Last night’s conversation on women’s writing at Shearer’s Bookshop was provocative and inspiring – and, like all good conversations, continued long after its official end at 8.30 pm.
The evening was launched by Barbara Horgan, who’d cooked up the International Women’s Day women’s writing event over coffee with writer and Stella Prize co-founder Kirsten Tranter.
Kirsten Tranter introduced the discussion by talking about the Stella Prize, an award for women’s writing (in any adult genre) which I’ve written about here before. She then discussed the disturbing findings of VIDA, the US based organisation dedicated to women in the literary arts, which she discusses at length today on the Wheeler Centre website. Here’s part of Kirsten’s response to the most recent VIDA statistics:
‘Vida: The horror, the horror
The new VIDA statistics for the year just passed are out, and the results are enough to make you cry into your small blue slice of pie. Or throw your pie against the wall, if you’re inclined to anger rather than despair. One publication seems to have shown signs of real improvement: Granta, the UK-based fiction quarterly. But the spike in the number of women authors in their pages appears to be based on just one issue, on feminism, that they published partly in response to the original VIDA numbers.’
Kirsten then posed the leading question of the night: Do women write differently from men? Which gives rise to questions like: Do we judge women’s writing differently from men’s writing? and, Why do these questions matter right now for readers and writers, and for reviewers and judges of literary prizes?
What follows is a very brief overview of a lively discussion which itself only touched the surface of a much bigger conversation, which is continuing everywhere. For example in this funny and instructive analysis of the difference in men’s and women’s writing by Mel Campbell on the Meanjin blog, ‘Passing and failing the Naipaul Test’.
First up was literary agent Sophie Hamley, who said she didn’t think women write differently from men – and gave a perfect example of why she thinks this is the case. The story of how she came to represent Lenny Bartulin illustrates that it’s the context of who’s writing that shapes how we interpret it, rather than any difference in the writing itself. When Lenny sent his manuscript to Sophie he used his wife’s email address, so it appeared to Sophie to have come from a woman. She couldn’t tell from the writing whether the author was a man or a woman – she just loved the writing, and so she agreed to represent the author.
Sophie also talked about why she’d encouraged a couple of women writers to use their initials rather than their full names, including the crime writer PM Newton, to make it less obvious on the covers of their books that they’d been written by women. She said she did this because she knew from having been a bookseller and having been around people who read, that men tend not to want to be seen reading books by women. Sophie said she believed that if PM Newton’s full name had been on the cover – if her gender had been fully flagged – then her book would not have been included on Fathers’ Day lists and in men’s magazines, crucial avenues for promoting her work.
Crime writer and bookseller Lenny Bartulin spoke next. He agreed with Sophie that there is no inherent difference between men’s writing and women’s writing. He also spoke from his experience working in a bookshop (Lesley McKay’s) and said he’d never been asked by a customer, ‘Show me your women’s authors or your men’s authors.’ In other words, there is no such category as ‘women’s writing’, or ‘men’s writing’. He said that women and men might address different subject matter, but so do different men (and different women). For example, he writes noir crime novels about an everyman; another man writes about a gay male teenager on Oxford Street. Lenny concluded by saying that for him, as a reader and a writer, ‘it’s always about the writing’.
Kirsten asked Lenny if, in his bookselling experience, he sees men buying crime books, given women are supposed to be the biggest readers of crime. Lenny replied that, in his experience, men over 60 years old won’t buy a book, crime or otherwise, written by a woman.
I followed Lenny. Kirsten asked facetiously if I brought a woman’s ‘sentimentality’ (referencing VS Naipaul’s comments on women’s writing) to my book Double Entry, which is on a male-dominated subject (accounting and economics). It’s hard to answer that because I don’t know how differently I might have written it had I been a man. But I do know that it was a woman, Dava Sobel, who launched the broad field I consider Double Entry to be part of – ‘narrative non-fiction’ - when she published her bestselling Longitude in 1995.
I think the reason Sobel’s science book was so successful is that she told it from a human point of view. In her hands the story of how we found a way to calculate longitude at sea became the story of one man’s quest to convince the scientific establishment of Europe that his unlikely solution to one of science’s greatest riddles was the right one. It’s tempting to argue that Sobel’s introduction of a human element to hard science was a function of the difference she brought to the subject as a woman. But many men, notably Simon Winchester, have successfully written in this same genre.
One unforgettable episode, over Pat Barker’s Regeneration – when a man I know refused to believe that this novel about men, war and poetry could have been written by a woman and not by a man called ‘Patrick Barker’ – has convinced me that any difference in men’s and women’s writing is not so much in the writing itself but in the eye of the beholder – and that this is the greatest barrier women writers face.
On my way to Shearer’s, my taxi driver had a most emphatic view on women’s writing. He believes women write differently from men. He said that in Africa – he’s from Sudan – women are strong. They tell the truth in their writing and write about sex. Men do not. I include this because Emily Maguire picked it up in her response to the night’s question.
Kirsten then asked Emily Maguire to give her perspective as a novelist and a feminist critic, working in fiction and non-fiction. Emily began by reminding us that some women are strong and some men are strong, it’s impossible to generalise. She said she grew up reading fiction which led her to feminism: the novels were about women who weren’t strong and who didn’t have triumphant endings, because they were living before feminism. Emily said that women live a range of different lives and this is why as a teacher she tries to ‘grow our empathy models’ – by encouraging reading about people who are different from us.
And so it’s important that there’s a range of different women represented in literature and the media. ‘One thing that happens when underrepresented groups suddenly get represented is that this one instance is read as representative.’ Emily gave the example of Sex in the City – here was a show uniquely focused around four women and their lives, and suddenly everyone’s going, ‘Is this what women are really like?’, as if these women could possibly represent the vast range of women in the world.
Towards the end of the evening, Kirsten asked Emily to speak about her experience as a writing teacher for primary school children. Emily’s answer went so deep into the heart of this conversation about gender bias that I’ve asked her to repeat it so I can include it here verbatim. Emily said:
‘The kids I teach are between 6 and 12. Girls tend to write an even mix of male and female lead characters. Boys write male lead characters only. This occurs across all age groups, but it’s with the youngest ones that I find it most fascinating/heartbreaking because it shows how early this stuff sets in. What happens, I think, is that most beginning writers imitate the books/films they love and while girls are used to seeing both male and female protagonists, boys are usually kept away from ‘girls stories’ and so it usually doesn’t occur to them to put a girl in the lead. Discouraging boys from identifying with female characters is quite insidious. Even very progressive parents are taken aback if you suggest their son might want to dress up as Dora, whereas they’re fine with their daughters dressing up as Buzz Lightyear.’
Thank you Kirsten Tranter, Barbara Horgan, Shearer’s Bookshop, all speakers and everyone who came along to this fantastic night. Events like this (and initiatives like the Stella Prize) are so valuable because they get us talking about these biases and help to open up new possibilities, new connections, and new ways of thinking and acting.