Some feminine tosh

A disclaimer: I write the following as a card-carrying feminist. I’m in the Fawcett Society, I’ve been to Feminism in London three years running, and I even have the T-shirt:

This is what a feminist looks like

So this is no Daily Mail-style shut-up-and-stop-whinging-girls diatribe. But I’ve been wondering of late – do women still need special treatment in writing?

Oops, that sounded a bit like Carrie Bradshaw there. But it’s come up a few times over the past few weeks – do we need women-only writing competitions? I’ll limit my observations to writing only as I don’t know much about anything else. The Orange prize is the most obvious, but there are also several female-only competitions for unpublished writers. In fact, in the writing competition I was in, which catapulted me to stardom (or, you know, whatever it is I’m in) the three shortlisters were me and two men. In other words, I’d have won if it was women-only. Would I have felt good about that, or that I didn’t really ‘win’ in the true sense? (like if Nadal’s out of the tennis with an injury or something). Does winning a women-only competition devalue it is some way, like we aren’t good enough to compete with men on their own turf? On the other hand, in the official bit of the Dylan Thomas Prize (for published authors under 30), there was only one man and five women.  And no, the lone male didn’t win.

Personally, starting out as a female writer, I don’t feel any discrimination. I do think they judge you on the words alone. But if I was writing something more literary, perhaps it would start to bite. The Orange Prize was started for a reason – when, in 1991, not a single female author made the list for the Booker Prize. And even now women have only won 12 times out of 33.  

And when old male authors still feel they can say things like this – perhaps we do need to keep on promoting women and our ‘feminine tosh’. (I actually feel a bit sorry for VS, who has clearly lost the plot and thinks he’s living in Victorian times where women aren’t ‘heads of households’. *Head-desk*).

Perhaps the prejudice goes hand-in-hand with genre bias. In Northanger Abbey, written in 1798, Jane Austen was pretty scathing about people who say, ‘oh, it is only a novel’. ‘In short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ Now the novel has been accepted as our main print medium, you could replace that with ‘oh, it’s only crime/romance/sci-fi’. In other words, it’s only what people actually buy, and read, and enjoy.

Do people care if a book’s written by a man or a woman? When I was younger male children’s writers used to sometimes adopt female pseudonyms, and vice-versa – there’s a persistent rumour that JK Rowling chose that name instead of ‘Joanne’ so she wouldn’t put off boy readers. Have we now moved past this? There have also been recent rumblings about the lack of women in sci-fi and other genres, and in terms of reviews, recent research showed that up to 83% of coverage in literary magazines was written by, and about books by, men. The reason for this, according to the TLS, is that women basically read the kind of thing a literary magazine would never deign to review. Books about- shudder- relationships! Love! Family! And with people buying shoes all the time! (I paraphrase). This comment alone makes me want to batter him round the head with my Complete Works of Shakespeare.

So, I started off writing this thinking maybe we don’t need our own competitions any more, and perhaps they’ve done their work. But having read all the above articles I have now convinced myself that sadly it seems we do still need something to even out the score. If not a competition then perhaps the penalty for sexism shall be having to be the PA of a female writer for a month. I wouldn’t mind VS Naipaul making me tea. At least until people like old VS get their heads out of their books and realise sexism has no place in writing, or in the modern world. Rather than special treatment, I think we’d all like it if someone could just read the damn book and not the name on the front.

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