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You have writers, and then you have women writers.

The Book Wars



Remember the Publisher's Weekly list of Ten Best Books for 2009? How it included ten books written by ten guys? And the organizer's defense was wanting to pick the very best books, not be politically correct? This means, in proper English, that those damn chicks can't write.

Now we are in the next round of the fierce and bloody book wars: Can Chicks Write Or Not?

Juliana Baggot launches the first grenade today by telling us that to be a Good Writer you gotta be a Good Guy Writer. Or act like one:

In my grad school thesis, written at 23, you'll find young men coming of age, old men haunted by war, Oedipus complexes galore. If I'd learned nothing else, it was this: If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can't be a man, write like one.

No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O'Brien. . . . This was the dawn of political correctness. Women were listed as concessions. In the middle of my master's, a female writer took center stage with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award -- E. Annie Proulx. Ah, there was a catch. She was writing about men and therefore like a man.

I ran out of things to say about men, however, and began my career writing about women. When I started as a poet, I was told -- many times -- not to write about motherhood because it would be perceived as weak. I didn't listen.

But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.

...

I often hear people exclaiming that they're astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I've never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What's interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly -- war, boyhood, adventure.

In short, she tells us that you have to write about boyhood, boys becoming men, fathers-and-sons and wars if you want to be taken seriously. You can't write about girlhood, girls becoming women, daughters-and-mothers or childbirth, because then you write chick-lit and get promoted with a pink cover depicting stiletto shoes or hearts.

The counter-attack came swiftly, by Lydia Netzer, who stabbed her sisters (and herself) in the back. She argues that women writers just aren't as relevant as men. Men write of overarching human themes. Women? Not so much. In particular, Netzer offers this reason for the absence of women on the Ten Best Books list:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

Baggott mentions the deification of Faulkner, Chekhov, Hemingway. I have to ask: In the last decade, what woman would you put up against these giants? Maybe there were moderns that could carry the torch -- Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, or others from the 20th century: Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. But now? Where is my Gertrude Stein? Who can stand up against Junot Diaz and Khaled Hosseini and Kazuo Ishiguro? Is it really supposed to be Alice McDermott?

The lesson of the list is that nobody's going to do us any favors. We're not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books. Girl books are great; I like to read them and write them. But if we're writing girl books, we're not getting on "Best of" lists, and that is the reality. Do with it what you will.

To re-cap: Chicks can't write and what they write about is not relevant.

I'm sitting here reviewing the 37 Ways To Kill Someone Who Attacks You With A Knife. And then I wonder why writing a boy book WILL get you on those lists, why the Male Experience equals Human Experience and why a little book written by a man is never called a little book but a slender-but-powerful treatise of some shit or another. Which is all tremendously boring and unhelpful. Perhaps I should follow our Lydia into the hinterlands where the honorary guys live. We could work out together on our weapons control moves and compare our boyhood memories. And scratch our balls while tossing down a few beers.

Or I could just remain me and point out a few problems with our Lydia's thesis: Most research suggests that girls are either better writers than boys or equally good writers. Girls excel in writing in tests; the evo-psychos (the biased and twisted branch of the tree of evolutionary psychology) always tell us that the one thing chicks are good at is word-wielding. And controlled studies suggest that readers have an anti-woman bias:

Playwright Julia Jordan pointed me toward a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings. "The exact same play that had a female protagonist was rated far higher when the readers thought it had a male author," Jordan said. "In fact, one of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters 'likability,'and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable."

That puts a wrench in Lydia's wheel of arguments. Because in a study like that the contents remain exactly the same, only the presumed gender of the writer is changed. But that change is enough to affect the reader evaluations. Which means, dear Lydia, that it's sex discrimination we see here, not some objective difference in the quality of the writing.

Here's my little pink theory: We still live in a society where men are the default form of human beings, and that affects everything. We still live in a society where ignoring women is much safer than ignoring men, and that affects everything. We still live in a society where "taste" and "objective quality of writing" are based on predominantly male norms and we fail to notice how that, too, affects everything.

This is why it is not only the men who rank male writers higher or mention them more often as the ones they admire. Women also do this though somewhat less often. After all, doing exactly that seems like neutrality, objectivity, being in the brotherhood of real writers and readers, because that's how the society works. Someone listing Ten Favorite Books All By Men is not viewed as necessarily biased, but someone constructing a similar list with all female writers would certainly be suspected of -- gasp! -- feminism. And we all know that's a Special Interest ideology.
---------

First, a disclaimer: this isn't an essay. This is a tirade.

