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feminism women writers

Today, since it is International Women’s Day, and the theme is ‘Inspire Change’, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about one small change that could be made, that make a huge difference to me, and “women writers” like me.

And this is part of the problem. I am sure I am not the only one who dislikes having to refer to herself as a “woman writer”, or who bristles any time anyone uses that awful, insulting derivative “authoress”. The “Woman Corner” where all of the women who write novels, or poetry, or plays, are put is still a big problem. It’s the reason that (in the distant days of being student) I managed to spend three years studying literature and only read two female writers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (commonly also referred to only by her married name as Elizabeth Browning) and Margarey Kempe (who possibly did not even exist). What’s more, reading their work came under a “women’s writing” themed week.

We have one day a year. We have one week a term that is the “women” week.

But women are not a special event. We’re half the world (slightly more than half). Still, the view of the writing of female authors is still so backward that last week I walked into Waterstones to find that there was a “women writers” stand where Harper Lee was placed right next to Phillippa Gregory. I like Harper Lee. I like Philippa Gregory. But apart from being successful authors in their wildly different fields, all they have in common is their chromosomal makeup. I should let it slide, you say? I wonder if people would let it slide if Waterstones had a ‘black authors’ stand.

Apart from the fact that it’s downright unhelpful to lump all female authors together on one stand, it’s offensive, and it’s symptomatic of the wider problem that men are seen as the default, and women as the special event. It was a long time ago that Samuel Johnson said ” a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”, and while the attitude to female authors has at least progressed a long way from this, we are still in a “woman corner”, identified by our gender rather than what we write.

So, some fiction is “gender neutral”, some is aimed at women, and some at men. That’s an important part of marketing. Why, then, don’t we have a “men’s fiction” section in waterstones, that features novels with cars on the cover, or the word ‘spy’ in the title? Just as many romance novels are also read by men, these novels are also read by women, but marketed to men.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that specific books are marketed to specific genders. Certainly, my own work is (appropriately) marketed to a female audience, part of the reason why I used my first name rather than initials, which would have been marketing suicide if I were publishing in a different genre. Gender-weighted marketing makes sense. What doesn’t is the idea that there is “women’s fiction” and then everything else. “Women writers” and normal writers. Authors, and  authoresses.

So, maybe this seems trivial to you, but the change I am suggesting this year for International Women’s Day that we make a small change to our bookshelves, that will hopefully reflect a big change in thought. Please, no more “woman corner” where female authors of all genres get inelegantly lumped together. Please, no more “women’s fiction” unless we are going to have “men’s fiction” as well.

Women represent 58% of book purchasing. Don’t put us in the corner anymore.