"A Lot of Women Feel the Pressure of Conformity"

Laura van den Berg's short story collection The Isle of Youth hit hard when it debuted in November, and for all the right reasons — it's resonant, textured, and arresting. (And at Bustle, it was my November editor's pick.) Her seven stories are all about women who've seen better days — and don't necessarily have better ones coming. We spoke to van den Berg about the collection right after its release, who told us that "fiction thrives off of disaster." How perfect, no?

Earlier this week, Dwyer Murphy also spoke to van den Berg about The Isle of Youth in Guernica magazine. In their conversation, van den Berg touches upon a lot of the pressures endemic to women in publishing:

I look a little tough in my author’s photo, and I’ve been amazed at how many people—universities, magazines—ask me to send them a different photo, because they say I look aloof, unapproachable, tough, scary, and/or sad. I started asking male authors with tough-looking photos if they had ever gotten any grief about this and they said no, never. When it comes to the author’s photo, women are more likely to hear things like: “You don’t look as pretty as you could in your photo!” or “Why aren’t you smiling?” I, for one, would like to know what it is about an un-smiling woman that makes some people so fucking uncomfortable. Or why anyone would assume a woman’s foremost concern is prettiness.
A lot of women feel the pressure of conformity, whether it comes from the publisher or a stranger on the street. I suspect women authors feel more pressure to appear soft and approachable, like someone who would be fun to invite to your book club. And in real life, I would like to think that I would be a fun person to have hanging around a book club, but these are dark, tough stories and so it makes sense to have a photo that reflects that. But our culture does not do a great job of honoring complexity in women, in giving them the space to contain multitudes.

It's a pretty stark reality to hear coming from directly inside the industry... and aren't we over telling women to smile already?

The entire interview is fantastic — Murphy is a stellar conversationalist — and if you've read van den Berg's Isle it's an essential companion to the text. Even if you haven't, the interview is exemplary of what an insightful author with a real connection to her prose sounds like — and we could all learn a thing or two as readers.

Image: Peter Yoon