Readers, writers and women,
For this week’s guest blog, Editorial Assistant Hayden Harrison looks at women writers, and considers how we perceive women writers differently to men.
Back in 2013, one writer made the keen observation that Wikipedia’s editors had begun the process of moving women, one by one, from the American Novelists category to the American Women Novelists subcategory on the site. There was, quite rightly, a fair amount of discontent among women in the community, who complained it was this kind of thing “make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.”
No doubt Wikipedia was trying to help searchers find information more quickly and directly, but their editors have now corrected that controversial decision. Did placing women writers in a separate group do them a disservice, suggesting as it does that Women Novelists are not equal to their male counterparts?
As Elif Sharak so eloquently puts it, we’re still so keen to make an arbitrary gender distinction between writers:
Male writers are thought of as “writers” first and then “men”. As for female writers, they are first “female” and only then “writers”.
― Elif Shafak, Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within
If it’s still a case of ‘woman’ first and ‘writer’ second, does that mean we perceive women writers differently?
Do women write differently to men?
“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” So said VS Naipaul, on the same occasion that he proclaimed to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society that no woman ever could write as well as him.
How can we endorse such a claim? Any Roland Barthes fan would argue the Death of the Author—fiction is fiction after all. The Brontё Sisters and others, forced to submit their now-canonical works for publication under male pseudonyms, passed the test. I’m certainly not confident, with all my experience, I’d always be able to tell male from female.
However, readers do show a preference for authors of their own sex which lends support to the hypothesis. In 2014, Goodreads data showed that male authors accounted for 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles that year. The converse is true of women: of the 50 most read books by women published in 2014, 45 were by women, and five were by men.
Maybe it’s the author’s name which makes us decide? Or can we blame publishers for designing and marketing ‘women’s literature’ to target a female audience? The covers of thrillers by male authors are often red and black with bold, aggressive images and strong fonts while women’s contemporary fiction has covers in pastel shades with delicate images. Perhaps, but are there any other dead giveaways?
In a short series of fictional fragments, If Women Wrote Men the Way Men Write Women, Meg Elison turns the tables to expose the male gaze in fiction. Here’s an example of one of those re-sexed fictions:
Hugin was chosen, among all the boys of the village, to compete in the Races. He had grown up, the child of a simple, lovely baker, and his wife, the wolf-hunter. Hugin wore his hair in simple golden waves and had the longest legs anyone had ever seen, coated in fine, silky down. When the yearly selection began, other boys watched Hugin. They knew he would be the one, and they pouted.
This is taking it to extremes, of course, just to make the point. I believe that it’s less about the (fe)male gaze and more about the genre; a feminising one sure, but I don’t use the term ‘feminine’ to mean female. That is not the same thing at all.
So is the distinction about subject matter? Are women writers better placed to write about so-called women’s issues than men? Are women privy to experiences that anyone who isn’t a woman wouldn’t be able to describe? ‘Write what you know’ and all that.
I’d argue no. Some of my favourite male writers write about female characters, just as some of my favourite female writers write about men. Are these authors making a point about the author’s gaze or are they simply telling the stories they want to tell—no gender politics involved.
It’s all a bit wishy-washy wherever you look, isn’t it? Ernest Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility both concern themselves with the gender politics of protagonists they themselves identify with. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd both flip that perspective.
And last year’s International Man Booker Prize winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, follows a female character through not one but two different male perspectives. Is that ‘women’s literature’? I just don’t know.
Of course, not all writers write gender. I’ve read Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body a good four or five times and still can’t discern whether the first person narrator is male or female.
So all this lumping together of disparate writers by gender, or even perceived female-interest subject matter, separates the women from the men for no apparent reason. It indirectly keeps women writers from reaching a co-ed audience and from entering a larger, more influential playing field.
How good does a woman writer have to be, before she is referred to as simply a writer?
A few months back, I wrote a short piece about the nominees for the 2016 Costa Book Prize. Incidentally, our own Avril Joy took home the inaugural Costa Short Story prize for her blissful short writing, Millie & Bird. Women writers dominated the Costa Novel Award shortlist, the likes of Maggie O’Farrell and Rose Tremain among them, but the title was eventually taken by male author Sebastian Barry.
This follows a well established pattern. Despite their presence among bestseller lists, women authors are significantly less likely to win a literary prize. Female Nobel Laureates are outnumbered nine-fold by men. Industry professionals have put this down to national stereotypes of writers. “We are somehow biased,” writes one Guardian contributor, “towards a romantic image of the truly profound author as a tortured, chain-smoking man.”
I looked at the kinds of books that tend to win acclaim. Only 16 books whose narratives centred mainly around women and girls have won one of the six major book prizes since 2000. That’s a little over six percent.
And women writers are far more likely to write about male characters, as men are to write about female one. Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award in 2002 for her Novel Three Junes explained why she writes so often from a male point of view: “I don’t game my books towards a male audience, and yet the point of view may help their reception. I think men are more accepting of my books than they would be if the points of view were always female.”
“It reinforces a subtle but dangerous notion that the stories that should be told, written and rewarded are stories about men,” I concluded.
I’m not one to go in for quotas or special dispensation, in the workplace or for awards. I believe in a meritocratic system of rewards, and so long as we can rid society of the indirect discrimination—in reproductive rights, maternity leave, equal pay—there should be no need for for such special circumstances. But that discrimination does still exist.
Writing about the rules of literary fiction for men and women, author Meg Wolitzer asks whether The Marriage Plot, by award-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, would have received the same deal of serious literary attention had it been written by a woman, or whether it would have been ‘relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction’, that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing (sic) relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is relevant here. Her second novel follows the lives of four male protagonists in heart-wrenching, intricate detail, but features few women of any significance. Is that the only reason it’s won such acclaim, we wonder?
The year 2014 was dubbed “the year of reading women” after a campaign by author Joanna Walsh. But here again we’re making a the distinction between men and women writers. And yes, there are now more female authors on university reading lists, but simply for the very reason that they are ‘female writers’.
Incidentally, you’ll only find Linen Press listed on Wikipedia under a List of Women’s Presses. What does that say about us? That we’re ‘women’ first and ‘publisher’ second? Does that make us somehow inferior?
Well, no. I’m mighty proud of the role we play in championing the diversity of the female voice. Women buy two thirds of all books in Britain, but women continue to get shockingly short shrift as reviewees in most prestigious publications. The truth is that there’s no necessity to create a category for ‘Men’s Presses’. We take for granted the fact that men write books and men are authors. Full stop.
We still perceive women writers and women’s presses differently. But singling them out, for the time being, is key to progress. If we are to challenge our preconceptions about men and women writers, it’s up to champions like Linen Press to raise awareness of women writers as an underrepresented group. Only then can we bring about change.