Thursday, March 24, 2005

Why can't women write fiction?

I just came across this item and was going to save it for tomorrow, but then I figured I'd better post it today because my pal Booksquare will undoubtedly find it where I did (she's on Left Coast Time, so it's easy to scoop her) and after she comments on it I won't be able to because then I'll look like a copycat.

Of course, it's perfectly acceptable for her to comment after I do because she's eversomuch more intelligent and articulate and I freely admit I won't pull out even half the juicy stuff that she'll find in this article. My style is more to offer a bite out of the middle of the sandwich, but she will cut up the entire thing and serve it to you in bite-size pieces with those fancy little toothpicks and a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.

Okay, if you read today's first post, you know I didn't get much sleep last night and that I started on the coffee at 5:30 this morning. I've just finished a pot of tea and steeped another one, so maybe I'm a little jazzed, but....

Oh, yeah. I was going to comment on a news item, wasn't I?

Here you go. This is from today's Guardian:

There is no such thing as Women's Writing. Just as there is no such thing as Left-Handed Writing, Red-Headed Writing, European Writing, Northern Hemisphere Writing, or Writing from the Planet Earth. All of these categories are so large as to be meaningless. Sadly, Women's Writing is the only one of the above repeatedly used as a stick to beat women who write. Either Women's Writing is fluffy and inconsequential, full of romps and buttocks - or Women's Writing is coarse and aggressive and the kind of muck you'd expect from an off-duty stripper in a strop - or Women's Writing is obsessed with plumbing and bleeding and bonding to whale music. Effectively, Women's Writing is whatever has most annoyed any given journalist, commentator, academic, or author in the past few books by women they've read. Sweeping generalisations must be made, insults must be slung, personal abuse is welcome and two or three days of columns and op-eds can be sustained with the merry to-and-fro.

I've been waiting a long time for somebody to say that. Even when someone praises the writing of women, what I always hear is, Hey, isn't this great? Women can do this stuff just about as well as men can!

I'm no feminist, but I know injustice when I see it.

When a man writes a novel, he is said to have produced a work of fiction. But women can't write fiction. No, their novels must be labeled "women's fiction". The subtle suggestion is that while men can write novels suitable for consumption by everyone, women are capable of producing only women's novels. I can't tell you how that annoys me.

But I'm sure going to try.

If things had gone a little differently all those years ago and Nicholas Sparks had been born Nicole, we would call The Notebook and A Walk to Remember women's fiction.

If The Horse Whisperer hadn't been written by someone with a Y chromosome, we'd call that book women's fiction.

If A Painted House had been written by Joan Grisham, we'd call it women's fiction.

Are you getting this? "Women's fiction" is not defined primarily by content or style, but by who writes it. Does that seem reasonable to you?

Some will argue that "women's fiction" refers to deeply emotional novels that explore the protagonists' relationships with family and friends, include a lot of self-discovery, and usually give us at least a dash of romance. But notice that the four examples I gave above include all of these elements. And yet we don't call them women's fiction because they were written by men.

You probably know that more than half of all bookbuyers are women. You'd think we'd get (and give ourselves) a little more credit for brains. Why can't we read and write "real" books? Why do we allow ourselves to be relegated to some dim, out-of-the-way corner where we can entertain each other and keep out of trouble?

I'm proposing a rebellion. Let's stomp all over the term "women's fiction". If you want a romance or a "relationship" novel or a book written by a woman, or a book written especially for women, say so. Just don't ask for -- and don't allow anyone to assume you mean -- a "women's fiction" book. That term drops all females -- readers and writers -- into a box that is very difficult for us to climb out of.

What do you say we draw the line right here and now and refuse to hear or speak the words, "women's fiction"? Imagine walking into a bookstore:
Clerk: What can I help you find today?

You: Hi. I'm looking for something in contemporary
fiction.

Clerk: Ah. Well, the women's fiction is right over--

You: Excuse me. What is "women's fiction"?

Clerk: [shrugging] Fiction written by women for
women. Isn't that what you're looking for?

You: I'm not sure what you mean. Since the majority
of bookbuyers are women, I would imagine that
most of the books in this store were written with
women readers in mind. And all I'm looking for is
a good book. It doesn't have to be written by a
woman. I'm sure men can write perfectly good
books, too. You wouldn't disagree with that, I hope?

Clerk: Uh. . . lady, I just work here.

You: [with a warm smile] Right. So, where's the fiction?

Why don't you give it a try? Throw your little pebble into the pond and see if you can make some waves.

11 comments:

Heather Diane Tipton said...

WooHoo! Preach it Benda!

HerWryness said...

I love it when you "throw your pebble" like this.

You're right. It's more than I can do to find any positive meaning in women's fiction. The term itself is fiction.

booksquare said...

Slacking off is not the same thing as not paying attention! I have the Guardian article open in my browser. There are a few items of this ilk that I'm trying to pull together in my brain (that scary place). Of course, now I'm feeling pressure.

But, yes, you're right...it is time for a Pinot Grigio and a think.

Brenda Coulter said...

So you're cutting it up into little pieces and shoving in those toothpicks right now, are you?

I'll stop by your place later to read your take on the article. Make it good; my expectations on this one are high (and you know I'm going to heckle you if you spell a word wrong).

Gone Away said...

As a male, I'm not sure I'm allowed to comment but I just wanted to say, "Hear, hear." The best writer I know happens to be a woman. She writes sublime poetry and prose and I suppose, because she's female, when she writes something fictional you'd have to say it's "women's fiction". But the fact is she's just a brilliant writer, regardless of gender.

Brenda Coulter said...

Gone Away, men are definitely allowed to comment on this blog. And when they agree with me, they are encouraged to comment. ;-)

Thanks for stopping by.

booksquare said...

Had to go out and buy the toothpicks. You'd think I'd have them handy, what with all the whine and cheese consumed at Chez Booksquare. Alas, you can never find the things you need.

I have posted my valiant attempt. I stand ready to take my punishment for spelling errors...I don't use spell check. I will confess to one glaring punctuation goof. No excuse, sheer lack of proof-reading until after posting. A girl can't do all!

http://www.booksquare.com/archives/2005/03/25/1143/

I hope I come reasonably close to meeting expectations. The challenge, the challenge!

Brenda Coulter said...

You did great on this one, Booksquare, as I knew you would. And I'm giving you bonus points for quoting me in your post.

See, everyone? I told you she was clever.

Kristin said...

This post really hit home for me. I am a first-time novelist and have been working on my manuscript for 2 1/2 years. When someone asked me what kind of book it was, I tried to describe the plot and characters...and I heard back, "Oh, it's a *romance* novel."

That really made me upset. No, it isn't a romance novel. It has a relationship in it between a man and a woman, but there are a lot of other plot elements as well. And trying to find a publisher to market to is even more impossible.

I feel that if my book isn't "literary" in nature, that I am forced to pigeon-hole my book into either "chick-lit" or "romance" or "women's fiction." Whatever the heck that means!

Thanks for putting a voice to my frustrations.

Brenda Coulter said...

I suppose people will always insist on putting books and authors into neatly labeled boxes, Kristin. All I can suggest is that you jump out whenever some clueless clod stuffs you into one.

I wish you all the best with that novel.

Hanna said...

Hey Brenda, you are a feminist! For sure, I know one when I read one, and I enjoy your writing! :-)

Take care now!