Well, they can pick up a pen, surely. But do they need gender-exclusive paths to the Cocktail Party of Greatness? It's an old debate, and here's Australia writer Benjamin Law's quick summary, in this article, viz. a debate over the for-women-only Orange Prize:
The literary world’s £30,000 Orange Prize has always been controversial since its 1996 launch. Writer and critic Paul Bailey was on the Orange’s alternative male judging panel in 2001, but believed the prize itself shouldn’t exist, saying "sexes should not be separated like this in art". Alain de Botton pondered (as he tends to do), “What is it about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man when it comes to picking up a pen?” These are valid points. Women write equally as well as men. And if women’s voices are, indeed, somehow marginalised, why should we marginalise them further with female-only awards?
These criticisms didn’t just come from men. South African writer and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer famously rejected her Orange nomination, arguing the very concept of the award was sexist. A.S. Byatt is not a fan either, to the point where she has forbidden her publishers from ever entering her works. Anita Brookner, a Booker winner, said: “If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.” Following on from that, if a book is the best, it will be awarded.
And then he says this, which seems to me far closer to the truth and a major reason to distract you with this post, which is to repeat it: "The danger [i]n relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists."
The other thing that seems true is that celebrated British writer Zadie Smith, who won the Orange Prize for "On Beauty," and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who won for "Half of a Yellow Sun" and then won an MacArthur "genius" award, don't exactly seem to me to have been marginalized by the award. But shucks, it's awful nice of everyone to be so concerned.
Recently, there was a long public conversation (and surely many more private ones) about the dearth of female bylines in American publications, sparked by VIDA's look at just how few women are being published, or reviewed, by the major magazines. Jenn Szalai, Meghan O'Rourke, Katha Pollitt and Elissa Strauss are worth reading on the topic (so are the "23 short points" on criticism here). Each of them encounters, in their quest to explain this, that belief in women's mysterious interiority -- a belief Law summarizes this way:
"In the book world, I’ve also heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the 'big picture' enough, as families or interior lives aren't part of something panoramic and worldly."
He has a point. On the other hand, so do those writers, editors and critics. I recently started a pretty pedestrian novel about marital strife. This guy was having an affair; his wife was pissed and wouldn't speak to him; he was worried about how his kids would take the news of his betrayal, blah blah blah. I put it down. Enough people have read Anna Karenina that I can just crib from them.
Law also quotes a reader who advocated, via Twitter, women-only awards by pointing out, "Drop categories [and the] awards become cockforests."
And, really, who wants to read in a cockforest?