Women writers – Part 1

Kate Mosse’s latest novel

Last week, The Guardian published an article about six British women writers who had a huge influence on British publishing. The print edition had the headline The game changers on the front page of its Review section, with the sub-heading How women dominated publishing this year and, inside, the headline Doing it for themselves (a rather odd headline in my view). Of the six writers mentioned, I have only read one – Hilary Mantel, mentioned in the Guardian article for having won the Man Booker Prize for the second time. Two of the writers – EL James and Amanda Hocking – owe their success to having produced ebooks which appealed to a specific segment of the market, mommy(sic) porn and paranormal romances. J K Rowling has, of course, been around for a long time but this year produced her first adult novel that had mixed critical views but, inevitably, considerable commercial success. Julia Donaldson is famous for her children’s books, particularly the Gruffalo books. Kate Mosse, who I may well read one day, has produced several worthwhile historical novels as well as being very active in the now defunct Orange Prize and its successor.

All this is leading up to a discussion as to why women writers are so woefully underrepresented, both on my site and in book review and blog sites generally. Vida, a Women in Literary Arts site, regularly does a count on how books are reserved by and about men and women respectively in several major US and UK reviewing publications. The latest one – for 2011 – shows that in all but two cases men are ahead and, in some cases, light years ahead. Even though Danielle Pafunda tries to explain these figures somewhat, there is no doubt that the figures are not good. Of course, it is just as bad on my site. Only 21% of the books I have reviewed are by women and only 22% of the authors are women. So why is this the case? Are men better writers? Is there a male conspiracy to exclude women writers? In a previous post (scroll down), I mentioned this and hoped to improve but clearly there is long, long way to go. By the way the writers in the photo are, top row, Evelyne Accad, Elena Poniatowska, Monique Saint-Helier; in the second row, Olga Slavnikova, Elfriede Jelinek, Gisèle Hountondji, in the third row, Luisa Valenzuela , Manjushree Thapa, Anna Maria Ortese, and fourth row, Sharon Maas.

Larry doesn’t do feminism

So there are some possible reasons. I suspect, as things often are, that reality is more complicated or, at least, may well be a combination of these and other issues.

  • 1. We live in a male-dominated world. Yes and, in other shock news, we learn that the Pope is Catholic. You do not need Wikipedia to tell you that there are relatively few female heads of state, that men earn more than women everywhere except Tavistock, that there are still relatively few women CEOs, MPs or fewer women assistant professors at Harvard, the university where then President Larry Summers famously said women don’t do maths and science (he actually said math but I have anglicised it).
  • 2. Closely related to this, Franzenfreude or men authors, particularly white men who write big books, get more attention than good women authors. There is no doubt that this is the case and why several women authors of yore had to use male pseudonyms (the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, George Sand and many others)
  • The first novel? It’s written by a woman
  • 3. Women are not as good as men. This is patently rubbish as women have been writing good books for a thousand years or more. Sappho was doing it around 2600 years ago and, according to Wikipedia, she was not the only ancient Greek woman writer. Lady Murasaki wrote what some consider to be the first novel around a thousand years ago (and it is well worth reading). Aphra Behn was allegedly the first English writer to earn a full-time living from her writing (Orinooko is well worth reading). England in the nineteenth century produced Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Harriet Martineau and Frances Trollope. And the 20th and 21st century have produced any number of first-class women writers.
  • 4. Women buy more books and women read more. More to the point, as least as regards my site, women read more novels, while men read more non-fiction. It has also been suggested that women read men and women writers, while men tend to prefer men writers. This is obviously an over-generalisation but probably has a kernel of truth in it. The 75 Books Every Man Should Read has just one book by a woman, while Essential books every man should read, likewise has just one book by a woman. Yes, of course, there are men who read books written by women but men are more inclined to read books by men, particularly when reading non-fiction.
  • 5. The link above postulates that women have more mirror neurons than men, which makes makes them empathise more. It is a truism that this happens in real life (men are traditionally lower, often much lower, in emotional intelligence than women) but it also means that women are more interested in relationships and books about relationships. As a result, such books are often put down as chick lit, romantic fiction and so on, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Conversely, books featuring ideas, written more by men (but certainly not only by men) are deemed more worthy and get the reviews. (See below for more on this).
  • The Great American Novel?
  • 6. Related to the above, women can’t write the Great American Novel. I have a page on the Great American Novel and you will see that two out of twenty-four writers on the first list are women and two out of twenty on the second list. That does not just reflect my appalling bias. Most of these candidates come from other sources (though I share many of them). Indeed, I am fairly certain that at least two of the women, if not more, were added by me, without any influence. As Lionel Shriver (a woman, despite the name) so aptly said Great American Novel” = “doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man.. Similarly, what James Wood called hysterical realism (i.e. the big novel, with stories and sub-stories, the pursuit of vitality at all costs and where the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked) is all men. These are the books that get the reviews. Why? Because reviewers – men and women – think it is important. Whether they are deserving of them is the matter for another debate.
  • 7. Women don’t do pomo. On the list in the link, there are forty-three writers. Four are women. Again, this might reflect my bias but I don’t think that women, on the whole, write post-modernist fiction as much as men. Pomo gets the reviews. Why? Because reviewers – men and women – think it is important.
  • 8. Women only write books with happy endings. Or they don’t. As the link points out, women are expected to write happy books but happy books are not considered good literature. As Tolstoy put it Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему. (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.) In other words, unhappy is more interesting. Of course, women do write books that are miserable. Just ask Emily Brontë. But I would imagine books with happy endings are more to be found written by women than men writers.
Francine Prose – not impressed with Normal Mailer

I am sure that others can come up with many more arguments. Far better commentators than I have basically summed it up as rampant sexism. Francine Prose, discussing the subject, quotes Norman Mailer as saying I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Perhaps looking to Norman as a bastion of feminism might be a mistake but he is probably not alone in that view. Jane Smiley thinks Huckleberry Finn is preferred to Uncle Tom’s Cabin because the former was written by a man and the latter by a woman. Clearly, sexism is the main reason for the undervaluing of women’s writing and it does not look like changing anytime soon, despite James, Hocking, Rowling, Mantel, Donaldson, Mosse and other women writers, like Stephenie Meyer. I will continue on this topic, particularly about my own failings, in a future post

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