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Do men really write better than women?


BelljarfirsteditionThe lingering myth that women’s writing is ‘gendered’ hurts all readers.

It was the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice last month.

Austen, now one of Britain’s most well known and loved authors, was very nearly overlooked – like most women writers of the 19th century… and the 20th.

Today, Austen is one of 51 female writers in our high school National English Curriculum – on a list that includes 148 men.

We teach about ten male Nobel laureates, but just two female.

When it comes to literature, we are still teaching our children that a man’s voice is better.

Male writers are neutral, genderless, timeless; women writers are just that, women.

Although Norman Mailer’s infamous admonishment of women’s writing as ‘Quaintsy… frigid… [or] stillborn’ was printed in the 1950s, the sentiment is still very much alive.

In 2011, Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul caused a storm when he dismissed women’s writing as inescapably handicapped by ‘sentimentality’.

Yes, that was 2011.

In his view, no woman in history is his equal, not even Jane Austen.

From high school reading lists to leading literary magazines, the idea is reinforced that the ‘heavy hitters’ are men and that topics associated with men are of intrinsically more value.

Men write most literary reviews, and, unsurprisingly, they mostly review books by other men.

In last month’s 50th anniversary edition of the pre-eminent New York Review of Books (NYRB) just a third of reviewers, and a quarter of the reviewed, were women.

And if this internalized perception was not enough, however, marketing does the rest.

The publishing industry suffers – badly – from an unimaginative case of “girls like pink, boys like blue”.

As Fatima Ahmed of the London Review of Books recently observed, we are increasingly ‘treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover’.

The idea of a gendered cover has recently received much media attention in light of the controversial rebranding of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

In this case, publishers reduced the novel from serious fiction to what is referred to as ‘chick-lit’ with a photo cover depicting a woman doing her make-up.

The book is the story of a woman’s descent into mental illness; lipstick and powder doesn’t really come into it.

In any way whatsoever.

However, Plath’s book is just one of many receiving the ‘pink’ treatment.

Books by women are invariably marketed as romantic, domestic or ‘girly’.

Female writers regularly struggle to break through the chick-lit barrier their cover restricts them to.

These consistently include ‘effeminate’ script and domestic or romantic imagery of varying degrees of subtlety: a rose, a tea set, a girl in a garden.

Men, as a rule, still don’t pick up swirly, sparkly or otherwise lady-branded books, no matter how well respected the author.

Marvel Comics, which has a largely male client base, recognises this.

Their series on ‘She-Hulk’, chronicling the exploits of a strong, intelligent super heroine, has long been illustrated by She-Hulk’s pornified form bursting through the page.

But now there’s a girls’ version, adorned with a stick of lipstick.

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that although women read books by both men and women, men rarely reciprocate.

Over the last twenty years, women novelists have made up 34 per cent of winners for top literary awards – namely the Nobel, Pen, Man Booker, Pulitzer, and Costa Awards.

This is a significant increase on the previous twenty years.

In 2012, all five Costa Book Prizes went to women, as did the prestigious Man Booker and Pen/Faulkner Awards. We also took home the last Pulitzer for Fiction.

These prizes show how public pressure and awareness have made it impossible for the publishing industry and its affiliates to simply overlook women’s contributions.

However the continued stereotyping of female novels and their readers not only means that men are, by and large, missing out on some of the greatest fiction being produced today, but also reflects a broader perception of women and girls as simple and superficial.

We can change this.

It’s estimated that women buy 60 to 70 per cent of novels, so let us speak with our feet – and our wallets.

We must champion the great works of women in schools and through prizes, encourage booksellers to carry gender-neutral covers, and make a stink when women’s books are given ridiculous, reductionist covers.

That would be a good start.

  1. The Plath cover was a travesty. But I loathe chick lit as a genre; I detest sickly plots that are about nothing but relationships (between wise, sassy women and silly useless men) and “finding yourself”. One poetry teacher I know talks about poets being “blokes” or “chicks” and it doesn’t correlate with gender. It’s shorthand for the issues they engage with, the robustness of language, the use of the specific rather than the abstract. As well as the measures you advocate (the covers thing!), many women writers need to engage with less insipid storylines, IMHO.

    • I’d agree to a point; however, underlying attitudes towards men and women play a huge part when we’re judging novels: when women authors write about the domestic arena – relationships, family etc – the books are categorised as ‘mummy porn’, ‘chick lit’, ‘aga sagas’ etc. When male authors write about the same things (or indeed about anything), their books are not ‘categorised’ at all – they’re just ‘fiction’. When men do write about relationships, reviewers inevitably seem to find that they’re actually not just about relationships at all, but are really about some universal truth simply being illustrated by the depiction of a relationship.

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