So, what is it about women’s fiction…

There’s been some interesting talk about sexism in literature lately. We’ve been there before, of course, but this particular salvo started a while back with regards to women horror writers. Now the discussion seems to have morphed into talk about depressing fiction by women.

The post that started it concerned an Orange Prize (for women writers) judge:

But the chair of this year’s judging panel has launched a stinging criticism of the current “grim” crop of women’s fiction– complaining that female authors appear to have suffered a collective sense of humour failure.”
There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there,” Daisy Goodwin, the author and TV producer, told the Guardian. “There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.”

There’s been an excellent reply in the Guardian here, which has a different take on whose to blame:

But nonetheless it seems unlikely that a similar critique would be taken seriously by the press – or even uttered – if it were levied against male writers. Debates about who’s going to be the next Philip Roth are not coloured by criticisms of brilliant young male authors for not being cheery enough – I’ve not read any criticism that Legend of a Suicide, for example, lacks joy. But men in any profession are rarely criticised for failing to present themselves to the world without the perpetual beaming grins of beauty pageant contestants.

Lots of people have weighed in and here is one by Benjamin Solah that took my eye and is well worth reading. He says, among other wise words:

I would also argue that male writers do not benefit from our female colleagues being excluded from anthologies, short lists, long lists and awards. Sexism in the industry, whilst primarily affecting women no doubt, still lowers the quality of literature for all of us.

So what do you think? Is women’s fiction that is taken seriously too depressing? Is witty fiction too lighthearted to win prizes? Are women’s issues not serious? Is it sexism or simply women=Venus, men=Mars syndrome? And why does this issue or similar issues occur again and again?


So, what is it about women’s fiction… — 8 Comments

  1. I read a lot of women authors, and generally enjoy what I read. But then I am a woman so maybe I am biased. I read a lot of male authors too and also enjoy what they write. I sometimes think critics write such stuff just to be different and start a discussion going.

  2. I generally prefer female authors, especially when it comes to fantasy. I think it's because in my experience they do better intrigue and have more believable characters. I've read more books than I care to remember by male authors that failed utterly to have original or believable characters. Some made me want to punch them for utterly botching and (unintentionally) dehumanising some of their characters.

    I tend to have fewer problems with male authors if the genre is hard SF, mostly because then the focus is on the science rather than the characters anyway (mind you, some of the bad examples mentioned above are also hard SF).

    I may also be biased, being female and all…

  3. Those are some interesting points Tsana. I think, at least for some male authors, the characters are intentionally dehumanised, or cookie cutter archetypes are used, so that they don't have to include much characterisation to slow down the action. They do the exact same thing in movies, I don't know how much action you watch but every second one seems to have the hard-as-nails but devoted husband/father whose wife and/or kids are mercilessly slaughtered in the opening minutes to 'justify' the brutality that forms the rest of the plot. If you're dealing with something like that then odds are you've got a book that's been written with a male audience in mind. Not that that means you can't read and enjoy it but it's probably worth keeping in mind.

    Trying to make that relevant to your original questions Glenda, I'd say that, to some extent, personal taste is influenced by the Venus/Mars syndrome – nicely put btw 😉 – and if it was simply that the awards panels were full of men I think we'd have a simple answer. But from what I've seen following this debate that's not the case. I don't think it's a simple matter of 'I prefer to read male/female authors,' but there are a heap of personal and cultural influences that influence us when we decide whether or not a book is good.

  4. One wonders if all authors should have androgenous names!! Then we wouldn't be influenced, and could read without any initial prejudice. I can remember being totally fooled by K.J. Parker – I would have sworn the writer was a man. I was quite prepared to think Julian May was a man after reading A Many Coloured Land. When I was reading The Secret Scripture by Barry Sebastian, even though I was well aware what the name on the cover was, I kept on thinking erroneously that the author was a woman.

    I do think our gender often does colour the way we enjoy certain kinds of books. Unfortunately, it also colours what we pick up to read – and I am sure that both men and women miss out on books they would enjoy as a consequence.

    And I struggle with the idea that we should have special prizes or collections or whatever for a specific gender because I have the idea of affirmative action.

    But if sexism is rife and women are the ones that get the raw deal – hmm? I dunno.

    I can tell you, though, I wish I had chosen an androgynous pseudonym.

  5. Good point about picking up books in the first place Glenda, that can probably be related back to marketing and publisher choices too. They finally cornered me at uni and forced me to read Pride and Prejudice, and despite avoiding Austen for years I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I still bought the orange Penguin edition though, and found myself subconsciously covering the title with my hand while on the bus; a few years of studying sociology doesn't seem to weigh much against centuries of cultural prejudice *g*

    Btw, what makes you think KJ Parker is a woman? Or even a single person? 😀

  6. Hendo – when ever Parker is mentioned, the pronoun used is "she"…I know it's a pseudonym, and I suppose it could all be a hoax. Her biography also mentions marriage to a solicitor, so I am assuming one person.

  7. I don't think this 'grimness' is just a female author/novels thing. I think it's a general trend, regardless of gender. there are many a female character who's been through something grim or goes through it in the novel (what the writer you quote sees as the problem).

    It's interesting that this is seen as a women writer's only problem, when I would argue it isn't.

  8. Hm. It's so dangerous to make these generalizations, isn't it? The judge was talking only about certain books – those long listed for a prize. I wonder if that has something to do with the grimness? Comedy is not suitably "serious" enough for a literary prize? Sad stories, tragedy, unpleasantness such as incest or war or rape or abuse or suicide – they all lend themselves to serious pondering over the themes, and hence "suitability" for a prize.

    Someone defined a great book as one you can't put down when reading it – and which you can't stop thinking about afterwards.

    And maybe that's it: serious issues, which are often also sad issues, are the ones that keep us thinking.

    I still remember the impact Anna Karenina had on me, and I read it when I was in my teens. Or Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, also read as a teen.

    To get back to your point, j-a, yes, depressing themes are not limited to the female of the species, especially as depressing themes are so often also great themes. And generalizations are generally wrong… (:-)

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