Being a Man Writing About Women’s Books

Diane Shipley asked us last week whether we would consider spending a year reading only books by women. The Year of Reading Women project has become a huge talking point, yet the Vida statistics show that in the accustomed snafu little progress has been made in balancing the media’s gendered coverage of the literary world.

lf3-print-trees(the book I’m currently getting excited about – Roz Morris’ literary dystopia, lifeform three)

For me, it is this that represents the real challenge – the representation of books by women in places like this rather than the actual reading of them. Putting the focus onto reading seems like a rather handy arrogation of responsibility on the media’s part.

I very much believe that where we find discursive barriers we should make ourselves into bulldozers. I have always tried, as a literary organiser and promoter, to create shows and programmes that go beyond the gender-imbalanced norms. On the other hand, the Vida statistics show not only the lack of representation of women’s books, but the lack of women in the media doing the writing about those books.

So, as a male commentator, I feel a natural conflict. Is it my place to write about books by women? Or is it my place to insist I am removed from public spaces and my place taken by a female commentator? I am very aware of the difficult position of “ally” in modern intersectional thought on diversity in all areas (and I’m extremely grateful to the author Christina Springer for sharing this great article. My own experience of being “on the receiving end” of allies comes in the sphere of mental health where I frequently come across organisations box-ticking their engagement duties by enlisting spokespeople to explain things on behalf of those of us who have mental health disabilities. I feel the bristle as they open their mouths and utter something that bears no relation at all to my experience yet leaves everyone seemingly contented that I have been duly “represented” with the result that I’m silenced twice over – by my “ally” and by the fact that their intervention means the space for further discourse is now closed. So I know that whenever I open my keyboard to tap out words on the matter of women in literature I am, at least in some part, not ameliorating but becoming part of the problem.

DesecrationSmall3D(the last book I read that I loved, Desecration by Joanna Penn)

So do I stay silent, or do I speak, or do I just shimmy round the subject and stick to the safer ground of writing about the things I’m expected to write about? The last of these is a non-starter. Experience tells me it’s a simple matter of taste that I prefer books written by women. It would be strange to write about books and omit so many those I love best in the spheres I write about most – the poetry of Vanessa Kisuule, Claire Trevien and Adelle Stripe, the literary fiction of Banana Yoshimoto and Elfriede Jelinek, the self-published surrealities of Lucy Furlong, Penny Goring, and Anna Fennel Hughes, the inspirational blogs and books of Viv Tuffnell, everything to do with the wonderful website For Books’ Sake.

(the brilliant poet, Claire Trevien, with whom I’ll be performing at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival)

What I have done hitherto has been simply to reflect my tastes in my commentaries. I have promoted works I truly believe in by writers I love. I have talked about those works that provide taking off points for the themes and questions that matter to me. I have put on shows featuring performers whose words and style I love.

But Diane’s post has foregrounded a feeling that was always there, an inkling nudging me annoyingly in the shoulder going “oi, oi” and shrugging an “oh you know” every time I dare to shout “What?!” The feeling that I’m doing something political, and that it doesn’t always leave my mouth tasting of honey.

I have always known that what I speak about is political. It’s a choice. A choice made in a highly charged context of cultural discourse. It couldn’t not be political. And yet I have always sided myself loudly and overtly with those marginalised by mental health issues and let that whisper me sweet reassurances that I was doing it OK because mental health disability is an outsiderdom I’m firmly inside.

It’s comforting to construct these narratives for ourselves. If we close our eyes and listen to them (a telling metaphor in all its resonances) we can almost pretend intersectionality doesn’t exist. And yet it does. I am spoken for by those who silence my disability, and yet when I do speak I do so as a white male. When I write about women’s writing, I speak for them as those I resent speak for me. I can no longer pretend to myself that I’m just doing “good politics” and neatly avoiding “bad politics.”