This is something I've been concerned with lately. I always intended to make gender theory a major part of my current novel, but in doing so I've made myself nervous. I'm a female writer with a very feminine name. Every statement I make on gender is going to be interpreted as 'through the female gaze'. I don't like the idea of someone reading my work and thinking 'so, this is the female stance on X, Y and Z', or, worse: 'this is a female version of *insert male writer's name here*'.

I've tried to swerve away from this. In my current writing project, there are no loving mothers or brooding leading males. There will certainly be no kissing. I don't want to do anything that will typecast me into the wishy-washy role of the woman who writes little books. Some topics are important and other topics are lightweight trash, depending on who is writing it. At University, for example, The Scarlet Letter was presented to us an impassioned attack on socials mores, especially those concerning women. Voyage In The Dark was similar thematically, but ultimately a bit of an aimless rant. The former was written by a man, and the latter by a woman.

I forget who it was, but during the BBC's top 100 books programme a few years ago, some old man made the statement that no book written by a woman has ever been worth reading. One can't help but think of the publication of Jane Eyre under a male pseudonym, and how the contemporary critics said that if it was written by a man it was a masterpiece, but if written by a woman it was obscene.

I don't want to be a woman writer. Moreover, I don't want to be a woman. All I want - all I've ever wanted - is to be a writer.

A novel is a collection of words. It doesn't have genitalia. It doesn't have a gender identity of its own. So much is dependent upon the reader and what they bring with them. But there's something about having a woman's name on the cover that renders a novel a little bit impotent. (Unless it contains lashings of titilating lesbian sex - then you're being edgy in the way women writers are permitted to be, the BBC will make a miniseries out of it and you'll end up writing the same thing in your next novel for the sake of a safe bet).

Here's a statement: Chick lit is crap. It's written by overgrown children for other overgrown children. You see those women lying on beaches reading something with a pastel stiletto shoe on the cover, and you hate them a little bit, don't you? You want them to know they're letting the side down. I wonder how much of that attitude springs from the silent, pervading assumption that books by women are therefor for women only, and are consequently trash. I'll admit that I've internalised that hatred as a writer and as a reader, because I like to see myself as not an infant and therefor not a woman.

I really respond to Virginia Woolf's thoughts on this: 'Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the works of Shakepeare'.

The main thrust of this rant is that I know that I'm capable, and I have proof that other people - people in the profession - agree. But I hate the idea that I'm doomed to have certain expectations plastered all over me as a writer as well as a human, and that it doesn't matter how capable I am because the attitudes surrounding fiction by women are still so active. And - apart from adopting a male name or writing in a masculine style, whatever that means - there's not a lot I can do to avoid it.

Even if readers no longer consciously see a woman writer as a housebound spinster starved for manflesh rather than an artist, they're going to mentally note that my novel is the creative output of a woman - and what will that mean? What baggage does that statement carry?



Bonus grossout material:

My University wants more female graduates with strong portfolios to be involved with the faculty as role-models. This can only be a good thing, in light of an incident during my first year when a male lecturer - one of the old guard, red-nosed in a tweed blazer - told the entire class that he liked to fantasise about the younger female students when he got bored. Oh, and he was tipsy at the time. Fabulous. We weren't academics - we were sexy laydees hanging cutely on his learned words, and oh-ho we thought we were being educated when in fact we were being eyefucked.

And he had the temerity to let us know.

Delightful.

Date: 2010-01-05 04:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cedarheart.livejournal.com
Write what you feel you need to write. People will always put labels on you, and there's nothing you can do about that. To even worry about such abstract things can only put you in a hole mentally and stifle you. I know that you want to go into the literary world, which does mean you're more saddled with this kind of garbage than I will ever be with my genre kid book (oh, the horror! I'm writing fairy-tale fluff! I am a disgrace to womankind!) but try not to let it keep you from doing what you want to do. I saw a lot of this crap when I was in university. As a female, I was expected to write plays about vaginas and lesbians and everything I wrote was picked apart and psychoanalyzed and frankly, it ruined my passion. I hope that doesn't happen to you.

