Last week, I wrote about some of the reasons why it’s harder for women to succeed as writers, including gender bias in the publishing industry, the extra burden of domestic chores many women carry, which means we have less time to write, plus our feminine conditioning that can lead to us holding ourselves back.
This week, I want to expand upon that conversation by exploring some of the patriarchal myths that haunt the halls of the literary world. Often, as a writing coach, I see how such limiting stories hold women back from fully exploring their artistic potential. I want more women’s books written, published and out there changing the world because I know we have big things to say, but one of the things we need to do to ensure this happens is to free ourselves from the tyranny of these unhelpful stories about women writers and what we can and cannot create.
Patriarchy can really box us into a corner – but only if we let it! I’m not saying that it’s easy to get past this stuff as ideology is invasive and insidious, but if we endeavour to stay aware of the multiple ways we’re told to shut up, be quiet and let the men do the really important stuff, then we’re more likely to bust through the bonds of patriarchy like Wonder Woman with PMS! *Sharon crosses wrists in superheroine fashion*
A lot of this stuff is tricky to spot though, so I thought I’d set out some of the ways women writers get caught in the crosshairs of patriarchy in the literary world, so that we can start to change things up.
1. GENRE IS GENDERED – WOMEN CAN ONLY WRITE CHICK LIT AND DOMESTIC FICTION: Er, nope! Women can write whatever they want and do it damn well, thank you very much! Look at Doris Lessing, writing kickass sci-fi, alongside highbrow literary fiction, including the feminist masterpiece, The Golden Notebook. (She once walked past me on Hampstead Heath when I was carrying my copy in my bag and I still wish I had stopped her and asked her to sign it!)
If you have a yearning to write crime, steampunk, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, whatever … do it, beautifuls, because OF COURSE YOU CAN PULL IT OFF.
2. THE DOMESTIC FICTION THAT SOME WOMEN WRITE IS LESS IMPORTANT THAN LITERARY FICTION – WHICH IS A MALE PRESERVE: Again, nope, nopety, nope. Anne Tyler and Marylinne Robinson are both literary geniuses who write about domestic and family life – this sort of fiction can be bloody marvellous, beating the work of male literary authors, dusters down!
But it goes further than the quality of literary work, which is, after all, a subjective issue – this is about women and their writing being relegated to the domestic sphere, though why this realm is seen as feminine when many men live in the same households, I’ll never know. In
fact, a LOT of men write about family life and yet they don’t get labelled in the same way because that would mean belittling them in literary terms … Hmm.
I guess this is a dreadful hangover from the classical model of men going out into public (the agora or forum) and women being stuck at home in an apparently inferior domestic position, but it’s 2017 now, in case you’ve not noticed, boys! We’re not in Pompeii any more!
In fact, women who write domestic fiction aren’t any less significant in readership or influence than the big important literary boys (think, Martin Amis … yikes) either – in fact, some of them probably sell them under the table and may well have legacies far beyond their male contemporaries, so it’s high time all women writers were given respect, no matter what they write about.
So, gals, if you’re doubting your work’s worth because it’s ‘only’ domestic fiction – or even chick lit – and you’re even thinking you ‘should’ maybe write something else in order to be taken seriously, please, please recognise your work’s value and, again, write what the hell you want. The world needs your particular vision and truth – and you can’t give us that when you’re writing something you’re not passionate about just to fit into a patriatrchal idea of literary success.
Don’t buy into the myth of women’s writing being trivial, whilst men’s is oh, so significant. We’re plenty significant and we can create high literary fiction and big ideas with the best of ’em. I mean, hello, we have Woolf and the Brontes on our team too, alongside modern female authors with real punch like my beloved, Donna Tartt, and Siri Hustvedt. The only way we change things is to keep going, writing what’s in our hearts, and eventually the tide will change.
3. WOMEN WRITERS ARE GENERALLY CRAY-CRAY OR JUST MISERABLE: Look, for every suicidal Sylvia Plath (who I adore, by the way), we can point to a similarly self-destructive male figure, such as Ernest Hemingway. The tragedy of mental illness and unhappiness is a human one – and NOT something which is the preserve of one gender, or even creatives as a whole, to be honest. I know as a teen at least, the lure of Plath’s darkness was great – here was someone who understood me in my adolescent anguish! – but let’s not romanticise or glamourise others’ pain and think that we women writers have to also be depressives in order to ‘really’ be creatively brilliant, or, on the other hand, that there must be something ‘wrong’ with us if we are women writers due to the way patriarchal culture has tied a handy, tight little knot between female creativity and mental illness.
It smacks a bit too much of the way women were seen as ‘hysterical’ from the nineteenth century on and I don’t think it helps women feel ‘safe’ in exploring their creativity because it’s always got this threat of pathology with it. Who would want to dive deep into that?
The reality is, if you DO have depression or other mental health conditions, it pretty much fucks your writing as you’re crying too much and thinking,’What’s the point?’ too often to even sit at a desk (I know whereof I speak sadly as I’ve walked through that valley and, thankfully, came out the other side). We women who fight these illnesses and still get our shiz done are fucking literary lionesses who don’t deserve to be ghettoised and mocked, but to be treated with reverence and respect for staying the creative course, no matter what.
And, to be fair, given how patriarchy treats women, why wouldn’t a lot of us be fed up and express that in our work? I’m thinking of A Quiet Passion now, a movie I saw recently about the wonderful Emily Dickinson, who had to stay single so she could continue writing and who even had to ask permission of her father to stay up and write … After watching it I thought no wonder her poems are a bit, ya know, morbid!
4. WOMEN SHOULDN’T WRITE MALE LEAD CHARACTERS: This corker first came to my attention when Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (another fine literary and intellectual woman writer) was such a smashing success. I could hardly believe it that some male critics felt it wasn’t right for her, as a woman author, to have created a male lead.
I still struggle to see why this is an issue, considering that, well, fiction is fiction and, therefore, all of it is the result of a flight of imagination. But then perhaps certain male critics and authors find the fact that we can see into their souls creatively and represent them well on the page a bit unnerving because maybe that means that not only we’re not staying in our nice domestic genre box, where they can diss us to their heart’s content (see point 2), but that we might actually write books about the same stuff as them and, in Shield’s case, beat them at their own game, as it were.
I also think that the idea that a woman can write a man is threatening to the patriarchs of the literary world because it actually shows something wonderful – that gender is not as set and binary as they would like to believe, but that women actually share a lot of the insights and ways of seeing the world that men do. This means that gender is really performative and not as essential and tied to our genitals as some peeps would like us to believe.
This means that it’s all a nonsense that women can’t write tough crime or bloody horror or logical sci-fi (as in point 1) as basically we can dream ourselves into any mind, body or space. We don’t need to stay trapped by the limits of our experience either – the imagination can free us from male control, on the page at least.
Indeed, I wrote a male lead in my first book, Welcome to Sharonville, and it never struck me that I shouldn’t do that or he wouldn’t be convincing as a character. That book was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award too, so I think those readers thought he was alright.
In this case then, I’d say WRITE WHAT YOU APPARENTLY DON’T KNOW. If you want to write about a male figure, then do it – YOU GOT THIS. You don’t need a ding dong to write someone who has one (only dicks think that, ha, ha!).
5. ONLY BAD GIRLS WRITE ABOUT SEX: Dear God, really? Isn’t sex a natural and normal part of our lives? If we’re going to write about humans and their relationships, isn’t it just a regular thing to include in our writing? Why is women writing about the erotic aspects of life and love salacious and ‘naughty’, whereas it’s just all part of virility and high jinks if a man does it? Indeed, it does not in any way lower a male writer’s literary reputation if he’s having a wankfest on the page.
Just think about this – I adore Henry Miller and believe he’s one of the finest stylists ever, but why is he accorded high literary regard for writing similar sexy stuff to Anais Nin, his lover, whose writing, although being equally powerful, is just often seen, I sadly feel, as just a bit of girlie porn?
The same could be said for Erica Jong, a groundbreaking feminist and overall fabulous writer with unbelievable smarts, but whose work is
constantly linked to the ‘zipless fuck’ and its sexual aspects. Yes, it’s all part of marketing (sex sells etcetera), but I think it’s also about wanting to sexualise women and see us as objects, so even when try to be equal by writing about our sexual experiences, we’re instantly smacked back into our little patriarchal pigeonhole and even find our literary worth downgraded as surely serious authors don’t write about such things – that is, unless they’re men.
The hypocrisy involved in this is YUGE, as Donald, the Patriarch-in-Chief, would say. A bigly literary double standard. But I think the only way to deal with it is to – can you see the picture yet? – carry on fucking doing it anyway. I’m not saying write sex just to try to flog some books as that usually fails as a strategy, but if you want to write erotica, kink, or just include some lovin’ in your novel, just do it. With the accent on DOING IT! Hee, hee. And don’t feel you need to stick to heterosexual stuff either – one way our society maintains its homophobia is by keeping to the man/(and usually much younger) woman missionary position in books, movies and TV – SCREW THAT.
I’d be interested to hear what you think of my comments here or about any other myths you feel are attached to women writers as the only way forward is identify them in order to ensure they don’t get in the way of our creativity. Writing, submitting and promoting books is tough enough without limiting gender beliefs being ladled on top of us. Please feel free to leave a comment below or to contact me.
But we women writers don’t need to despair – we’re not trapped inside our father’s houses like Emily Dickinson any more. We can also create the rooms of our own that Woolf said we needed to write all for ourselves. We can rely on our solidarity to get us through too – you’re welcome to join my private Facebook group where there’s a wonderfully supportive group of writers gathering and don’t forget to download my self-editing checklist which I hope will help you get your book out there changing the world. I know you have big things to say, but if you want me to help you, I do offer a complimentary 30 minute ‘Writing Breakthrough’ session to support you with whatever creative pr personal issues are stopping you from playing big.
At the end of the day, we are going to shatter the literary glass ceiling, even if it is one book at a time.