Unbalanced (just like me), and often very accurate, the ‘five things’ list is a classic formula. Though there are lots of good and bad points about being a writer in general, often the fact that you’re female (as in many things) tends to tip the scales a bit, and certainly not in a direction that’s in your favour. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at this more closely.
1. Inappropriate Book Covers
For some female writers, just as with some male writers, a flowery, pastel book cover is exactly what you want for your heart-warming story of a couple of young lovers in the English countryside. However, for books such as Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, and Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes, it would be nothing short of inappropriate. Death, ghosts, and having a beer with Jesus; nothing about those things screams pastels to me. If you’re lucky enough to get published then obviously you want your book to be represented in the best way possible, and that often means pandering to your target audience. If your target audience is enamoured with flowers and young waifs gazing soulfully into the distance then by all means print that on the cover, but being a woman writer does not necessarily mean that you’ll be writing a book about the inherent romance of cornfields. Let the cover reflect the content, not the a stereotype of the author’s gender.
2. Representing Women
When men write women there is, naturally, a bit of a barrier there. I’d imagine it’s more difficult for a man to write about any woman’s experience than it is for him to write on his own gender, though this is not always the case. In some ways, there is a margin for error here; he’s trying, bless his soul, but he doesn’t have the breasts for it. It would be ignorant to assume that no man can ever write amazing female characters, just as it would be silly not to realise that J.K Rowling did a damn good job of representing a well-rounded, realistic, teenage boy. But, as I said, there’s a little leeway there. There is more pressure, I think, on a woman to write their gender as true to life as possible. If you define as female and you can’t write female characters then pack up and go home because you’re obviously an anti-feminist, a terrible writer, and probably an awful human being too. Individual experience is incredibly complex, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing. There’s more judgement surrounding a woman’s writing if her characters are female, than on a male writer, because we should know better. That’s a lot of pressure.
3. Exclusion From The Canon
I’m an English student, please hold on while I try to impress you with what little knowledge I possess. The English Literary Canon (capitalised because it’s very important) contains a whole host of esteemed writers; Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Bentley, Wyatt, Marlowe… The list goes on, and is filled with menfolk. The reason being, of course, that the original canon was created by men, and the frilly literature of women writers such as Austen (in spite of a social satire worthy of Swift), Gaskell and Mary Shelley, was not worth thinking about. Of course the canon has been altered to fit in with changing times but it’s an ongoing process. Women writers of the past are still being uncovered and slotted into our written history, because some dunderhead thought her unworthy of recording due to what she had (or didn’t have) between her legs. Thankfully there is more hope now that the women who are writing in the present will be remembered, studied, and adored in 200 years. Let’s just hope everyone forgets about E.L.James.
4. Assumptions on Content
This was mentioned briefly at the beginning of this article, but it’s an important point that deserves its own paragraph. If you’re writing as a woman then you’re boxed-in from the start, at least if you put too much stock in other people’s opinions. For example, how can a woman write an Epic, if it hasn’t really been done before? If there’s no precedent, it must be impossible. Leave it to Dante, Homer, Joyce; you’re probably too busy popping out babies or something to hold a pen for that long anyway. An extreme example, I know, and who the hell wants to write an Epic anyway? But it is assumed that a woman must be writing exclusively for women, and that her readers want certain things; namely romance and the previously mentioned cornfields. The A Song of Ice and Fire book series (commonly known as Game of Thrones) is written by a man – a man with a beard no less, so you know he means business – and is extremely popular with both male and female readers. The cover illustrations of swords and other phallic objects didn’t put off any of my female friends and they sing the books’ praises nearly every time I speak to them. A man doesn’t need to pander to a certain audience in the way a woman does; a man’s writing is universal. Which, if you’ll pardon my language, is kind of bullshit.
5. You Are a ‘Woman Writer’
If you are sitting at your keyboard — or typewriter, or designated pen and paper combo — and you consider yourself to be a woman, then you are A Woman Writer. Your job title is inextricably linked with your gender. There’s no real male equivalent: men’s writing is, as I’ve said, universal. A Man Writer isn’t a concept we use; he’s just a writer, which doesn’t seem particularly fair. I’m happy with my status as ‘woman’ but I don’t want my gender or sex to have any kind of impact on my occupational title. It just seems unnecessary.
I’m not saying that there aren’t good things about being a female writer; I reckon I could write more truthfully on lesbianism than a male could, for example. The fact of the matter is, however, that the world insists on pigeon-holing everyone into comfortable boxes, where what defines your input and output is down to whether or not you wear a bra. This hurts everyone, not just those of us who define as female, and it would be wonderful if people would start to realise that.
NB: This article was originally posted in the now-defunct Heart of Glass magazine.