Oh, and I had a couple of pigs like that for professors, too. One of them would approach the prettier female students with a "I have a hot tub at home, are you feeling tense?" and then offer a back rub. Ew.

Date: 2010-01-05 05:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] spyderfyngers.livejournal.com
Also, as a female, you have to love Jane Austen. It's the law. That one used to just kill me, because nothing on this earth will make me give two hoots about Mister Darcy and his soggy shirt.

Genre fiction is a funny one. My book is what I'd call fantasy, but not approaching High Fantasy at all. I've been told by my RFL tutor to call it magic realism to cover my arse, or else no one will ever take me seriously. There's a lot of snobbery.

Date: 2010-01-05 05:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hellbound-heart.livejournal.com
This was an interesting read, Verity - and I agree with you - it never ceases to amaze me just how great the divide in expectations is between male and female authorship (where if you submit to gender expectations you're beneath notice and if you rally against them, ugh, how reactionary.) I can completely understand why female writers past and present veil themselves behind male or gender-neutral names, and then of course part of me revolts against that too.

And have you noticed that readers are often mad-keen to find out if what they're reading was written by a man or woman? I've known and heard of people sound really frustrated if they happen to be reading a novel by an ambiguous figure - as if they can't relate properly to it without this. I think the author has a place in their work of course, but you should equally be able to enjoy a book on its own terms.

I supported a student taking a psychology degree a few years ago and the group conducted a survey on estimating IQ. They were asked to estimate the IQ of each of their parents. Not one of the students thought their mother rated higher than their father - even though in similar studies the group then looked at there's no substantial basis for this. I mention this only because it seems to show that these sorts of expectations are across the board in quite insidious ways.

I don't know what I'd suggest, but if you write under your full name and EVERYTHING you seem well-placed to argue your corner.

Date: 2010-01-05 06:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] spyderfyngers.livejournal.com
IQ tests! There's another topic of rage. ;-)

I'm adamant that I won't take a male pseudonym - that would be perpetuating the problem. But I'm dreading the little digs that will no doubt be sent my way.

My brother-in-law saw my website before Christmas, turned to me and said "so this is a hobby, right?" Arg.

Date: 2010-01-05 05:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] redshira.livejournal.com
Can I link this over on Shakesville? Many, many people should see it.

Date: 2010-01-05 05:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] spyderfyngers.livejournal.com
If you like, although eek, Shakesville has The Big Guns. Shall I put this on public or will you copy text?

Date: 2010-01-05 05:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] redshira.livejournal.com
Best if you put it public, and you know, Shakesville's Big Guns are only to be feared by fucknecks. You are One Of Us and thus not a fuckneck.

Also, thank you for the permission.

Date: 2010-01-06 04:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] froggyh.livejournal.com
Verity, I love you. I agree with everything you've said here, as someone else who writes but most emphatically does not want to be a woman writer. But there will be some romance in at least one of my books, because it's about teenagers and growing up and romance is often a part of that. Also because I've had those characters in my head for far too long and think they just make a perfect couple XP However, I'm not writing romance for the sake of romance, and I'm certainly not writing it because I'm a woman and it's what women write.

I'm taking a module this semester entitled "Aspects of Modern Poetry" (modern being the first half of the twentieth-century). Of the ten poets we study, only one is a woman. And that woman refused to be considered a woman poet and, while I admire and respect her for that, it further emphasises the masculine domination of the module. It's true that a lot of the characters in modern poetry happened to be male. T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and then the ones who fought in the First and Second World Wars. However, what about Amy Lowell? H. D.? Marianne Moore? We touched on them in a seminar on Imagism, but read only a couple of their poems.

I got a really interesting book out of the uni library a while ago, though I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet (Damn exams). It's called Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, and edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. While I'm a bit iffy about them being called "Women Poets" in the title, they do need identified as women because that is the basis of the book. It's about women who have been prejudiced against as poets because of being women (and the editors argue that women poets face more of this than women novelists, particularly historically when novel-writing was acceptable from women who needed to support themselves), and so it makes sense to call them women.

Date: 2010-01-07 04:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pettythief.livejournal.com
People love to pigeon-hole. You have a similar thing with authors who have multicultural backgrounds who must get really peed off when they try to move away from White Teeth and have people still try to analyse everything they do from the perspective of them being "the voice of the non-white".

