Carol Shields's 2001 novel Unless is worth reading simply because it's a first class work by a first class writer at the peak of her literary abilities. I highly recommend it. I recently reread it and it got me thinking about a few things.
The protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer, wife and mother from the fictional Orangetown, Ontario. Her eldest daughter has taken to sitting outside of a Toronto subway station, head bent down, holding a hand-lettered sign that says "Goodness." She doesn't solicit passers-by any more than this. She gives away the money she gathers to other street people. She refuses to speak to her parents or sisters, much less explain why she dropped out of university to live like this. So Reta tries to live her life - working on a new novel, visiting friends, making dinner, having sex with her husband, feeding the dog, and has to deal with the constant knowledge that there's something very wrong with her daughter which she can't understand, much less solve.
Reta takes to composing letters to various authors, telling them how much she enjoyed an article of theirs, and then politely points out that in their list of literary influences, in their survey of great thinkers, they left women out of the picture. She wonders if this kind of unthinking exclusion contributed to whatever made her daughter slip into the state she's in (as Reta's mentor surmises, women have been denied greatness, and so opt for goodness instead). Reta signs her letters with false names, and never mails them, undercutting her own meagre protests.
So if Reta were to read my stuff, would she compose one of those letters to me? Do I contribute to the problem she keeps noticing?
Maybe not. I wrote an article recommending that men ask women questions. Another advising that guys read to their girlfriends or wives. Another about female relational aggression, as exemplified in an 80s cartoon. I've based multiple articles on the books of Barbara Ehrenreich and Sandra Maitri. I wrote and toured a one man show about how women get the short end of the stick in pretty much every possible way.
But women form a tiny minority in my book collection - easily less than ten percent. Same with my music library. My main career is in theatre, and the plays I write are more often about men. Most of my collaborations are with guys. And without counting, I'd say that in the articles I've written for this site I've referenced men more often than women. Sometimes exclusively.
If you're contributing to a problem through ignorance, inaction or passive acquiescence, you're still contributing to that problem.
Once you become aware of what's happening and of your complicity in it, what do you do?
This act of self-examination on my part could be dismissed as the trappings of a postmodern point of view. Is it more emblematic of a post-postmodern, or Integral consciousness to have transcended and included this kind of postmodern striving for a politically correct equality, and to explore topics and reference writers as desired, regardless of their gender, even if doing so results in the research, work and experience of women being left unmentioned and unconsidered, far more often than not?
I certainly can't steer this massive cultural trend in another direction, and would never mean to imply that I could. I sincerely hope that even asking these questions doesn't imply an arrogant sense of grandiosity that my writings for a modestly read website don't warrant. But it also won't do to let myself off the hook because I write on a scale that's too small to influence the masses. The masses are made up of each of us.
So I can make a concerted effort to keep an eye on my own inner processes, where, as a white guy, this bias very likely plays itself out as I take in art and non-fiction from the world, and create stuff of my own to send back out into the world. Maybe, in keeping my awareness attuned to this possibility, I can strengthen the atrophied impulse to shine the light on the experiences and thoughts of the ignored fifty percent of the population, say, fifty percent of the time or so.
I reread Unless in July/August. I've been working on implementing its ideas since then, in what I'm writing, reading and listening to. Here's what I discovered: it's not that hard. It's actually really enjoyable.
A few highlights:
-State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
-Cold Specks' album I Predict a Graceful Explosion (and seeing them in concert)
-Food and the City, by Jennifer Cockrall-King
-The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels
-the HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham
-seeing Metric in concert (fronted by Emily Haines)
-Phantogram's EP Nightlife
-Nina Simone Sings the Blues
-discussion resulting from a post looking at seemingly anti-woman songs by women (Florence and the Machine and Lykke Li)
-the deluxe edition of Sharon Van Etten's album Tramp
-Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes
-Lisa Gerrard's a capella rendition of The Wind That Shakes the Barley
-Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain