Author Catherine Nichols did what many novelists do. She sent her covering letter and sample pages to 50 agents and waited the dreadful wait. She received two manuscript requests. Then she decided to send it again to the same agents, only this time she used a male pseudonym. They requested the full manuscript 17 times. Same cover letter. Same pages. Same agents. So… what’s the story?
The agents themselves were both men and women, says Nichols. “Which is not surprising,” she adds, “because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive.”
Sound familiar? It does to me. I hear these stories all the time. I recently worked with women writers on the fundraising project Women of the Wild and decided to ask my fellow writers what their experience had been. “I’ve heard stories of women who abbreviated their names to initials or chose a penname solely because they didn’t want to be rejected for writing certain genres,” says writer S.E. Cyborski. “I’ve even done it myself when writing science fiction.”
“I think it’s important to get women’s views out there,” says poet, Ruth Woodward. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written on the cultural annihilation of older women on stage and screen before and still feel passionate about women telling stories. Without seeing ourselves reflected in all our forms, how do we form and shape our identities? How are we expected to build multi-faceted possible selves if all we see depicted are mere fractions of our female experience? In fact, how do we see our female experience at all? Does it even exist? These are questions writers and artists help us answer. Otherwise what are writers and stories for, apart from passing the time?
I’m often frustrated by the insinuation that women don’t write the big stories. The stories that speak to the human condition. A frustration shared by writer S.E Cyborski, who says, “I wish that women’s stories and women writers weren’t looked down on as trivial or unimportant, or only for women. We have as many stories that are meaningful and important to everyone as men do.”
“Women buy two thirds of books. Women writers dominate the best seller lists and came out blazing in the 2016 Costa shortlists,” writes Annabel Abbs, author of The Joyce Girl, winner of the 2016 Impress Prize, on her blog Women writers, Women (’s) books. “So why doesn’t the literary media give us the editorial space we deserve?”
I suggest unconscious bias accounts for much. Conscious sexism for the rest. Annabel’s comments come at a time when the literary world is under some (not nearly enough) scrutiny for its sexist attitude towards women writers, with the Vida’s annual count revealing that women buy two-thirds of books sold, but magazine reviews are centred on male authors and critics.
Novelist Nicola Griffith’s discovery that novels featuring male protagonists are more likely to win literary awards is also something women writers have been whispering about among themselves, but not speaking about publicly. Do we make a she, into a he? Even the iconic J.K Rowling chose to tell her story through a male protagonist while also reducing her name to initials. Perhaps this is a lesson to us all? I hope not. Novelist Kamila Shamsie called for a “year of publishing women” in 2018 to “redress the inequality” but so far nothing much has changed.
Catherine Nichols’ experience also leans towards the unconscious bias theory. She reported that while writing as a woman she was offered feedback from agents such as, “Beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” Whereas her male pseudonym enjoyed comments on how “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting” the writing was. While at university I myself was described as either “a creative genius, or stark raving mad” for my surrealism. Madness is rarely used to describe male writers. Women writers are often placed in fetishized categories. We are described as mad, bad, or just plain boring. It’s a shame. But not unusual. Gather women writers together and we all share similar stories of being told to re-write until our characters are “nicer”, “softer”, and even “less angry”, all of which seems more stark raving mad to me than any fiction.
Speaking out about the insidious nature of sexism in the arts and media is still taboo. Geena Davis, the Academy-Award® winning actor and advocate who founded The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was reported as saying, “You don’t want to speak out and be seen as a complainer.” An industry term one breath away from calling a woman “a nag” (cue the sound of a whip cracking.) I can’t think of any man who has thought “I wonder whether I should pretend to be a woman” before he sits down to type. These questions clutter the process. Yes we should bat them from our consciousness like dirty fat flies when they appear, however, if the literary world is not batting them away too, then how do women get a fair hearing?
With an industry filled with unconscious gender bias, what is a girl to do?
And then write some more.
And if they ignore you. Write even more.
What’s more, we are in the age of the democratization of literature and publishing. Join a publishing collective. Hell, start a publishing company (I am!) or send your manuscript to us at MADA. As Emmy Clarke, MADA co-founder says, “I love, love, love the way women write. I find that women’s stories reach emotional depths seldom found in the work of men.” So what are you waiting for? Show us your words, tell us your story!! And if we say no, well then fuck us too and go publish your manuscript yourself. Don’t wait for permission! Life is too short to fight with gatekeepers. Don’t convince others, convince yourself. Be the star of your own show.
Hope always outweighs frustration. There is hope. As writer Casey Armstrong states, “I grew up on Ann M. Martin and Judy Blume and J.K. Rowling and series like Girl Talk and Nancy Drew. Women’s writing has shaped how I want to go about world building and storytelling. It’s encouraged me to explore styles outside the norm and play in the sandbox of worlds I create.” With a new generation of young women inspired by those who wrote before, I’m certain we can look forward to even more truly great storytelling from women for generations to come! As author Helen Nobel notes, “I find contemporary women’s writing, by nature, to be a powerful re-emergence of a primal force, guided by the genius of such writers as Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, to name just a few.” I feel this primal force. Don’t you? This force which surges forward to reclaim its space, its story. Our story. With this force we define our own narrative, rearrange the rule book so we can play the game on our own terms. The future is carved by this primal force, as rock is slowly eroded by waves and time. The future is female, forged primarily by our universal human stories. Big stories. Small stories. All stories.
The heroine’s tale is just beginning…
Grab a copy of the Women of the Wild anthology today!!