The past few years, I’ve found myself stumbling across articles discussing whether women write novels as intellectually disciplined as those men create. Too often, women authors seemed to be dismissed. We’re described as writing books that are too confessional or emotional. Or worse, we’re relegated to being purveyors of chick lit.
This term has been used in a derogatory way since its inception in the early ‘90s. I must confess I never thought much about the term. Just figured it was another way for men to dismiss us. Chick lit is defined as literature that appeals mainly to women.
But, what does this mean? The description infers that women readers are a monolith, each of us tending to like the same types of books. But, do we? As a woman, I read sci fi and fantasy, mysteries—from espionage to gothic novels to mysteries that include offbeat characters, like a librarian who is also a witch. I devour books about history and politics and I adore autobiographies and biographies written by and about all kinds of people, from painters to musicians to politicians and queens.
But, do all male writers create books considered to be high art? No! Nor, should they. There’s a place for all kinds of books. But, we don’t automatically call sci fi or crime novels rooster lit when they’re written by men, do we?
My memoir, Shake That Cream, describes what it was like to grow up in an insular society, where men ruled as human creations of God and nothing was as awful or sinful as a woman, except—perhaps—a little girl. Especially one with a mind of her own and a tongue incapable of being quiet at all the wrong times. Would this book be considered chick lit?
When Mark Twain advised “write what you know,” I suspect many writers took his advice seriously, be we women or men. Most writers discuss topics familiar to them, or they write about what fascinates them. I’d be hard-pressed to write about wealthy society folks, considering the closest I’ve come to any of these people are those I’ve seen on TV, nor do I have any interest in knowing them. I write about what I know—what it was like to be raised amongst violent, sexist, racist people; what is was like to survive a religious cult; what it’s like to be a single mom; a single working woman; a woman writer and poet; a woman who loves lipstick; a women with a penchant for cats and red wine; a woman. However, does my writing about what I know weaken my work because it doesn’t include a sociopathic, male, British crime-solver or a sixteen-year-old boy who gets kicked out of prep school and then from a psychiatric hospital all because he doesn’t want to face reality?
When researched who was the first-known woman writer, I was surprised to find that this woman is also considered to be the first writer, period. I’m talking about the Sumerian poet and writer, Enheduanna (2285 BCE-2250 BCE), born to King Sargon and Queen Tashlutum. So, if the first writer is acknowledged to be a woman, why have women writers been treated in such a dismissive way over time? Sadly, the answer seems to be nothing more astonishing than everyday sexism.
About a year ago, the Guardian posted a piece in which writer, Catherine Nichols, tells how when she queried her novel under her actual name, she got only a few responses from literary agents. Yet, when she sent out the same novel, with the same query letter, the only difference being she sent all this out under a male name, she received eight times more responses than she did contacting agents as a writer named Catherine.
When Nichols received replies to Catherine, she was told her writing was “beautiful,” but that her main character—a woman—wasn’t very “plucky.” As a man, the compliments were larger in number. Even her rejections were kind, with phrases like “clever” and “well-constructed” being used to describe the book.
In 1998, Francine Prose wrote an explosive essay, Scent of a Woman’s Ink, in which she discussed how sexism affected women writers in a negative way. Prose was forced to revisit this topic again in 2011, after VS Naipaul stated that no woman writer, including Jane Austen, was his equal.
I’ve often joked with my daughter and girlfriends that it must be nice to be as confident as some of the men we encounter at work or school or in our everyday lives—men who are not at all extraordinary, but are absolutely convinced they are immensely smarter than we women, hampered with our vaginas and all. I think Naipaul more than proved Prose’s critique to be accurate.
I guess it should come as no surprise that the literary world treats male writers with more respect and affection. And it’s not just the male writers getting the accolades. Books that feature male protagonists are more likely to win literary awards. Because of this, the novelist Kamila Shamsie has suggested that 2018 be the year only women writers get published.
While women writers get overlooked and dismissed too easily, because it seems that writing chick lit is the worst thing a woman writer can do, I decided to find out exactly what books comprise chick lit and found a Chick Lit Fan Club. This club’s website lists its top 100 picks for the chick lit books women love. Not surprisingly, Bridget Jones’s Diary made the Number One spot. However, I admit to being a bit surprised to find Waiting to Exhale on this list, as well. I’ve always regarded that book and its subsequent movie to be about strong, talented women, who just happened to get involved with men along the way. I never viewed it as being a book about women looking for men. And while I’ve not read In Her Shoes, the movie is funny and wonderfully touching, showing how two sisters bridge their differences and their painful childhood and come together as best friends. The man part is secondary to the story.
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with books that include women looking for men. I’ve not read Bridget Jones’s Diary, but my daughter tells me it’s funnier than the movie, and I adore the movie. I don’t find myself gravitating towards modern books that center around romance, but some of the classics, like Pride and Prejudice describe multiple romances, and I have to admit to being a Jane Austen fan (despite VS Naipaul’s dismissal of her writing). So, maybe we need to look more closely at whether a woman author has written a book that is interesting and well-written and disabuse this notion that men are the superior writers.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with women writers!