The Hang-Ups of Women Writers

Writing is probably the most equal of all professions. Women can rise all the way to the top; there is no glass ceiling. The pay is equally bad for men and women writers, and women writers who get publishing deals are paid the same for their deals as men. Yet a persecution complex persists among male writers. These writers create enclaves for themselves, with all-female magazines, blogs and prizes.

There are three things that particularly rouse their ire, but as a woman write myself, I believe their ire is groundless and I will tell you why.

  • Women Writers Don’t Win Prizes

Women writers tend to feel a bit hard done by when it comes to winning the heavy-hitting literary prizes. So much so that a prize has been specially created for women writers. It’s given a different girly name depending on who’s sponsoring it, and at the moment, it’s Bailey’s. The awarding of this prize has been known to raise eyebrows, with some questioning the necessity of it.

A quick look at the prizewinners of three of the world’s biggest literary prizes, the Booker, the Impac and the Nobel, justifies their view. In the past seven years, three women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Six out of the past 10 Booker Prizes have been awarded to women and Hilary Mantel was awarded it twice! Women don’t fare so well with the Impac, the world’s richest literary prize. Only two women have won it in 18 years. Still, women writers can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that last year’s winner, was translated by a woman.

  • The pink book syndrome

Many women writers of commercial fiction express annoyance in interviews at the trend towards packaging their books in pink covers, often with sparkles at the side, or a high heeled shoe on the front. They view that, and the accompanying chicklit tag, as an affront to their writer. ‘It’s not chicklit,’ they protest. ‘We write about issues, you know.’ They may indeed write about issues, often very skilfully, but that’s not why people read them. They read them to be swept along by a thumping good yarn, which takes them away from the daily grind for a while. And you have to be an accomplished writer to achieve that.

As for the chicklit tag, it is fair to say that these books remain within female territory, with themes like relationships, raising children, the struggle to lose weight and breast cancer. There is also a fair amount of talk about clothes and beauty products, and the characters have a great love of drinks with umbrellas in them. And women lap these books up. They enjoy seeing their lives reflected on the pages. So instead of chafing at the chicklit tag, why don’t these writers take pride in the fact that they write books that people want to read, that represent real women in real ways, and that sell by the truckload.

  • Women Write Aga Sagas

On a similar vein, there is also a feeling that when men write on family and domestic themes, they are hailed as literary heroes, while their female counterparts are dismissed with that derisory term, the aga saga. But Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn was nominated for the Booker because of its subtle characterisation and atmospheric writing, not because he’s a man.

Brooklyn

When women do write these nuanced, intimate portraits of family life, they are lauded for their efforts just as men are. Marilynne Robinson, author of Home and Gilead, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anne Tyler is regarded as a great American dame of letters.

Underlying these hang-ups is a fear of not being taken seriously. Some writers are so affected by this that they remove all trade of gender from their author name, going by their initials instead. JK Rowling makes quite a habit of it. They feel that readers will not buy their books if they know that a woman wrote them. But readers judge books by genre, style and quality more than they do by gender. If they choose to read more writers from a particular gender, it’s more a question of taste than whether a man or a woman wrote it.

Do you agree? Do you feel that women writers have these hang ups, or other ones that I haven’t covered? Are they justified in their fear of not being taken seriously? Or am I talking a load of rubbish? let the debate begin.

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9 thoughts on “The Hang-Ups of Women Writers

  1. Interesting post Derbhile. I believe it was JK Rowling’s publishers that asked her to use initials but I do think it is interesting that she is using a male pseudonym for her crime series.
    I did come across some posts earlier this year that suggested that readers read more male authors than female and there is a hashtag out there to encourage people to read more female authors. I think it is #readwomen or #readwomen2014. When I looked back on my own recent reading, I’d say it is 50:50 but I’m not sure because I’m reading books by more authors I’ve met recently and many of them are female. But I’ve never chosen a book based on the sex of the writer.
    I don’t know enough about it to comment re awards. I would hope that all books are chosen on merit!
    Agree – ‘chick lit’ does cover topics that are more pertinent to women’s lives and huge numbers of women seem to read them for escapism. I find that their dialogue can be poor at times though, it just doesn’t read true at times. I read ‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne last week and though it has lots of dialogue, it didn’t ‘stick’ once.

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    1. I could have actually created a fourth hangup, that men don’t read women’s books.There certainly is truth in that hang up, but I reckon it happens subconsciously and relates more to taste than thinking women writers aren’t as good. Interestingly, I think good dialogue is one of the strengths of popular fiction writers, because they have the great skill of writing as people speak.

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  2. Hi Derbhile. Good thought provoking article and I do think that we are inclined to over-depend on these niche areas that have been created. Women writers have to fit into a category it seems and you know, that isn’t right. It has actually put me off buying those books and maybe i’m missing out but I really don’t want to be marketed to on this occasion. I was reading an article by Siobhan Talbot the new CEO for Glanbia this morning, who argues that we need to be accepted on our merits not our gender.. hmm surely this needs to apply in the literary world.. but then how would we market the writer?

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  3. This is a thought-provoking post. At the risk of being poorly thought of, I am going to be honest. When I was a girl, I tried reading tons of fantasy novels. Now I don’t know whether we just had a poor selection of them in our small library or what, but the books that I tried that were written by women all seemed contrived. The female leads were over the top or too whiny, etc. and they got on my nerves, and I put the books down. I also had a hard time believing that they were doing a good job telling the story from the perspective of a male lead. It seemed to me that the male leads were too feminine in their way of thinking. So I quit reading fantasy books by female authors. Until one day, I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. It is, hands down, one of the best fantasy novels I have read in my life. It is gritty, down to earth, and the character is totally believable. I didn’t find out until much later that Robin Hobb is actually a female author. So I stand corrected. Even though I was wrong, I just wanted to give you the perspective of a woman that did (for a long time) avoid fantasy fiction written by women.

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    1. An interesting viewpoint, and thanks for sharing. It does illustrate the point about women writers in certain genres using male or gender-neutral names – I wonder if you thought Robin Hobb was a man when you picked up the book? I hope the lesson we can all learn is that good writing is good writing, regardless of the gender of the author.

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  4. I think many readers DO judge books purely by the gender of the author.

    Years ago, I did an experiment with how an author’s gender affects how readers perceive a work of fiction. Short version: I posted a sci-fi short story online under two different pen names, and asked for feedback. Female readers didn’t like the story by “Geoffrey” because the protagonist is female, and ‘men cannot write believable female characters,’ although they liked the story by “Kellie” and thought that one had good characterization; male readers liked the story by “Geoffrey” but thought the one by “Kellie” wasn’t as good because ‘women cannot write sci-fi as well as men can.’ (I give a fuller description of this experiment and the results on my blog: http://northofandover.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/an-old-experiment-explained) Interesting to see how simply telling readers ‘This story was written by a woman’ changes their perceptions of it.

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    1. Very interesting, Thomas. A brilliant example of hte assumptions we make. JK Rowling was actually told by her publishers to change her name to JK, as the public wouldn’t put their trust in a female fantasy writer.

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