So what’s the answer? I’m sure many readers will be wondering “what, you mean there’s a question?” Questions of intersectionality and allyship usually raise those responses. And they make the first part of my answer simple – if, next time an article like this appears, more people are at least aware that there’s a problem when men write well-meaningly about women and fewer people shrug “what problem?” then I’ll have done something right.

img_0246(Anna Percy, the brilliant poet who co-runs with Rebecca Audra Smith and Sara Ellis Stirred Poetry, Manchester’s fabulous night of pro-women inclusive spoken word)

The real answer, I think, is that just as it is impossible to speak unpolitically so it is impossible to speak from a position that is beyond reproach. We all speak from a privileged position of some kind. Our words will always exert power over someone, muffle the voice of someone. So the answer is not silence, or we would all be silenced. And the answer is not good intentions. Good intentions neither affect power networks nor the impact of our words. As much of an answer as I can give is to be as aware as possible of where we stand in these incalculably complex networks, to make way wherever possible for those voices our own voice silences, to acknowledge those voices that have shaped our own, and to create channels where we can for those voices to speak and be heard. Most of all I think the answer is for us not to believe we have the answer but to listen and learn to have the many possible answers spoken by those in a position to give.

I welcome any suggestions as to further answers to the issues raised. I also welcome any women writers whose works would interest readers of this blog to talk about them here.

54 thoughts on “Being a Man Writing About Women’s Books

  1. It is always compelling to read an author who not only holds a view ( in this case about the condescension and imbalance that women’s writing suffers) but goes further to explore the dangers of correcting, or believing it can be corrected. As a long term subscriber to Mslexia ( which name is derived from all of the above) I recently abandoned it; the special pleading that seemed to underlie almost everything written had ground my teeth to stumps. The odour of sanctity was as strong as those samples of Calvin Klein under a rip-off tab for men, and the sense that Mslexia was answering a call, or filling a void was as attractive as the persistent barking of a chained up dog.

    The hypocrisy of taking any kind of stand, and feeling virtuous makes condescension more, not less apparent. Yet I am guilty of surrender to the status quo. I was persuaded that my book about science would never be lifted by a man if it bore the name I rather like. Instead JK (Rowling’s) solution of initials only (P.A.) would deceive until their response ( good, bad or indifferent) was a consequence not a prejudice. Being ‘as good as’ or ‘better than’ was an option, a windmill to tilt at, and if I have to dupe to sharpen a lance, so be it. As Dan understands above, I don’t want anyone to plead for me, as a writer, or join a quorum that represents anything other than my right to enter an uneven race, and run it, until it becomes an even one.

    It goes without saying that the sisterhood does not thank me either!

  2. Philip, I too have had issues with Mslexia. Here was a magazine telling me, a woman, that I was under-represented, that it hoped to represent me one way or another. And then, very early on in its existence, it began publishing a lot of stuff by established women writers. And I mean, VERY established women writers e.g. Fay Weldon. I saw that my poems and reviews were more likely to be accepted by all those other magazines that do not identify overtly as champions of women. The condescension runs deep. I was once phoned by a member of the Mslexia staff; she couldn’t get hold of me first time round, I was probably tending to one of my 3 children, one of whom is disabled. When she got hold of me, she told me very firmly that I really ought to have an answer-phone “so that agents can get hold of you.” She presumed I was a newbie: I wasn’t. She presumed I needed to have an agent; I didn’t. Many prose-writers now need to have an agent; lots of poets don’t have them. I got fed up with all the special pleading, yes. And the favouring of the in-crowd. And the in-crowd presuming they knew all about my life. Also, there’s a tendency running through Mslexia to presume that poetry is just another genre; it isn’t. And that’s enough semi-colons for one post! Rant over. I don’t subscribe to Mslexia any more.

    • It’s a real shame when a mouthpiece on the one hand claims to give a group a voice and then on the other creates a clique that further disenfranchises many within that group

      • It just didn’t work for me, Dan. Basically, I have issues with any kind of ghettoized magazine, however honorable its intentions might be. I don’t want my poems to appear in a man-free zone, any more than I want them to appear in a mag that is only for white people, or only for people who live in cities, or only for people within a certain age-range. It’s the collisions that make life the interesting thing that it is, surely?

