The Politics of Women Writing about Women

I would like to call your attention to the following quotes:

“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature)

“Ever since the Renaissance, modern man has perpetuated the idea that he carries an infinity of possibilities within himself; their realization is always within reach, at least in his phantasies and dreams. His potentialities are such that, if need be, he would live apart from the rest of society; he could return to nature.” (Leo Lowenthal, Literature and the Image of Man, 2011)

“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962)

Man and freedom. It is a pairing as old as literature (and later, film) itself. From King Arthur’s tale, to the Star Wars odyssey, to Braveheart, and the writings of Emerson, Steinbeck and Whitman, the fantasy (or phantasy, as Lowenthal writes) of the return to nature, of the pursuit of freedom, is a predominant, serious theme in “mainstream literature,” both fiction and non-fiction. Think of Kerouac’s journey or actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s journal of their motorcycle trip around the world (which inspired my own husband to ride from Arizona to the Arctic Circle) and you will likely be able to recall and list a variety of stories that validate the eternal search of men for another place, a new adventure, the finding of oneself, and the solving of challenges as they arise. These are considered life-affirming, worthwhile quests not only to be lived but to be recounted and admired. The search for freedom, I am sure would be argued, has philosophical implications; it is fodder for serious reflection and craft, and, therefore, it is to be studied in university courses, discussed in roundtables and eternalized as “real” literature.

There is of course nothing wrong with any of that. I was immensely proud of my husband’s journey, and I myself was happy to teach a course on travel writing at the university (though I could not resist subversively including Eloisa James’s Paris in Love in the reading list).

So why did I start a post about the politics of women writing by talking about men writing? Because it is still the case that what a woman does is often considered in opposition to what a man would do.

Let me preface what I will say in the next paragraph by stating that women too are capable of adventure and the pursuit of freedom. One does not have to go any further than Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to know just how brave women can be. However, more often than not, and perhaps also in quantitative terms, one will find more titles about freedom and adventure penned by men, which is as much an indication of market perceptions and publication opportunities as it is of anything else— remember that J. K. Rowling used initials for fear that boys would not read the fantastical adventures of a wizard if they knew the author was a woman.

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If writing about freedom is often associated with the Masculine, writing about connection is often associated with the Feminine, and that is the crux of the matter for this post. Women often, though certainly not always, enjoy reading and writing about community, communion, the building of a home, the sharing of love, the finding of one’s place in the world. When a book is about love (from a woman’s perspective), or a woman’s search for connection and growth through internal struggle and learning, it often loses its claim to be called “mainstream fiction” through no fault of its own. Instead, our books get classified as “romance” (if a love story with a satisfying ending is at the center of the story) and “women’s fiction” (if personal growth and connection are the central thread). Much like it happens in other areas of work and practice—like one realizing they’ve become a “woman doctor”—“female writer” is a loaded term, indicative of the partition that is still present in the representation of women in their professional capacities.

Don’t get me wrong: I am proud and happy to be associated with these genres and to partake of the craft, talent, and wisdom of so many authors writing in them. It is an honor just to be a member of the same professional associations as many of them or to find myself having dinner at the same table. What I appreciate much less is the realization that in a world that is still so unequal in its bestowing of respect and opportunity upon women, literature figures as one more reminder that there are strides to be made. The number of people who still “don’t get it” is at the same time surprising and frustrating.

Last year, the New York Times published in its book review section, for the first time, a front-page roundup of romance, a genre predominantly, as the saying that is commonly cited in the community goes, “for women, about women, by women.” Who was given the task of writing about the new releases and the growth of the industry? A man. One who very clearly did not enjoy nor understand romance. His condescending, unimaginable conclusion: “Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effects? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?”

I can’t imagine a scenario where the same critic would have been as patronizing to fans of science fiction and adventure sagas (associated with masculinity) as he was to romance readers and writers, which, truth be told, also include men. Can you imagine his writing about a saga of freedom and liberation and asking, “Why shouldn’t men dream? Sure they have 9-to-5 jobs, but shouldn’t they be allowed to at least write about the great outdoors?” I don’t think so.

But maybe the last laugh is to be had by those who find great satisfaction in writing, reading, and community building around stories often associated with the Feminine, be them men or women. While all of general fiction, according to Publishers Weekly, sold 33 million books in 2014 in the US (a great chunk of which is represented by women’s fiction, since for statistical purposes those titles are not counted separately from mainstream fiction), romance alone sold about 31 million. An obvious conclusion is that the literature that focuses on the feminine universe sells more than anything else.

Perhaps it’s time social endorsement should follow. Or not—we will keep writing and having fun anyway.

___________________________

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.

One thought on “The Politics of Women Writing about Women

  1. THIS.

    If one is to talk about an example of bad writing, without fail, people seem to always pick something popular with women – especially “housewives” or “teen girls”.

    They ignore the fact that there are plenty of examples of bad writing in pulp fiction, and talk about the unhealthy attitudes and relationships set as an ideal for these poor, impressionable girls!(women). While refusing to unpack the baggage in their own chosen genres.

    Like

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