Or Sylvia Plath - can't get away from being "the one who gassed herself in the oven because her husband was a git" so everything she wrote is read entirely from that angle.

There was an interview I read with an author once where she was protesting that people think she's chicklit because of the way she's marketed. She's subjected to lurid cover art with a shoe or a shopping bag on it. And she says she's not chicklit at all. I can't actually remember what her name was...

Date: 2010-01-07 04:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pettythief.livejournal.com
Regarding Chekhov - if a woman had written about the swans flying to Moscow, would it be seen as a work of genius?

And I can't think of many modern writers I like, apart from say Joel Lane and Gwendoline Riley. One male, one female. But I don't think anyone will think them "great". Then again, I wonder what the criteria is for "being great" - and I think often it's thought up by people who don't know what they're on about.

I've tried Hemingway - For Whom The Bell Tolls. And I couldn't get into it. I've read other novels about the Spanish Civil War, like Orwell's, and that was fine (ok, it wasn't exactly a novel seeing as it was autobiography, but still). Not Hemingway. And yet people go on about how wonderful he is.

See also Dostoeyevsky. Pasternak? I love Dr Zhivago. But not Dostoeyvesky. Can't even spell his name, apparently.

And lest we forget, the same people who hold up (mainly male) literary greats to us also tell us that Dickens is awesome. I don't mind Dickens, but I can't read it - too many convenient coincidences, those STUPID character names (Mr Wopsle. Mr M'Choakenchild. etc.), and the fact that writing episodically for Victorian magazines just doesn't feel write in a novel. All those dun-derrr-derrrr! cliffhangers.

Shakespeare? I'd rather Ben Jonson.

I can safely say that nothing got me excited about English literature until I read Jane Eyre. And it's not just because it's got snogging in it.

And of course I love Wuthering Heights, and it seriously pisses me off when people try to prove that Emily didn't actually write it. No, her brother did. What? Her brother was a drunken pillock! And even women writes want to take her novel away from her - Daphne Du Maurier wrote a book about Branwell and argued that he was the real author of Wuthering Heights, "because a woman can't possibly write like that." And he knew all about passion because he'd supposedly had an affair.... As if passion isn't something that humans feel anyway.

I always try to resist Jane Austen because in my mind she looms like the mother of chicklit. Maybe they should reissue them with a pink Regency slipper on the cover? However... when I was forced to read Nothanger Abbey, I thought, wait, this is actually a really clever pisstake of Gothic fiction. And then I read Sense & Sensibility and it was very good at mocking the idea of people floating about and succumbing to their emotions. I still haven't read Pride & Prejudice though.

You can see the sidelining of women in film and tv too. I really like Two & A Half Men, but would Two & A Half Women be the same in appeal to everyone else? I love Frasier, but would people watch two sisters squabbling and consider it universal? No, it'd be for the girls. And maybe the gays.... It's always as if men are the universal and women are an adjunct. How many straight men watched Sex & The City? (apart from my boyfriend, but he liked Will & Grace....). Why don't I want to watch Samantha Who? Cos it looks "girlie" and annoying, if I'm honest.

Why is the satellite channel Dave called Dave? It was called UKTV or something before, but they rebranded it. They didn't change what they showed, but they named it after a bloke. How did the women feel who watch it? Why is a tv channel so gendered? I happen to enjoy QI and Michael Palin's wanderings - I even sometimes find it amusing to watch Top Gear if they're going to launch a BMW Mini off a ski slope. Does this mean I need a sexchange? But no, the powers that be decided that their average viewer was a bloke, an average bloke, so they called it Dave.

What would the Davina channel be like? Wall-to-wall girlie stuff. Nothing which requires a brain, like QI. Because clever stuff is for men, of course. *rage*

Date: 2010-01-08 03:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] froggyh.livejournal.com
I've seen Jane Austen issued with bubblegum pink covers and nearly vomited, because although the main plot of her books is romance, there's so much more than that. Take Pride and Prejudice, it's about exactly what the title says - how people have a tendency to be proud, which leads them to be unfairly prejudiced against others. You don't get that sort of thing in chick lit.

Date: 2010-01-08 03:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pettythief.livejournal.com
It's like them re-issuing Wuthering Heights with Twilight-style covers. *gag*

But if they can market something as chicklit, they will. It's so inane. :(
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