Ambition ConditionWomen, writing, and the problem of success

Original illustration by Meg Hunt

Bitch Media is celebrating 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. The original version of this article was printed in the The Loud issue of Bitch magazine, Fall 2008. It appears here with a new introduction from original author Anna Clark as a part of the special 20th anniversary edition of Bitch magazine.


Reading “The Ambition Condition” after many years stirred unexpected emotion in me. After 2008, I ceased writing as a sideline activity; I recently celebrated six years as a full-time freelance journalist. I work hard. The hustle is constant. And I love it. A number of heartening initiatives have taken root since 2008, each designed to dismantle toxic beliefs and dynamics that often silence women writers. The VIDA byline count, for instance, found a simple, inarguable way to illustrate the gendered patterns of who gets published and reviewed and who doesn’t, prompting change at several (though not all) major publications. #ReadWomen inspires individuals to counter their own biases by reading only female authors for a year.

The Binders Full of Women Writers community, both online and in person, amplifies the voices of women and gender-nonconforming writers. My story noted that only 11 women had won the Nobel prize in Literature. Now there are three more, including a rare short-story writer (Alice Munro) and an even rarer nonfiction writer (Svetlana Alexievich). All of this helps to check the epidemic of “imposter syndrome.”

“By not owning up to her ambitions…a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers.” When I wrote those words, I was grinding away at a job I didn’t like. To admit my ambitions felt unbearably vulnerable. Seven years later, I will say it plainly: I want to be a writer. I want to write honest and beautifully told stories. And I want you to do the same.


Perhaps you know about Emily Gould’s cover story, “Exposed,” in the New York Times Magazine last May. Even if you didn’t take in all 8,002 words on the former Gawker editor’s gains and losses from blogging about her personal life, it would be hard to miss the criticism of the piece elsewhere. From the Huffington Post to the Philadelphia Weekly to an untold number of blogs and listservs, the backlash challenged the magazine for peddling narcissistic Dear-Diary diatribes as a worthy journalistic cover story.

“Exposed” garnered 1,216 responses on the NYT’s website before the comments section was shut down less than 24 hours after the article went live. The cause? Overwhelming negativity. Whatever the valid faults of Gould and her article, the attacking comments were unmistakably gendered. “Attention whore,” was one favorite catcall. “Get over yourself, sweetheart,” advised a commenter. Another scoffed, “You are just a stupid little girl”—a comment 67 others recommended. What’s more, the comments were full of parental advice offered as if to a 10-year-old and intended to steer the writer away from, well, writing: “Don’t you have important things to do?”; “Like your tattoos, I’m fairly sure you’ll regret all this by the time you get into your 40s”; and, “You really want to find some meaning?… Go to the local VA hospital and volunteer to spend a week changing bedpans and rewrapping dressings. Or try teaching English as a second language to a new immigrant…or read to the blind.” And then there was this one: “I suspect that one day, when a stalker appears in this girl’s life (you can’t call her a woman), she will have no idea that she brought it upon herself.”

Yep, it’s all the fault of the “girl” writer who put herself out there. Add the Gould Incident to the uneasy history of ambitious women writers told that they have nothing of worth to say.

* * *

It’s not news that popular culture breeds the idea that women with ambitions of any type other than domestic are doomed to misery and cruelty. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter essayed the archetypal tale in All About Eve (1950), in which Baxter’s title character is an ingénue with Broadway ambitions who manipulates her way into the life of Davis’s Margo Channing, a revered and aging stage actress. Once Eve connives her way into taking Margo’s leading role, betraying those who helped her, the film concludes with Eve admiring herself in the mirror, holding one of Margo’s awards. What a bitch, we’re left to think.

In a more contemporary portrait, the film Stranger Than Fiction features Emma Thompson as an accomplished author trying to complete her next great novel—and living the life of an eccentric, ill-kempt, chain-smoking hermit. And in films like Network and The Devil Wears Prada, ambitious women are portrayed as manipulative ciphers who choose office politics over personal relationships, their gloss of success only barely covering a core of desperate loneliness.

So goes the equation of female ambition with selfishness and unhappiness. But the translation of this old story into the world of writers takes a curious turn.

Anyone who’s stepped into a literary community—readings, performances, writing workshops, MFA programs—will testify to the disclaimers that issue regularly from the mouths of women writers in particular. “This is just something I thought I’d try,” and “I’m not really a poet, but…” are words regularly uttered even by those who made drastic life changes in order to carve out time to write. I prepared for months for a major fiction contest in college, for instance, which I entered five years in a row, claiming to others each time that I just “threw something together.” Later, I applied to a single MFA fiction program, and told no one until I got in. I just didn’t want anyone to know what I wanted most. Perhaps I was preparing for failure: If I said openly that I not only wanted to be a writer but that I worked hard at it, my ambitions could be judged against external rewards—and easily dismissed when I missed out on them.

