of her own. This room is constructed in a framework of identity categories; it is not simply a TV show, but a TV show written by a female minority, and this gives it a meaning that a white man’s story, unqualified, lacks.

    • Thanks for sharing! This is a great piece. I have been thinking about interview questions a lot lately, and the assumptions that the interviewer makes while crafting them. As a sociology student, I sometimes find it difficult to ask questions that are specific enough to elicit focused responses without pushing the interviewee into a narrative that is not theirs.

  4. One of my main concerns is that Woolf continuously frames her discussion of the lack of privilege as gendered. She never really addressed that maybe the issue of knowledge production is more basic than an issue about women’s privileged, but more broadly a question about poverty and class relations to knowledge production. I suppose my question is: would Woolf’s arguments changed if her scope was not women writers, but poor writers experiencing a lack of privilege?

    • Good point– those who come from impoverished socioeconomic classes often lack the authority of tradition and worldliness that Woolf cites as important for cultural and knowledge production. However an important analytic distinction to keep in mind is that (drawing on DeBeauvoir) women as a gender lack a unified history/political agenda which makes coalition building and mutual support difficult.

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