It’s a tale as old as—well for me, this blog. Overall, books written by women are not given the same attention as books written by men. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t something I paid attention to until I was on my quest to become a published author. I’ve always read books by men and women. Mostly women. When I tried to decide (in that “you must know what you write before you query” frenzy) what I was writing, the term women’s fiction made sense. I mostly write about women. Likely about topics of interest to women. Now, I know that men have read The Glass Wives and enjoyed it, appreciated it. Even men not related to me.
Obviously, I don’t mind the term women’s fiction. I always used it as a way to describe what I write until I started also using the term book club fiction. I never saw the term as an emblem of righteous indignation. Yet, the facts that author Katie O’Rourke brings to light below, are troubling. And the fact that books of all kinds by women (women don’t just write women’s fiction, shocking, I know!) don’t get the reviews and acclaim—or are even considered for it—is troubling.
Many thanks to Katie O’Rourke for wanting to share her thoughts here. Please share yours in the comments.
Sexism and Books By and About Women
Many female authors bristle at the label “women’s fiction” for the same reason Wikipedia users were upset last year when all novels written by women were segregated from those writers whose gender was deemed irrelevant to their writing: men. Why isn’t there a ‘men’s fiction’? Because men have determined that to be the default.
In one of my favorite reviews of Sue Miller, she’s described as writing about “families and marriages, infidelity and divorce — what we call ‘literary fiction’ when men write about those things.”
Though women’s writing doesn’t get the same respect, the reason it doesn’t hurt sales is that most book buyers are women, a fact that makes the predominance of male reviewers even more bizarre.
Whenever I read an article about sexism in contemporary literature, I’m frustrated by what seems to be missing from the conversation. To me, all these issues are connected and they have to do with the way girls and boys are taught how to read.
During the four years of my public high school education, I was assigned close to twenty novels. Only two of them were written by women: Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird. A British lady from the 1800s and a ten year old American girl from the 1930s are representing all of female human experience. It’s a heavy burden.
The books I was assigned in school are the same books my parents were assigned, the same books they’re assigning today. I’ve been told this isn’t sexist; it’s a product of the sexism of the past. Classic literature must stand the test of time.
Certainly, there were fewer women being published in the 1900s and I don’t suggest we whitewash history to pretend otherwise. But when we create a mandatory reading list for children, why are we focusing on this time period, perpetuating the ideas of white men whose sexism can be forgiven? Doesn’t time march onward? Haven’t there been any great novels written in the last three generations?
As an adult, I read an article that quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald as saying: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.” It colored my impression of his female characters.
Did you read The Great Gatsby in high school? Is it possible that every American to pass through a public school in the last fifty years has been forced to read the same book, absorbing the perspective of this old-school misogynist because critics have decide it is one of the “great American novels”?
And, can a woman write the great American novel? Salon’s Lauren Miller writes: “Men are allowed to stand for the entirety of a national identity or for humanity itself, but women are only supposed to stand for womanhood, if in various flavors.”
Imagine if The Great Gatsby had focused on Daisy instead. Could it have been a story representative of what it was like to be an American in the 20s, or would it have only been representative of what it was like to be an American woman in the 20s?
When a subject is written by a man, it’s considered universal because men see stories about men as universal and men make these definitions. Because assigned reading is so heavily male, women have been taught to find universal themes in books written by men and about men. The opposite is not true. Men have not been required to find universal themes in books written by women, about women. They have rarely even been required to read such books.
Out of curiosity, I tracked down the current reading list for my public high school. The freshman and sophomore reading remains unchanged: eight titles (including Gatsby!), only one written by a woman. The junior reading list is a choice among 100 books, five of which were written by women. Of the fifty-five books on the senior reading list, there are six books and ten short stories by women. It’s unclear whether the reading choice is made by the students or the teacher, so I’m still not sure boys are being assigned more female authors than they were twenty years ago.
Beyond the obvious charge of sexism, the disadvantage this presents to female students, I’d suggest a disservice is being done to male students as well. I think reading habits are developed early in life, and this may have something to do with why women are better, more diverse readers.
It’s true that in order to make room for more female authors, some of the established male authors would have to be cut. Perhaps ten straight, white men who wrote before the 20th century would be enough. Maybe it’s time to hear some other voices. If not now, when?
Katie O’Rourke was born and raised in New England, growing up along the seacoast of New Hampshire. She went to college in Massachusetts and graduated with a degree in gender and sexuality. She lives in Tucson, Arizona where she writes, loves, and is happy. Monsoon Season, her debut novel, was a bestselling e-book. Her second novel, A Long Thaw was released in 2014. You can find out more about Katie and her books on her website: Katie O’Rourke
Here are links to articles referenced in Katie’s post: