Women Writers Have it Harder: Do You Know What You're Up Against?
I hate that we have to have this conversation. It's not a conversation that I'd like to talk about. Buuuuuut, the literary community caters to men. It's just a fact. And that freaking sucks. That means all us ladies out there have to do a lot more work to get the same results. And that's stupid.
This a brief look into what women writers are up against and what we can do to combat the issues. This is hopefully an education, a post to raise awareness of the issues, and not a ranting forum of "us" versus "them," because nobody likes that nonsense.
So, what are the issues?
HISTORY TEACHES BOOKS WRITTEN BY MEN
It’s an obvious fact when looking at the literary canon that it’s filled with upper-class white men. Look at Shakespeare, Byron, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Coleridge, Thoreau—everybody. Most of the classic books throughout history are written by a white male person.
This is (mostly) due to the way women were treated back in the day (aka, not so good). But does that make it right? Of course not.
And this is not without its exceptions. There were women who were brave enough to publish, yet under pseudonyms, which made people believe they were an upper-class white man (I'm looking at you Bronte sisters, and Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot). There were women who used initials to hide gender identity (most famously, J.K. Rowling, and that wasn't even that long ago). And there were women who did their own thing anyway (hey, Mary Shelley, look at you go hanging out with Byron and Coleridge and doing ya own thing with ya bad self!).
Yet, there's so many women who's voices were NEVER heard simply because society didn't believe a woman's place was in literature for SO LONG. We have literally lost hundreds of years of history because women simply were not allowed to write and publish.
But hey, we can't change the past. We can only look to the future. What's going on in today's world?
men get more attention + WIN THE MAJOR AWARDS
It’s become pretty well known thanks to Nicola Griffith for charting award recipients that white male writers tend to win the awards. They get more credit, more attention. They have an established platform that’s not going away. None of this is news. I mean, just look at the stats from the Pulitzer Prize for the past fifteen years. The majority of the books that won are written by men and are about men.
Who's the Pulitzer-winning book about?
Who wrote the Pulitzer-winning book?
THESE STATISTICS ARE TAKEN FROM THE 2000-2015 PULITZER PRIZE WINNING BOOKS. FIND MORE DATA ON AWARD WINNERS HERE.
This is pretty dreary. There are literally NO books that won that are about women exclusively. That's cray.
But this doesn't mean that male writers are inherently better than women writers. A good story is a good story, regardless of who wrote it.
So, what does this mean? Nicola concludes the data best:
And this isn't just an issue with the Pulitzer. It runs over into the Man Booker, the Newbury, the National Book Award, the Hugo. If you want to be sad for just a minute, go look at her data. The results suck (but thank God she raised awareness on this).
This isn't just an issue with the awards though; it's an issue with publication altogether.
MEN GET PUBLISHED MORE
Not only is there more male-centered literary coverage, but there's also another imbalance. Studies have shown that men get published more in literary journals and there are even more books published by men than there are by women (these statistics are a little dated, but still relevant). It's an astonishingly large gap.
So, there's more book reviews about men because more men are getting published. The issue lies not only in what gets reviewed, but what gets published.
Who got published in THE NEW YORKER?
WHO got reviewed in THE NYT BOOK REVIEW?
THIS DATA IS TAKEN FROM VIDA'S 2011 STUDY AND REPORTED BY THE HUFFINGTON POST. READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE HERE.
2010 Books Published by Penguin's Riverhead
2010 Books Published by Random House
THIS DATA IS TAKEN FROM THE NEW REPUBLIC'S 2010 STUDY. READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE HERE. NOTE: PENGUIN'S RIVERHEAD HAD THE BEST BALANCE OUT OF 13 MAJOR PUBLISHERS. RANDOM HOUSE WAS THE SECOND BEST.
And how about other literary fiction magazines? Are women writers getting their short stories published?
Well, yes. There's some progress. It's not great. It's still being closely monitored. You can check out the stats on the major peeps (The New Yorker, Granta, The Missouri Review) here. The bigger issue is the fact that we do have to monitor this.
What this data means is that books written by women and about women are not getting the same attention as books written by men and about men. And this is not cool. But what do we do about it? Do we tell men to stop publishing? Do we tell editors and publishers to push women's fiction to the top of the slush pile? Do we need to rip everyone in publishing out of their positions and replace them with feminist reviewers, feminist publishers, feminist people?
Heck no we don't. (I hope you can hear how ridiculous those questions sounded).
Women's stories not getting equal attention is a problem. That's half (literally HALF) of the world's stories not being told or not being received with an equal attention. Women writers need more attention, but they shouldn't get attention just for having a story about a woman or just for being written by a woman. And this doesn't come with telling male writers their opinion is already omnipresent and they need to back down.
Everyone on this freaking earth has an interesting story to tell, no matter race, gender, religious beliefs, age, ethnicity, sexuality etc. And Real+Good Writing is Real+Good Writing. Period.
And there's no way the publishing industry is filled with misogynistic jerks. I refuse to believe that. It's 2016 and I can't imagine that there are editors and publishers out there thinking, "Gosh, this story is fantastic. Too bad it's written by a woman. Next!" That's just not a thing that's happening.
So why this happens—I'm not exactly sure. You've correctly asked the question of the day. But there are a few things that might be contributing to it.
Why could this be happening?
WHAT WE'RE READING + WHAT WE'RE TAUGHT TO READ
If we're taught to read the literary canon of upper-class white men, we're going to be highly influenced by them. To be honest, I have a lot of favorite women authors. But my top three favorite writers are men. It's not because they're men. I just really like their stories.
Is this a problem? Maybe. It depends on if I read more women than men.
Thinking about the books I read, there's a decent balance between men and women authors. I don't consciously choose male authors OR female authors—I choose stories—so, in theory, there should be a solid balance on my bookshelf. Perhaps a slight tilt toward male authors (because of the whole historical thing) but nothing overly intense.
However, looking back on my education, there are VERY FEW books by female writers that I studied in school. In fact, from what I can recall, there's really not that many at all. And looking at my bookshelf, like, visually looking at my bookshelf, it seems that there's a lot more male authors than I thought.
So, I should read more women writers. Cool. I'll make that a priority.
What are you reading? Are you reading more men than women? Or vice versa? Is your to-read list diverse enough? Want a quick test? Buzzfeed's got a quiz of 102 books by women and you can see how many you've read. Hint: My score was not so good.
But I don’t want that to be the only thing I read or write. I also like books about men, and by men, and I don’t want to be shamed by that. There seems to be this stigma that it's an "us" versus "them" kind of thing, when really, I just want to read a Real+Good story. I don't particularly care if it's written by a man or a woman; I just want it to be written well.
To fix this, we could change the curriculum in the education system. But seriously, I'm not even going to open up that door for conversation.
Why else don't I read more books by women?
THE WOMAN'S VOICE
Some might see this information and run off, ready to write the next great piece of women's fiction. The enthusiasm is the goal, but we need to make sure it gets put into action appropriately.
I believe there's this voice, this voice that comes off as too feminine and girly. It's whimpy, whiny, bitchy, PMS-y. If we try to write "about" women then we fall into a certain set of conventions that, we think, must be followed. In reality, these are stereotypical falsehoods, and inserting them into our story ends up making the story terrible. If we try too hard to write "about" women it's not authentic. And this "cloud of aboutness" (aka trying to write "about" women) can prevent us from writing a good story or prevent us from writing at all.
I read a recent novel in this voice and it turned me off to the whole thing. (I won’t go into what book exactly—I don’t want to book bash). The novel sucked. The plot was promising, but the female protagonist was impossibly annoying. The novel itself has decent reviews overall, but I hated it more than anything because she was trying to be feminine. I couldn’t relate to the narrator, I couldn’t even emphasize, as she was so unfamiliar and annoying that I just despised her completely. She was that whimpy, whiny, bitchy, PMS-y voice that was trying much too hard to convey a woman's reality. It tried so hard that it rendered false on the page.
I've read other novels that do this too. And it's so unfair. I don't want to read something that is trying too hard, because all that ends up happening is that it comes across as false. And now I shy away from "feminine" books and "women's literature" because I don't want to encounter this type of voice.
