Sexism and Women Authors
Posted on October 24, 2012
I read this article the other day, and wow, how timely.
Point taken. In the not-very-subtle-if-you’re-paying-attention way of mannered Southerners, the gentleman had just attempted to eviscerate my character. Females are not supposed to mention their accomplishments, and what was I thinking? Of course, I wouldn’t be a writer if I weren’t capable of social observation. I took the high road, since I had to spend four more hours in the host’s home. I latched onto the end of his little story, where he said the Famous Authoress had only outed herself on her fame and talent in a passing comment on how glad she was that she would have money for a larger landscaping project. “Why, that’s exactly what I plan to do with my book proceeds! I love improving the garden.” In Southern, what I said was bitchy, because I was implying that landscaping was just one of those small things. (It’s not.) It had the desired effect of shutting down that part of the conversation.
The incident was niggling at me when I came across Sarah Sentilles article (linked at the top of the page) through a friend’s facebook post. As a thinking woman, I have had more than my share of frustrating moments around tables – dinner and seminar – when my words are ignored until they are repeated by a man a minute later. I could say, “But the problem with performance theory is that it presupposes, and therefore continues to codify the gender binary,” and I would meet glazed expressions and silence and a conversation moving on. A minute later, a person with a penis would say, “But the problem with performance theory is that it presupposes, and therefore continues to codify, the gender binary.” “Exactly!” several students and the professor would agree, thinking How Smart is that Guy with a Penis (and Summer’s Idea)?
I may be an opera singer, but I don’t like raising my voice in speech, finding it undignified and honestly, beyond my capabilities. In order to adapt to a culture that simply tunes out voices above a certain frequency, I have learned to pitch my speaking voice much lower than is natural. My speaking voice around trusted intimates is about an octave higher. Almost no one outside my family hears this voice.
I had thought to escape those obstacles with my writing voice. Surely my writing will be taken on the merits of the story? But it is not likely to be so. As Sentilles points out, if a man writes it, it is “Fiction” or “Literature”; if a woman writes it, it’s “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.”
When categorizing Can’t Buy Me Love, my editor and I settled on “Women’s Fiction,” a fact that startles me a bit in light of Sentilles’ article. Why does my writing need an apology before you even pick up the book? Walk into a bookstore, and it will be shelved with the other estrogen-laden tomes. “Women’s Fiction,” as if to imply, “Nothing to see here, gents. Move along.”
I’m still comfortable with the label, because there’s another side to it. “Women’s Fiction” means that women are the target audience. I wrote my book hoping to reach out to women, to make them laugh and maybe cry, to make their hearts lighter. Of course I would be glad if the book affects men similarly, but I did not write with men foremost in mind. I assume a cultural shorthand. Women will understand why certain objects in the book are significant without me having to explain.
The article shone a light on a purpose of this blog as well. I wanted to show how writing could be a serious profession in the context of full-time motherhood. Imagine a male author. How many hours a day do you assume he works at writing? How much credit do you give him for understanding the process of writing? Do you believe that he is competent to write about his subjects? Now imagine a female author. What’s different? Is her writing space different than the man’s? Does she struggle more for words? Does she have to do more research? How many words per hour or per day?
For a long time, I had vision of the writing life based on the images of life as a male author that I had picked up in popular culture. A Writer types or scribbles for eight hours a day in a library or an office of books. He sometimes walks in expensive clothing through the woods, to reflect on the Way Things Are. Every single word is carefully chosen, and stories are brilliant after the first draft. In other words, completely out of sync with reality.
As I have talked to various people about the writing life – my accompanist, my dentist, a web admin, a barrista, friends – the women (especially) have all given hints that they have a similar vision of masculine writing. If a man does it, it must be very time consuming and polished, and therefore outside of the province of most women’s packed daily lives. I have taken up the mantle of disillusioning these women. Writing is not about perfection, polish, and an eight hour workday. For some lucky few, sure, it is. But for most writers, discipline matters far more than the luxury of an open schedule. I tell them each the same thing: write every day, even if you don’t like what you say. By making yourself write, for fifteen minutes or an hour, you will eventually start to hear your own voice. You will eventually stop judging yourself enough to hear.
When we lay aside judgmental attitudes, the story is free to unfold. If Sentilles’ experience is indicative of the norm, and I think it is, we women are going to be picked at and judged in ad hominem attacks whenever we manage to publish. But please, fellow writers, don’t let that stop you from writing anyway. Lack of self-condemnation is the true secret to writing.
*I want to clarify that the host was extremely gracious and hospitable in all other ways. Please don’t think this man was a monster; if he had been, the example conversation would not have stuck out.