I published my debut novel in March, and was lucky enough to receive positive reviews, wonderful reader feedback, and a stint on three bestseller lists.
I’m now working on my second novel, and as I write (and procrastinate), I’ve been thinking about stories and how we tell them and how they are received.
I’ve been thinking about how stories help us understand human experience and make sense of what can sometimes be senseless events. Stories provide coherent frameworks for expressing values and ideals. Stories build connection. “Language,” says Brené Brown, “is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness.”
She’s incredible, Brené Brown. Articulate, fiercely intelligent, complicated, real. She’s a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair. She is a visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, and she’s spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She’s the author of six #1 New York Times best sellers.
And yet, many people (yes, mostly men) have easily dismissed her as “that self-help lady”, or “that woman who writes about feelings and thinks too much of herself and is really rich and has a well-oiled PR machine.”
Women are too much, you see, if they do anything well in the public sphere/are experts in their field and are not afraid to say it. And God forbid they run a smooth business model and promote themselves. That’s arrogant. (But when men do it, it’s wise.)
So mostly, I’ve been thinking how women’s writing has so often been dismissed, demeaned, and discarded.
I was listening a while ago to a podcast episode by the wonderful author Glennon Doyle. Her podcast is called We Can Do Hard Things, and is feminist, funny, and wise.
In this episode, Glennon, her wife Abby, and her sister Amanda were discussing the extra challenges women authors face – not only in the writing of their stories, but in the way in which they are read and marketed.
When men write about their lives, she pointed out, it’s literature. When women write about their lives, it’s “women’s issues”.
When men write about their lives, the resultant books are for the masses. Most often you’ll find them in the “Leadership” aisle. Men, according to the active, muscly words on their book covers, just need to “unleash” themselves. When women write about their lives, they mostly end up in the “Self-Help” section. The author, you see, needs to fix herself. And we women need to learn how to do that, because apparently there’s everything wrong with us.
When men write about their world, their experiences, their hopes and dreams, they are philosophers. When women write about their lives, they are narcissists. And it’s most likely deemed “chick lit”. (When’s the last time you heard a book written by a man called “bloke lit”, or “boy lit”? Ridiculous, right? But we’re quite happy to flick women into a “niche” category and insist what they write is only worthy of a few lines in a woman’s magazine, no doubt next to an ad for weight-loss pills or anti-wrinkle cream and a recipe for chocolate cake and an article on “How to accept yourself at any age”.)
Angry? You bet I am. (And don’t get me started on how angry women are so often dismissed for being “hysterical”, “overly emotional”, “out of control”, and “too much”.)
It’s not just when they write that women get dismissed, belittled, or reduced. It’s also when they figure in the stories themselves – and, while we’re at it, in the entire history of humankind. And it’s not just reduction. Often it’s complete erasure.
THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT, begins Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s wonderful book, A Ghost in the Throat. The author weaves together the ordinary experiences of her life and her obsessive quest to discover the story of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonall, a 17th century noblewoman and poet. At every turn her search is frustrated because Eibhlin has been scrubbed from the history books, her story ignored, subsumed into the stories of her brothers, her father, her husband. Even family gravestones do not bear her name. To find her, the author must search for the men, and hope to find a whisper, a hint, perhaps an initial. Inevitably, every tiny clue only reveals itself in deference to men’s stories.
Forever, women’s accomplishments have been denied, belittled, revised, erased. Women’s achievements in all fields have been attributed to men, or ignored, or rewritten – or simply written out altogether. Many, many women authors throughout history have published their work under gender-neutral or male pseudonyms, in the hope of being taken seriously in a male-dominated world. J.K. Rowling was told not to use her full name before publishing the Harry Potter series. You’ll have more credibility, her (male) publisher told her, if people don’t know you’re a woman. Boys don’t want to read stories written by women.
What can we do?
Read more women authors. Ask in bookshops why a particular book by a female author has been categorised the way it has. Take care over how you speak about women’s writing. Encourage the men in your life to read more books written by women. Read your sons books written by women. Normalise it.
When I published my novel, I was asked at the launch what demographic it was most suited to. It is to my eternal shame that I gave the standard answer: “Well, I guess probably women aged between 25 and say, 55?” And lo and behold, many, many men have read my book and told me how much they related to it and loved it. In fact, the most wonderful, moving piece of feedback I got was from a male friend of mine.
It is a book for everyone.
We woman authors have to be careful when we talk about our own writing. We have learnt to diminish ourselves. (Thanks, patriarchy.) Let us do it no longer.
Women writers: keep writing.
We – all of us – need to hear women’s voices.