On Thursday, The Atlantic Wire ran this piece about a San Diego State University study that notes the dramatic rise in literature written in the first person, in the space of 1960 to 2008. And then, the article's author, Eric Levenson, went on to make the case that this is due to the rise in female authors. Considering how frequently critics wring their hands at the vaguely Millennial problem of narcissism eating away at the foundation of the good ol' days, this made us bristle a bit. But we have to wonder if he has a point.
Levenson's piece actually deviates from the original study's focus on literature, bringing the debate to modern journalism, instead. And his references are interesting — from this article in The Guardian, rife with terms like "anecdata" and "feelpinion," to the well-publicized controversy surrounding Port magazine, there's a lot of good discussion on the subject. The idea that female voices, while perhaps better represented today than in the past, are still boxed into "women's" categories is one that is, in fact, backed up by the numbers. While we couldn't find a similarly comprehensive study looking at journalism in particular, this study cited in The Guardian looks at Australian media and found that "the only fields in which women wrote more than 50 per cent of published pieces were relationships/parenting and specifically gender-focused articles," while men continued to dominate in the more "serious" areas of politics and finance. All of this is definitely worth a read, but we'd like to point out a few things, first:
Women aren't more suited to these topics by birth. We already know that there are plenty of women capable of writing competently and thinking profoundly about a variety of issues. The fact of the matter is that in this case, art — or rather, media — imitates life. As long as women are still struggling with raising children and maintaining a career, not to mention being paid significantly less than men, the stereotypes that women are more suited to discuss certain issues will remain — as those issues rise to the forefront of discussion for a lot of women. And, it's a two-way street; certainly, those same stereotypes apply to men as well, presumably keeping the perspectives of some very empathetic and thoughtful dudes out of the conversation on certain topics. We, as readers and writers, have to admit that we're part of the problem. Editors at most publications probably assume that readers would respond differently, and perhaps negatively, to a man writing about some of the things that get lumped into the women's section. That makes sense in most cases, given the current norms of our society, but it doesn't mean make it a good thing. Perhaps this is an area where more proactive change is required; editors, writers, and readers alike can make their thoughts known on this issue by behaving accordingly and assigning, writing, and reading articles that don't always fall within these established boundaries.
This trend isn't entirely related to gender, not by a long shot. While Levenson does mention "the rise of individualism," we think that small phrase holds more of the answer to this problem than the old idea that women are just more emotional, personal creatures. In the period the aforementioned study looks at (1960-2008), bestseller lists have become more widely circulated, and publishing a book has become much easier. And, not to sound cliché, but when it comes to journalism, the Internet has changed everything. Blogging isn't just a phenomenon limited to certain parts of the web; rather, it's indicative of a much larger trend that focuses more on personalities and always-accessible personal history than just the issues discussed in a particular article. In a world where anyone, anywhere, can post an article about a given political issue or news item, perspective is more important than ever. Just look at the success of Gawker Media — even when the authors aren't writing in first person, commenters almost always address the author by name, take into account his or her past articles, and applying that knowledge to their critiques or praises of the article ("OMG Caity Weaver, you're my best friend!!!" or "Ugh Hugo, you're a terrible person" make up a considerable portion of conversation on those sites). And, getting back to the original topic of literature, what women are saying and how they're saying it also tends to follow the trends of the time. Today, biographies and other first-person accounts are some of the most popular titles, but that doesn't just apply to women. A Million Little Pieces is, some would say, the quintessential exemple of this modern phenomenon, and it's written by a man. On the other hand, if you look back at some of history's most famous female authors, they weren't always writing in first person, not by any means. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emilie du Châtelet, Ayn Rand, Gayatri Spivak — their subjects are as varied as any, and they're all important parts of the canon. And then there are those women writers who are narrating in first person, like Joan Didion or Jane Jacobs, whose immeasurable impact on letters goes well beyond a "feelpinion." Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, actually, is a perfect example of how bringing a grounded, personal perspective to the once-stagnant issue of urban planning created a paradigm shift for the better within her discipline.
Is it really such a bad thing? Again, the Internet produces a forum that makes writers more accountable than ever. Even if you write a perfectly reasonable article with accurate information, someone will take to Twitter to tear you apart — and while strong and controversial statements are often a way to get more eyeballs on a story, that looming threat is an incentive for writers to be more careful and measured in their views. Does that mean people shouldn't make strong statements? No. But when you're able to anticipate hordes of commenters from a variety of backgrounds, you end up empathizing with those backgrounds to a certain extent, and you're therefore more likely to follow your opinion through to a variety of ends and also explain how it's rooted in your own, inevitably subjective self. And, while there will always be subjects that demand narrative objectivity, if first-person journalism creates more thoughtful, careful, relatable articles that advance society's views on an issue through lively discussion, that's not something we're upset about.