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?