On women and fiction

The majority of the writers I know are women. They write soft, reflective pieces on family, or love, or loss. They write dark, salty, humorous pieces, that shock and challenge. They write about politics, and sex, and friendships, and the million and one frustrations that can interrupt a life.  They write sci-fi, and fantasy, and memoir, and literary fiction, and across genres and through boundaries. And yet – do they write “women’s fiction”?

There are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special “women’s fiction,” designation – Roxanne Gay

There’s this myth that the words written by women can only be read and enjoyed by those who happen to share their gender. I remember the first time I encountered this belief: in my first year as an undergraduate in a literature program, a fellow (male) student told me he didn’t read women authors as they didn’t “have anything to say to him.” I witnessed it in the 20th Century American Women Writer’s Course in which the only guy taking it admitted that he’d only done so because he had the hots for the (female) professor. I’ve heard it in every conversation with male literary-type friends, where they list of their favourite authors and fail to mention a single woman. 

It’s not to blame individual men or berate them for some personal failure. The issue exists on a such cultural level, in which we are all conditioned to consider men as the universal. The whole world is mediated for us through primarily male (and primarily white, able-bodied, cis, heterosexual) eyes. When it came to constructing literature curricula, no-one ever thought to ask if young women could stomach the stodgy diet of primarily male authors we are fed: it is assumed that male writers speak to those universal, human truths that male and female readers will respond to.

Female writers only write for women.

I hate how woman has become a bad word. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from, “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. – Roxanne Gay

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m currently devouring Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist at the moment. Her essay “Beyond the Measure of Men” (which was first published in The Rumpus) is a wonderful examination of the issue. And I agree with her – I don’t want to be ashamed of being a woman who writes whatever I damn well want to. Internalized sexism is the worst waste of time, and I want no part of it.

And yet – as a woman who is just taking her first steps into sending her writing out in the world, I cringe at the thought of it being pigeonholed. I want to reach all kinds of readers. I dream of my work being read with diverse perspectives, and re-imagined in ways I might never have dreamed of. I feel upset at the thought of the work of my many talented writerly friends being dismissed as lesser than on the basis of their gender. I’m sad for the “male-only” readers who are missing out on so much. I’m downcast by the annual Vida Count.

It’s women’s history month this month, and International Women’s Day is March 8th. Each year, the organizers of IWD pick a theme, and in 2015 it is: make it happen. Three words, so full of hope. Make. It. Happen.

In honour of women’s history month, I’m pledging to spend March using my little corner of the internet to celebrate the writing of women, and sharing thoughts related to women and writing more generally. These are small steps, a modest commitment to join my voice to the chorus. But this is the power of a movement – when individuals voluntarily join their time, effort and energies to the collective.

We are not powerless. We can write the best stories and books we know how, the kind of books we always dreamed we would write, without fear or self-censorship. We can challenge those who would dismiss women’s writing. We can read and share the work of women writers, vocally support the work of women we admire. We can make it happen.

Image credit: Kikashi

6 thoughts on “On women and fiction

  1. Glaiza

    I will definitely join in celebrating the stories of amazing female writers. This cultural bias reminds me of how deep it can run because reinforcing biases can start early. E.g. Shannon Hale, a female YA author gave a talk at a school on writing books but the boys were banned from attending it because the administration thought her stories wouldn’t be relevant to them. Male authors don’t encounter that problem: http://shannonhale.tumblr.com/post/112152808785/no-boys-allowed-school-visits-as-a-woman-writer

    1. ailsaclare

      Great point! It’s so frustrating to think how the very people who should be opening children’s minds to new experiences and ideas are instead just reinforcing stereotypes.

  2. efrussel

    Well, WELL said.

    We need to stop treating the gender divide AS a divide in this country (and world, for that matter). I might venture that female writers might sometimes have DIFFERENT things to say than male–but when did different become a bad thing, and when did it become so stereotyped? We all have different things to say, and it has very little to do with gender.

    As a woman who writes action-heavy and extremely nonslushy epic fantasy, I have to admit: this is something that’s concerned me for a while. I proudly consider my books ‘women’s fiction’ just as much as I might ‘men’s fiction’ (though, funny, you don’t hear THAT term used as often), but when I’ve talked to friends about it, even female friends, I’m told repeatedly that I’m wrong, that’s not the sort of stuff ‘women’s fiction’ is about.

    Why not? I’m a woman. It’s the sort of stuff I’M all about.

    Anyway, glad I dropped by. This is a worthy thing to talk about. Congratulations on your decision and good luck on the journey. 🙂

    1. ailsaclare

      Yes, I completely agree – of course some women will love action epic fantasy, and some men will love slushy romances! Dividing along arbitrary gender lines just seems to deny the full diversity of our interests. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Pingback: Our voices made quiet | AILSA BRISTOW

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