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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.
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