There’s no simple gender indicator for the weird fusion of insecurity and ambition, of feigned nonchalance and quiet competitiveness that’s common in writers of all sorts. But these traits are complicated by the cultural caricatures of ambitious women and the uneven historical patterns that have dictated whose talent is rewarded and whose isn’t.

Whether they write novels or cover stories or op-eds, even the most talented women writers often aren’t validated in the same way that their male counterparts are. While there are few Neanderthals who would publicly say that the byline gap in literary journals and periodicals is due to the fact that women can’t write as well as men, the usual justifications include shrugging dismissals like, “We don’t get enough quality submissions by women.” When I pointed out the 5:29 byline ratio of the fall 2006 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review on my website, for instance, the journal’s editor, Ted Genoways, commented on the post that, “Unfortunately, the disparity in our issues is, I think, more reflective of a symptom than a root cause; there simply seem to be fewer women who are freelance journalists, travel writers, and political pundits—three areas that now largely compose our editorial content. As a result, the good ones are in high demand and often out of our price range.”

The byline gap closes in the bookstore: Women publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction at a rate that’s representative of their actual numbers. But this is no meritocratic utopia—women’s writing is often met with dismissive assumptions. This is why female authors often disguise themselves with pen names and ambiguous initials. From George Sand to George Eliot, Isak Dinesen to E. Nesbit, P. D. James to James Tiptree Jr., there’s a long history of women writers who have used disguised names to realize their ambitions. Even J. K. Rowling—the best-selling author of all time—adopted a neutral moniker on her way to success: Before Harry Potter became a phenomenon, Bloomsbury, Rowling’s publisher, asked her to use initials to reassure the target audience of young boys who might be reluctant to pick up a book by “Joanna Rowling,” a female author.

* * *

Ambition is a slippery creature in the lives of writers of all genders; no one is safe from feeling uneasy about affirming one’s literary ambitions, and insecurity is the devil of anyone who faces a blank page. But the thing is, women are more likely to be justified in doubting themselves.

Yes, a woman is less likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 106 years of the prize, only 11 winners—about 10 percent of the total—have been female. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s 60-year history, female authors have snagged the award 27 times. Shaking out 57 years of the National Book Award for Fiction reveals a mere 15 female winners. As for journalists, the gender gap indicates that women are far less likely to land their stories in the nation’s top magazines and newspapers. Likewise, in the digital world, political candidates made a point of stopping by the YearlyKos conference last summer, headlined by a prominent progressive male blogger, but were absent from the BlogHer conference, which drew top women bloggers together.

And so on.

Furthermore, to even say that you want to write lasting novels, garner hundreds of thousands of blog hits, or handmake a chapbook is to expose yourself to the “who are you to think you have anything to say?” sort of pummeling that Gould received. It can be tempting, then, for women in particular to write quietly and hope that the work will speak for itself. But by not owning up to her ambitions—whether they’re in the public or private realms—a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers. The silence is implicit support for editors who claim that their byline disparity is because women don’t want it enough. It sets an example for other writers that ambition is something to be ashamed of. Though it might be the last thing in the world she means to do, by keeping her intentions for her work hidden, a female writer allows others to make assumptions about her work, and to decide where it will and will not go.

Obviously, there are plenty of women writers who aren’t shy about declaring what they want for their writing. Jacqueline Wright, a Los Angeles playwright, told me: “Perhaps because I just turned 40, the need to look like I don’t work that hard [on my writing] seems absurd. I do work hard at creating my plays, as well as finding homes for them and some money for me.” There are certainly other variables that might explain away tentativeness in a woman writer—like perfectionism, unfamiliarity with a medium, worry that she will be seen as careerist, or—in the case of nonfiction writing—elevating her opinions above others.’ Deborah Siegel leads workshops for writers who want to translate their academic research into accessible books for the larger public. Rather than expressing uneasiness about ambition, Siegel says that women scholars in particular need to hear that “going public with their ideas and making their writing more ‘pop’ doesn’t mean selling out.”

Siegel adds that the individual struggles of women writers have public reverberations. “If women scholars and advocates who aspire to a public voice shy away or sit back and wait to be discovered, we’ll continue to live in this echo chamber where the same three male pundits make the rounds on the Sunday-morning talk shows and the same 10 guys keep publishing op-eds.”

The narrative our culture creates about the writers it treasures and those whom it merely respects shapes who is and isn’t admitted into the literary canon, to say nothing of who publishing houses deem marketable. Take a recent interview with novelist and essayist Gore Vidal in the U.K.’s Independent that called Vidal “the last surviving giant of American literature’s golden age.” Aside from implicitly brushing aside the still-flourishing likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, the article only reifies how a writer’s persona may be more crucial than his or her work. The headline summarizes it neatly. “Gore Vidal: Literary feuds, his ‘vicious’ mother, and rumours of a secret love child—he slept with Kerouac, hung out with Jackie O, and feuded with Mailer.” Whatever the value of Vidal’s writing, it is, for the moment, beside the point. The details of his biography contribute to the value the culture puts on his work.