  3. Reblogged this on luvsiesous and commented:

    Dan is a difficult read. He makes some good points, although I think many of his good points are overshadowed by his bad points.

    He is writing about why female writers suffer from gender issues.

    OK, we ALL suffer from gender issues, not just women, and not just female authors.

    But, the irony of his blog post, and this irony makes me wonder WHY it was selected for ‘Freshly Pressed,” is simple.

    Dan got bogged down trying to describe and decide which is better, to remain an ally of women, or demand that men be replaced by women.

    What happened to the old days? When we all got along? All of this gender bashing is NOT helping US, nor is it helping women. As I have blogged repeatedly, women are abused at INSANE rates today. This new era of “you must belong to a special group before we will hire you, promote you, talk to you,” is destroying America. IMHO.

    What do you think?


    • Wayne, Those good old days when everyone got along never happened. What was happening was that lots of women were being abused (especially in the home) and people, if they knew about it, trivialised it and ignored it. A woman beaten or raped by her husband was told, often by the police, “It takes two to make an argument”, and (by others) “You’ve made your bed, lie on it” and the good old chestnut “Marriage is a sacred bond.” Women being abused at an insane rate is nothing new. I don’t see any gender-bashing in Dan’s piece, or endorsement of gender-bashing. And please do not attempt to speak for women, that is an impertinence. I am not seeking to speak for all women, I am writing of what was (and is) a frequent occurrence. One which affects males too, by the way. Speak to any man who as a child witnessed violence like this against his mother.

      • Sheila, criminal behavior has always happened. I am not trying to trivialize that.

        But, the promise we were made by Feminist propaganda is that they would FIX THIS if we followed the progressive way.

        Well, it HAS GOTTEN WORSE.


        • You’re right, Mary. When someone uses phrases like “feminist propaganda” and “gay agenda” they are beyond being reasoned with. Except to say, Wayne, in Britain at least rape within marriage was not a crime until 1991. Men could rape their wives with complete impunity. And I don’t suppose the situation was much different in the United States.

          • That’s a really terrifying fact, isn’t it? When we think of “bad things” as being “in the past” we need to remember things like that – during my adult life there was a time when rape within marriage wasn’t considered a crime. And of course, on a global scale, we only need to turn on the news to know that there are so many fights we might like, when we’re cosseted in the comfort of a coffee shop with our cosmopolitan friends, to think are “won now” that are only at the very start.

    • Wayne thanks so much for reblogging and opening up teh debate over there – I’ll go and take a look at any comments and try and answer any questions commenters have.

      It’s interesting to get a US perspective (my background is in the UK but obviously I’m aware of the controversy on this issue that the likes of Franzen spark).

      There’s a whole other post in your comment “we ALL suffer from gender issues” – I know, for example, many of my trans friends are deeply upset with the way they feel mainstream feminsim has a very cisgendered privilege. That’s something I started to think about in the last paragraph.

      I tink probably we have never “all got along” – the thing is that “getting along” will always mean that those whose privileges are fewer and whose sense of self is more marginalised will always have to compromise more in order to maintain a state of “getting along” than those who fit more with the prevailing society. There are several areas where I consider myself to be an outsider to society, but many more where I accept that I am in a position of privilege. I think those of us who are in that position should always seek to compromise a little bit more of ourselves so that those who are more marginalised by prevailing society need compromise a little less. How we do that is the question I’m asking

      • Thank you Dan!

        That may be the most powerful comment I have read, and it opened up my eyes.

        And if I may, wouldn’t “whose sense of self is more marginalised will always have to compromise more” ….. more often than not be, “Those who have marginalized their sense of self worth always end up compromising more?”

        Isn’t self-worth the biggest issue facing people on the margins?


      • Dan,

        You got my mind spinning around at 400 ktias (knots indicated air speed). About 445 mph, or around 770 km/h. I am already thinking about 5 or 6 scenarios in my mind to relate to this.