This happens because of the expectations of womanhood. A reader may come into a novel expecting a woman to act a certain way, and a writer, thinking about that, may end up writing to the expectations.
YOU MUSN'T DO THIS.
You shouldn't be writing a formulaic woman that hits a certain amount of checkpoints on an imaginary scale of womanhood. (This makes me cringe just writing it). Women (just like men) are complex and full of a variety of emotions. They're people—people! And people are more than just a formula that acts a certain way and says things a certain way. They're complex, unpredictable, unique, deep. Your characters must be a reflection of this, not a stereotypical caricature of them.
So please, oh please oh please oh please, don't try to write a woman's voice. Just write it authentically!
On the other hand, no one wants to ignore this unwritten duty of women to speak of the woman’s perspective. We have an opportunity to share our story, and therefore we must share it! We must write about being women and what that’s like and we must do it loud and proud because our voices and opinions have been hidden and masked for hundreds of years and this is our chance!
Gosh, this is too much pressure. I just want to write.
Of course I want to write about being a woman. And I want to read books by women authors who are telling authentic stories about women. You see, what I want to do is document the human experience. And I think that’s every writer’s goal, honestly: to record the world in an interesting, engaging, and authentic manner in order to learn something from it. I want to capture the truth, and explore it in my fiction.
To do this, we can't write "about" women and we can't write with the intention to capture what life means for all women in all parts of the world. I am one person. You are one person. You can only capture that reality. There's not a one-size fits all definition for how women are, because there's not a one-size fits all definition for people in general. This is often why we like stories in the first place: because they're filled with unique characters that are similar, yet different from ourselves.
We have to capture the female voice authentically. We have to be natural. We shouldn't write "about" women. It shouldn't be something we try to do, but something that we just do. Which is much easier said than done. But we must try so we can avoid reading—and writing—books that just don't make the cut.
HOW NOVELS ABOUT WOMANHOOD ARE CATEGORIZED
And yet, we still have a problem.
If we accomplish all of that—we could read books by both genders about both genders, we could change the education curriculum, we could write authentic female voices—but then it still comes down to selling the damn thing. Books have to be marketed. They've got to have a genre of something or another. And someone has to make a decision of what little category to put the novel in.
If you look at the history of genre classifications, there wasn't much of a distinction until the modern era. If you think about it, there's a lot more "literary fiction" from the past than there is in the present. This is because those genre categories simply didn't exist. But, all the classics can fit into other genre classifications.
FOR EXAMPLE: Jane Austen would be classified as women's lit / chick lit / romance today, but she gets put in the literary fiction category because she's the classic Jane Austen. That's partially why literary fiction has become this big umbrella, catch-all for literature. There simply wasn't distinctions back then.
But somewhere along the line we decided to make them. They can be good—it's how readers find books they'll like—but they also can be very, very bad. Especially when the decision is being made based on gender alone.
In THIS article, editor Kiele Raymond says that it’s an unfortunate way to go about things, but novels that cover themes like self-identity, uncertain futures, and romance, AND are written from the female perspective, are more easier to market as "new adult" fiction rather than "literary" fiction. In fact, she says that male perspectives that cover these main themes are more likely to be marketed as literary, when women’s narratives are marketed as women’s fiction (chick lit) and new adult.
THE WHOLE QUOTE: “I think the genre introduces important conversations about the evolution of personal identity and, let’s be honest, womanhood. Sure, there are male narratives in this vein, but they are usually considered literary. It’s an unfortunate truth that female authors are more likely to be categorized into sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. Still, the concept of “new adult” draws attention to independent women entering their twenties who are unattached and in pursuit of careers and equal partnerships. What does it look like when a young woman encounters the modern world with more life experience than an adolescent? How does she confront often hostile environments, and carve out a life outside those prescribed for her?”
This is so unfair. And this makes me so steaming mad.
As a reader, I'm not reading "new adult" or "young adult" or "romance." I'm reading literary fiction. So I am missing out on a whole bunch of fantastic literature by women and about women simply because of a stupid classification. I don't want a book catered to what you think my needs are—I want to read a good book. That's all!