Oates and Morrison are respected, awarded, and published at a rate that is comparable to Vidal’s, of course. But without his persona, will they ever be as embedded in the narrative of literary and cultural history? There’s nothing inherently wrong with Vidal’s colorful biography being entangled with his literary worth. What’s problematic is that the individuals who are validated in this way are so frequently ones who fit into a hypermasculine “literary lion” caricature: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Harold Bloom, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, Hunter S. Thompson, John Gardner. (Their contemporary digital counterparts might include Matt Drudge and Markos Moulitsas.)

Historically, there’s been little room for women in that public story. And for whatever their writing is worth—and some of it is fantastic; some of it is, well, not—these “lions” were told in a thousand ways (fawning reviews, profiles in leading magazines, awards) that their voice matters. Whether or not they always believed it themselves is beside the point.

Meanwhile, the tradition of women writers is full of ambitions hidden or thwarted. Emily Dickinson’s younger sister was the first to discover her poems; the first collection was published four years after the poet’s funeral. Zora Neale Hurston—who once wrote to her patron, Annie Nathan Meyer, “Oh, if you knew my dreams! My vaulting ambition… I dream such wonderfully complete [dreams], so radiant in astral beauty. I have not the power yet to make them come true. They always die. But even as they fade, I have others”—died in poverty with all her books out of print. Even Dorothy Parker, who published copiously in her lifetime, was prone to disclaimers that convey the same tentativeness of so many writers who apologize for their work before they share it: She suggested “Excuse My Dust” as her tombstone epitaph, and her obituary in the New York Times featured this statement about her poetry: “I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.”

* * *

The first Master of Fine Arts program was founded at the University of Iowa in 1936. Over time, women writers nurtured their ambitions there and at other programs around the country. Today, women writers dominate mfa programs and journalism schools, reveling in a space for their work that once didn’t exist. Their ambitions are encouraged, and often funded. But there’s a difference between being a “student writer” and a working writer—as is apparent in the uneven welcome offered to our culture’s better-known authors.

Rather than replicate the established patterns of literary stardom of Vidal and company, we can create a new landscape. We can make new ways to have a public voice through writing, one that writers of all genders might welcome, and that, being mostly outside of it, women writers are in a unique position to create.

What might this alternative literary landscape look like? Artificial hierarchies of genre and “seriousness” would not define it, and it wouldn’t glamorize a writer’s substance abuse, domestic abuse (as in Mailer’s case), and prejudices as evidence of can’t-be-contained artistic genius. Instead, writing in any medium, by any writer, would be welcomed and read with a generous mind. Online, in print, or out loud, its words would determine its value. To get there, though, we must consider the assumptions about our own ambitions, our own reading habits, and our expectations of literary value.

Which brings us back to Emily Gould, who had the opportunity to respond to readers in a Times-hosted online q&a after the publication of her controversial article. When asked if “the tenor of the posted comments [is] going to change what you write about, or are you going to dismiss the opinions of hundreds of NYT readers and keep on with that blog of yours?” Gould contended that one source of the negativity was that “blogging has democratized and devalued writing, which used to be the exclusive province of professional writers. Now that anyone with five free minutes can start a blog, it’s unclear who gets to call himself a ‘writer’.”

We might consider the democratization of online writing not as a devaluation, as Gould suggests, but as an enhancement. Considering that the existing literary canon has excluded or remained ambivalent to an untold number of voices, why wouldn’t it be cause for celebration when that trajectory changes? While our alternative literary culture would be misguided to consider the Internet its sole saving grace, we might trust its vibrancy to push our narrow definitions of who gets to call herself a “writer” in ways that influence print and spoken-word cultures as well.

It’s a mistake to simplify the ambitions of writers, particularly female ones, as solely measurable by big-time accolades, fame, or presence in mainstream media. There are those, after all, who pursue writing after a career in another area. There are those who return to writing after decades away from it. Many who write simply want to express themselves or create something beautiful. Being uninitiated into the culture of “literary lions” and not winning public accolades doesn’t denote a lack of ambition; it’s simply writing to a different standard. It may be a part of the creation of our alternative to the traditional literary culture.

Any writer might feel trepidation about introducing her or himself as a “poet,” or avoid admitting to the desire to win a literary prize. But we must change the game so that when women writers publicly pish-tosh their ambitions as being pipe dreams, they no longer have reason to believe that they are.

This article was published in 20th Anniversary Issue #70 | Spring 2016
by Anna Clark
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