  4. Books. Are the books good? That’s the only question for a reviewer. Yes, there’s a problem with representation in publishing. And television. And film. Yes, it needs to be sorted. But do I need to be told “Here’s a good book by a woman”? No. Maybe that’s because I’m not some cro-magnon idiot who decides what to read based on the perceived gender of the author. If there ARE people out there who say things like “I only read books by men”, then I hope they prove Darwin right, because they’re too stupid to reproduce.

  5. Damien, did you read recently of the Canadian professor (the name slips my mind, unfortunately) who does only read books by men? Or, at least, he only teaches books that are by men. He said, and I quote, “I only teach men, serious heterosexual men.” Yes, that’s stupid allright, I quite agree. But I don’t think that has stopped hium reproducing. I hope his children have noticed that he is a prat, though. 😉

  6. I’d love to know what would happen if all of our groceries were labelled by the gender of the producer. Should it matter to you if your potatoes were grown by a man or a woman? Would you judge the vegetable in question based on that knowledge? 😉 x

  7. I think the argument, Lisa, is that women are under-represented in mainstream publishing, and are reviewed less often in mainstream newspapers and other media outlets. Some people seek out women’s voices deliberately as a way of acknowledging that fact.

    • Maybe it boils down to the simpler survival issue of ‘not wanting to upset the applecart’ between the sexes. No commissioning editor or television reviewer wants to come home after a highly-strung public debate, to find their supper on the pavement outside, or bits of motorcycle engine on the walnut coffee table… or even a note from their parents, saying they’ve gone to live abroad and are spending the inheritance, thank you very much 🙂 But I agree, because I had a body piercing done to acknowledge female physical disempowerment in other cultures. So I went to ‘seek out’ their pain and identify with it. I was having a weird day…

    • But vastly over represented in mainstream TV. Can you imagine a chatty informal TV show predominantly by and about men’s issues? Or a sitcom where the woman is an self centred, immature burden who does not pull her weight and the man is the mature and responsible one of the two, who’s always rushed of his feet attending to his family’s needs and wants?

      So I guess it’s swings and roundabouts….

      As the saying goes “men win the argument to win the crowd, while women win the crowd to win the argument”

      A broad generalisation of course, but the distribution of men and women across various media platforms does tend to support this nevertheless.

      • I don’t like those sitcoms either. But this discussion is about books. That women are over-represented in chatty tv programmes is of no help to women under-represented in serious literature.

        • I realise I’m labouring the point here but….. if TV had more intellectual and abstract content (stereotypically male) and less touchy-feely and practical content (stereotypically female) then maybe the public would be more inclined to dive into literature – and have the attention spans to do it – thus giving the industry a boost for everyone (men and women).

          But on the other hand, seeing as how TV is determined to present the most shallow and idiotic sides of both men and women the best thing is to just let TV die its death – drowned in its own excrement.

          TBH I don’t know enough about the world of serious publishing to really have an opinion. But I would imagine a lot of would-be writers are using the web, either to self publish (in the hope of eventually getting a deal), or just write/ blog etc to satisfy their creative outlet, without really pursuing a career seriously (unless it sort of ‘happened’). And I would imagine women would be more inclined to follow these paths than men, who would tend to stick more with the old model more. But I could be talking rubbish.

          If publishing is getting as desperate as TV, newspapers and the music industry then all investment will be focused on sure fire, short term, minimal risk returns, sensationalism, trusted formulas and ‘branding’ … all of which is bad news for anyone wanting to have serious, quality literature published.

          So if women are not breaking through maybe it’s a sign of greater artistic integrity….?

          Again, I’m just thinking out loud, I have no idea really 🙂

          • Yes, you really haven’t much of an idea. I find your own views of men and women rather stereotypical, in fact. The presumption that I, simply by virtue of being a woman, will be satisfied with self-publishing on the web, viewing my writing as some cute little hobby. . .while all those men will be actually trying to have a career because that’s what men do. We’re not in the Victorian age anymore, you know.

            • “..I find your own views of men and women rather stereotypical, in fact…”

              The fact that I referred to those traits as *stereotypically* male/ female was a clue that they are not my own views.

