On Being a Female Writer

The other day, I was required to read Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women” and A Room of One’s Own for my Women and Autonomy class.  I’ve read them both several times over the course of my schooling, but after publishing, I think they resonated more.  Both pieces discuss the issues and hindrances women have in the world, particularly the writing/publishing world, and despite the works being written about eighty years ago, I think a lot of the problems still persist.

Woolf discusses the prejudice women face when writing because the literary canon is male-dominated.  The publishing world was established by men, for male works, and often the only way for women to enter that field is through subversion.  In the 19th century, the Bronte sisters wrote as the Bell brothers in order to publish their works, and today, writers like J.K. Rowling use initials when publishing in fields that are “not for women,” like science fiction and high fantasy.  If Rowling was writing romance, chick lit, or bodice-rippers, then she could have easily used Joanna Rowling, but because she was writing a story about a young boy in a magical setting, her publishers believed her book wouldn’t sell as well with a woman’s name on the front. Pfft, I mean, women don’t write fantasy well, right? She adopted the initials J.K., which relate back to her real name, but they also harken back to J.R.R. Tolkein, one of the fathers of the fantasy genre.  When Rowling decided to branch out into crime novels, she switched pseudonyms to a outright male name.  Why would she do that if her name is already famous and would draw crowds? Well, crime fiction is another genre where women are often kicked to the curb.  Unless you’re someone like P.D. James (neutral pseudonym) or Sue Grafton (whose female detective hit me as a man masquerading as a woman), you will probably not be taken seriously. To break into this genre, Rowling and/or her publishers believed she had to be a man to do so.

Sadly, I have seen this in real life.  At a book fair, we were rained out, so I was parked inside next to a huge table of female romance writers.  As people walked past my table where I sat with my boyfriend (who came as a second set of hands and a coffee-runner), they asked about my little brown book… to my boyfriend.  Quite a few people thought he was the author.  I wondered why, especially when I was the one trying to engage customers. Did they think I was some lackluster Vanna White? My hypothesis is that my little brown steampunk novel is not what one would expect from a female writer. No stock photos of women in ballgowns or half-naked couples, which is what people seem to expect from female authors.

I recently read an article saying that in the New York Times’ book review section, books by men make up sixty-something percent of the reviews.  Why would there be such a disparity?  Men’s work couldn’t possibly be that much better than women’s writing, but the explanation may lie in what the New York Times deems worthy of review, literary fiction.  The definition they are using of literary fiction is a novel that doesn’t fit any genre conventions (no wizards, no space travel, no steam-powered devices, and no straight up romance. Plot vs. character driven is irrelevant at this point). It seems men write genre fiction and women do not. This little tiff between lit and genre can be seen in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant and how he made the comment that it wasn’t fantasy and that his previous book wasn’t scifi when the book had elements of it.  Ishiguro is automatically a literary fiction writer despite the fantastical elements in his work while a writer like Ursula Le Guin openly states her books are scifi.

Why is Le Guin okay with her books being “genre” fiction while Ishiguro isn’t? Because genre fiction is the niche women have carved for themselves over the last century.  Even though men still dominate certain genres, women authors are more likely to be found in the genre categories of Amazon than men. Even though amazing authors like Le Guin, Rowling, and Rice write in this area, the canon and literati consider it lesser than “literary” fiction.

The same is emerging with self-publishing. More women are self-publishing than men.  Why? Because they can subvert the traditional publishing industry, which has not been as open to them as it has been for men, and self-publishing is the niche where they can succeed.  Strangely, Woolf self-published all those years ago.  She had the right idea, and it’s lasted until today.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “On Being a Female Writer

  1. These are definitely important issues that need to be spoken about — and often. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think self-publishing has been great for women authors. As someone who intends to traditionally publish, I also find it of equal importance that women continue to push and strive for equality in the traditional field, as well as strengthening presence in the indie world. And I absolutely agree with you on the genre bias. Men are always looked to as more literary, which I find ridiculous. And even within genre fiction, works from female authors seem to be limited to a female audience. I don’t know if you saw Shannon Hale’s post about this, but you should read it if you haven’t. http://shannonhale.tumblr.com/post/112152808785/no-boys-allowed-school-visits-as-a-woman-writer

    Thanks again for this post. Important stuff!

    • Kara Jorgensen

      Wow, that is incredibly depressing. I was planning on writing a post later about “chick lit,” but I definitely think it fits with that article. Women can read about men because they are seen as important. Men don’t have to read about women because women don’t matter. Their issues don’t matter. I always think of Jane Eyre when she reminds Rochester she is a human being with feelings. I think we forget that women have feelings that matter and we forget that men have feelings that aren’t happiness and anger.

      • Absolutely. And I always think of that Jane Eyre passage, too. It’s always a mistake to underestimate human beings — we are incredibly complex creatures, all of us. It’s just so poignant in writing, and I feel so bad for boys that are socialized into thinking they cannot and should not seek to understand women.

      • Kara Jorgensen

        Agreed. Boys are also taught not to empathize which upholds the warrior mentality and “ideal” of masculinity. Neither gender should be shoved into molds that only can cause them harm.

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