So I've had my mind on writing this post for a few weeks but I just haven't quite crystallized all my thoughts, but then I decided better to get it out and screw it up than never get it down at all.
Okay. So. This post is brought to you by a few different moments in the past weeks.
1) A conversation I had on Facebook about YA literature in which a male acquaintance (with all best intentions; I mean, he loves Tamora Pierce so he's not all bad, he's just...misplaced) said multiple problematic things, of which the one I found most irritating was a statement that he doesn't like the trend in YA novels of having romance plots/focus, because he didn't find that empowering for women at all. (Subquestion: How does a man even get to talk about women's empowerment? I mean, really? Skipping Joss Whedon who, while problematic, still gets 90% more than everyone else with a penis.)
2) In a Romance Studies panel at PCA, a speaker mentioned teaching a class where she asked her students to name their favorite books/writers, and all the women gave answers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and other white male western canon writers, whereas the men were all over the place, and when they talked about it in class, esp when they broke out into gendered groups, that a lot of the young women were giving performative answers because of fear and shame. (Subnote, the area co-chair of Romance Studies at PCA is Eric Seeger, a dude, who is one of the few/only male academics I have seen who does everything RIGHT when interacting with women scholars and letting them talk and then responding, and basically I want to sponsor a session where he can teach other men to do that, because damn.)
3) My interests in fandoms, book history, women's writing, etc. just really highlight the gender divides of how we deal with women writers and publishing etc. I posted on FB about the recent SFWA fracas and an article talking about how much more professional the Romance Writers Association is in championing their writers and publications, and another guy I know wanted to have the lolz. And it's like, um, hey that romance genre that is so derided? Yeah, it is responsible for 55% of American/British publishing. That means that more romances are published and sold every year than textbooks, religious texts, other fiction, and nonfiction com-fucking-bined.
And so there's a lot of things going on, and so I want to kind of break them down a bit.What women write/publish, esp. with regards to genre.
There's a great quote that I can't remember, but it's about how if a man writes a book about war, it's touted as being a universal tale of experience, but if a woman writes about family, it's drivel. And I think that is probably one of the best and most cogent appraisals ever.
Henry King has that seventeenth century dedication "To a Lady" where he talks about how women aren't allowed to write anything but romance (and so we know how far back that goes, at least) (and for context the poem is part of a gift of a blank book with the rest of the poem being about how he hopes the recipient will fill it whatever characters and fancies she likes), and I think there's way scary truth to that. I mean, look at those few women we have allowed to enter the western canon:
[poor Anne Bronte always gets left out, doesn't she]
So that's three writers of what we would call romances, an SF writer, and a writer whose best-known work, A Room of One's Own
, eliminated the women writers of the past. Damn, guys, agenda much?Why women write/publish genre.
Er, see above? Self-fulfilling prophecy, in many ways.
(See also, What If All Book Covers Were Given a Chick-Lit Makeover
. See also, Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing
, come to that.)
There's also this whole thing of, okay, women aren't going to be "allowed" into conventional/respectable literature, so they end up in the genre ghettos, and then the corollary of the recent John Green saved YA backlash
. (*Note: I have not read any John Green, nor do I want to. From what I've seen in articles and Twitter he seems to be a white dude trying to be an ally, BUT, he is also a white dude getting exorbitant praise from the establishment at the expense of women and POC writers.) Which, can we even really talk enough about just the IDEA of a man "saving literature"? Oy.
And then the flip to that is of course Nicholas Sparks as the "only" writer of "love-tragedies." Erm.The very vocabulary of our publishing and genre discourse.
Where the word "hack" used to mean prostitute and so "hack writing" is cheap and unartistic writing.
Where "streetwalker" used to be the term for the women who were out in the streets selling the pamphlets that they often also wrote and published and now that's a term for prostitution.
Where "gossip" used to be the term for a community of women, often professionally, as of midwives, and is now a term for scurrilous information.
"Book clubs" as a feminine activity, with the addition of "book club guides" in published volumes often being in fiction, very occasionally nonfiction, and *always* being tied in to books by or about women. Like, seriously, ever notice how heavy political books never have book club guides? Not even the scary far-right ones? I'm just saying.
Book and literary histories that try their best to deny the agency of women in all levels of book publication and production. The "stigma of print." The history of removing women from public discourse/vilifying them if they ARE in public discourse. What it means.
The social expectation of denouncing popular writing by women, whether romances, SF/F, whatever, while often at the SAME TIME those same books sell immensely and get book deals. I can literally name on one hand the times I have heard someone SAY they actually liked: Twilight, Divergent, FSoG, etc. JK Rowling and Harry Potter and Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games are the ONLY ones that have gotten free passes, I assume because male protagonist one the one hand and dystopia on the other. That's "cool."
The flip side being if you DON'T denounce them or don't denounce them quickly enough, you'll get ragged on for low tastes, etc. etc.
Basically we're reinforcing the cultural capital of elite white male writers at the expense of all else. Good job, team.
Where do we go from here?
Well, Tumblr. >_>
Seriously though, if you look at the creation of "safe places" for women to talk about writing or to write, it is online space, frequently LOCKED space (back to that public/private discourse again). There are probably arguments to be made about zine culture too, but I know zine culture best through the lens of SFF fandom, and, well, hey, what do naked collating parties in the 70s say about the culture of women's writing then?
(And of course, zine culture will be trashed at the expense of artist books and arguments about vanity publishing, etc. etc., but that's a WHOLE OTHER ARGUMENT about means and ways of production.)
Anyway, to conclude: There are very specific histories and stigmas associated with women's writing and reading, even before we get into specific genre stuff whether romance or SFF. The farther you go back, the more you can see about acknowledgements of what's going on as well as the attempts to subvert it and create new spaces, which are then often taken over themselves to that they can "be saved." Think of the "Fake Geek Girl" phenomenon despite the open history of women saving Star Trek or even that a woman INVENTED SFF (whether or not you want to specify whether that woman was Mary Shelley or Margaret Cavendish). So.
I think I may have just made a book outline. Shit.