              Don’t forget I also said “TV is determined to present the most shallow and idiotic sides of both men and women”

              “…The presumption that I, simply by virtue of being a woman, will be satisfied with self-publishing on the web, viewing my writing as some cute little hobby. …”

              Again, you’ve presumed an insult where there was none intended (perhaps my fault). Actually I view self publishing on the web (for free or for money) as being totally legit and serious. Or rather, it is as serious or as casual an endeavour as the writer intends it to be.

              Conversely, I do not view being published by established publishers as carrying any inherent prestige or worth.

              Self publishing generally means you have not had to censor your writing or brand yourself to fit with the tastes, values and agendas of other people. I view self publishing as a far more ‘noble’ route.

              And I also don’t think publishing for free (including the humble blog) means it can only be a hobby – unless that’s all someone wants it to be (which is fine).

              It’s funny how writing – which can be a deeply personal, emotional and soulful activity – is so often deemed unworthy or trivial unless we are doing it for money, typically via a middle man…. you’d think it would be the other way around.

              IMHO the best in music, philosophy, news, current affairs and science comes in the form of self published content on the web and tends to work on a free/ donation based model. I can only imagine this is where the future of literature lies too.

              Here’s an example of a self published philosopher who’s philosophy books, podcasts (50,000,000 downloads to date) and videos are all free. It’s 100% donation based with no advertising LINK My question would be: who needs publishers these days?

              So rather than being somehow demeaning, I believe these web based/ self published models are the future. In the age of the internet there is no need for monolithic publishing houses who can call all the shots. We’re not in the Victorian age anymore, you know (couldn’t resist, sorry).

              My point about women being more inclined to take this route than men was simply based on the observation that serious career writers (or just serious writers) tend to be over, say 30, and that among this age group women seem to be more prevalent on the internet than men ….. as bloggers and writers and social networkers. To self publish on the web typically means to self promote too, and so those who are the most web savvy are going to be more inclined to give it a go.

              Sorry if I appeared to be insulting all women and/ or self publishers. I actually meant the opposite, but never mind, I hope I cleared that up 🙂

            • If anyone can put up anything online and call it “poetry” or “short fiction”, then it can be complete rubbish. And it often is. Published stuff can be rubbish too, of course, but at least it has gone through a process and been seen by outsiders, not just the writer’s family anf friends who wish to please. I don’t think “noble” comes into it.

            • Publishers are hugely invested in promoting the works they publish, whether they are rubbish or not. People on the web have little to no investment in the works they come across on the web (be they free or paid), and tend to only promote or endorse that which they genuinely consider worthy.

              Self publishers earn every reader they get, hence the ‘noble’ aspect. Being published typically guarantees a certain level of success, which means the writer only had to win over the publishers, who’s motivations are money (what sells, what is easiest to brand and market in an increasingly fragmented marketplace, what is already familiar to the public etc)….. actual good literature may be very low down on the publisher’s list of priorities.

  8. On the suggestion of a friend I bought a subscription to Myslexia, a number of years ago now. I did read the first copy that arrived but as a result, none of the rest of the year’s consignment made it out of the brown paper envelope. I felt deeply uncomfortable with it. I also felt it had nothing whatsoever to offer me; it felt, sorry to say, like a cop-out. I’m a woman by accident and if I were completely honest, offered a choice I would not choose it.

    • In short, for me, it was that tone of “We are providing an invaluable service for all women that they can’t get anywhere else” that did it. And the complete inability to see how patronising that message is.

      • That, too. I don’t like being put in a box either. It was a waste of however many quid a year’s subscription was then. A writer is a writer; gender ought never be a factor.