As a writer, this is even more scary. I am writing a literary novel. That is how I’ve been taught. These are the stories that resonate with me. This is what I want to do. And this is what I am doing.
But this conversation scares me. Is my novel going to be marketed as something different because I'm a woman? Because I want to talk about self-identity? Because sometimes romance shows up in my stories?
I don’t think I can consciously write new adult or a romance novel. There’s nothing wrong with these genres, and in fact, they sell much better than litfic anyway. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to write literary fiction. I don’t want to be placed in a box, inside another box, inside an even bigger box, that exists only on a certain shelf. And I especially don't want this to happen just because I'm a woman. I want to write a book that is simply a Real+Good book. End of story. (CLICK TO TWEET!)
But what do you do?
If this is how you find readers, don't you want to find your readers? If this is how the book sells, don't you want it to sell? I don't know.
Can't we just widen what goes into the "literary fiction" genre? If the exact same story is told from a male perspective, and it gets classified as literary fiction, then my story, told from a woman's perspective, should get classified as literary fiction. Doesn't that seem right?
I'm going to write the books I want to write. They're going to be about the people I want them to be about. And if women show up in my stories (which they do) then so be it.
Kiele's advice echoes this sentiment:
I wholly dream of writing a Pulitzer-winning novel one day. But I don't stand a chance if it's going to be marketed in a way where reviewers won't see it. And I want to read books by women and about women, but I don't want to read "new adult" or "romance." I want to read a Real+Good story. I want to read literary fiction from the woman's perspective.
Here's to hoping that by the time this novel is finished, there's enough change in the industry where my novel CAN be spun as literary fiction.
So, after all that... What do you do with this info?
1 | BE AWARE OF THE ISSUES.
You've already done that by reading this post. Good job, champ.
2 | DON'T FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE TO WRITE A CERTAIN WAY
If women show up in your stories, great! If they don't, that's fine too.
You don't have to write something in a certain way or for a certain reader. And if you do, the story is going to come across as inherently false. If you're a woman, you do not have to write about women. And if you're a woman and you DO want to write about women, that's fine too. The only thing you have to do is write the story you want to write.
If you need some help with this, The Real+Good Writer's DNA has got you covered in figuring out the stories you want to tell. (I learned that I do like writing about women and often a lot of romance pops up in my stories. If I fight it, it won't be a story that I like).
Don't fight what your heart wants to write.
3 | IF YOU WRITE ABOUT WOMEN, WRITE NATURALLY. DON'T "TRY" TO BE FEMININE; JUST BE IT
Be natural and true to who you are. Capture the world accurately and authentically. Dive deep into real emotions.
This is easier said than done, I know. But if you try too hard to do something that just doesn't work for you, it's not going to work for your reader either.
Let your characters really come to life organically on the page. Make them believable for your readers. And make them true to the world.
4 | WRITE THE TRUEST STORY YOU KNOW, REGARDLESS OF GENRE
Perhaps your novel will be marketed as literary fiction. Perhaps it will be marketed as something else. It's important to pay attention to genre and know how it could enhance your story, but you shouldn't write to that. Write the story as you see fit. Then worry about the marketing when you reach that point. Make a commitment to yourself that you're going to write the story you want to write, no matter what.
I’m going to write what I want. And I want authenticity. So women may appear in my stories (and readers may head into my stories with an expectation of what a woman perspective will provide). But I will not write in attempt to capture the women’s perspective (after all, I’m only one person anyway and one person is never representative of the whole). Rather, I will write to capture the world as I see it through my own, personal perspective.
Perhaps one day the world won’t be so judgmental to women writers. Perhaps one day, writing will get judged on writing, not on the makeup of the writer who wrote those words. Perhaps one day, the term “woman writer” won’t even be a thing. For now, those things do exist.
But I’m not going to let that stop me from writing authentically.
I'm going to write. I'm going to write Real+Good writing. I'm going to write honestly, authentically, transparently. And you must do the same.
Be aware of these issues, but don't write to spite them. Write to capture the world as you see it. Write the truest story you know.
What do you think about the issues surrounding women writers? Why do you think it's happening? What else can we do to fix it?