  9. Wow, thank you everyone for the further comments – a huge amount to think about.
    Wayne – thank you – I do think one’s sense of self-worth is a key issue – I think we probably differ on what causes – I think it’s much easier to be comfortable with our identity when we see it reflected back at us everywhere and never have to consider it an issue
    TCW – yes, I think that’s essential for any good reviewer – I think that it’s also essential for us to recognise that we’ll inevitably fail because we can try to be sensitive but we never *can* enter someone else’s mins – I think many problems arise when we think we have done so, and so stop questioning ourselves – that’s when we end up speaking *for* people most crudely
    Viv – that’s exact;y what Ann would say about Mslexia 🙂
    Abdul – I have to say that is a truly excellent beard, certainly outdoes mine 🙂

    • very interesting list (intrigued at the choice of Norwegian Wood amongst other Murakamis – it fits with Catcher in the Rye etc but I would have thought maybe Dance Dance Dance would fit the list more? And another Murakami, Ryu, would be a great addition – In the Miso Soup alongside Fight Club maybe?)- but I see what you mean about the balance! Whilst I love many of the books on the list, they’d probably mainly be on my top of the second division rather than my absolute favourites – Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, some Ursula Le Guin, Dubravka Ugresic’s Ministry of Pain, Josephine Hart’s Damage, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon would be a great start

  10. Here’s an interesting historical point, Dan – I’ve just been given a trunk full of memories collected by a woman who lived and worked (and wrote) through both World Wars, kept by her family for all these years, with a view to writing a screenplay of her life for them to sell. The old newspapers she kept are full of reviews of books written by women and reviewed by women, and the newspapers were full of women journalists too. This was essentially due to the draft, where many men who might have been writing were away fighting instead. Readers were in no way short of women’s voices in the first half of the last century. Authors like Agatha Christie basically had little competition during that time. But I wouldn’t say the actual sacrifice of men from the face of the Earth was worth it. Overall in that time period, the suffragettes had gotten exactly what they wished for – to do men’s work and be recognised for it. However, due to the human cost, the audience was also estimated to consist primarily of women, and women are still approximately 60% of the consumer figures of crime fiction this century (stats source: HarperCollins Crime Fiction Workshop, 2010). L x

  11. I also had this thought before when I planned to write a novel in which the main character is a female. I thought of how I can make the voice of the story teller sounds more feminine. But I ended up sounding neutral. I think it’s hard but it may take a lot of time to develop it. It depends on the writers characterization and how he buildup the characters. Nice topic, BTW.

  12. Gender politics hurts my head. I believe in women’s rights (which really are just human rights, as quite a few much smarter people before me have already said) and I read what I like to read, whether it was written by a man or a woman. As far as that goes, I wouldn’t take up Diane Shipley on her challenge, just because I’m in the middle of a novel written by a man and I’m not willing to put it down for a year.

    I do tend to read stuff written by men more often than by women, but only in the area of novels. I read plenty of histories and other sorts of works written by women. I can’t really say why this is. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. It might come down to preferring a man’s style of writing more than a woman’s, but I’m not sure there’s even such a thing as a “man’s style” and a “woman’s style” of writing. Maybe it has to do with identifying more with a man’s mindset than with a woman’s. But I don’t even know if that’s necessarily true. See, this is all too confusing.

  13. I recommend Alice Notley (poet) and the book in particular: Culture Of One which was recommended to me by a man, in case anybody cares. Everyone can agree that she is a well established writer writing on her own terms. Her voice is a unique and distinctive one and her writing is not bound by any rules. I hope you enjoy her brilliant work and share it with everyone you encounter! I also recommend the poet Jay Macphearson, and in particular the collection Poems Twice Told: the Boatman & Welcoming Disaster. She was a writing professor and mentor of the writer Margaret Atwood, who wrote the Handmaid’s Tale. Bill Moyers has a wonderful interview with Atwood on his Faith and Reason blog where I first learned about Macpherson, sadly after her death.
    A male writer who was profoundly deft at depicting “mental health”, is David Foster Wallace, and in particular the book, Infinite Jest, which is hard to take but irrefutable. The same man who recommended Alice Notely to me, shared DFW with me. Gender does not get in our way. Happy reading to all!

  14. Pingback: The Darker Side Of The Dreaming Spires With Dan Holloway | Love Thrillers with a Supernatural Edge?

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