Tired of being a woman writer

Lately I’ve been considering admitting defeat. I’m tired of being a woman writer. As Ursula Le Guin says at her acerbic best:

‘A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.’ That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon … I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons.

All my life, I’ve been a pretend man. I thought I was a person, like the other seven billion people on the planet, and although I’ve always been aware that being a person of a female persuasion is sometimes tricky, I also thought that my sex was irrelevant to my personhood, especially if I wasn’t personally present to affirm it.

Even as a child, I figured that the empty page is an equal opportunity space. Like all those other real men writers, I don’t need to be tall or to possess bulging muscles. I don’t even need a penis in order to collect my thoughts into coherent sentences. I thought I could just imagine stuff and think about my world and write it down, like all the other writers. But I was wrong.

I’ve had to finally admit to myself that real writing is still manly. Women have always written their woman stuff, but it’s still, simply by virtue of being woman stuff written by women, just not as important as stuff that men write.

Yes, being a writer is hard for everybody. Even manly writers have to struggle, as you can confirm by reading their numerous biographies. And yes, these days women are not entirely absent from serious book pages, especially if we’re white. But even with the right Anglo name and skin colour, it’s harder for women to get published and it’s harder to get reviewed.

As the 2014 Stella Count shows, possessing a penis becomes more important as reviews go up in status: in most Australian newspapers, no matter what their gender split, long, serious reviews are more than three times more likely to be of books by men than by women. And this structural bias is considerably worse if you’re a woman writer of colour, as demonstrated by the first VIDA Women of Colour Count.

It’s not just a question of representation. It turns out that writerly authority and writerly status isn’t just overwhelmingly male, it’s overwhelmingly white. Having a female name means you are framed and read differently. If you’re a man, you can write about women and be lauded for your literary imagination: think Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina. But if you write about women as a woman, no matter how well you do so, you will still be castigated for not writing about men. As a reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald said of Elena Ferrante’s most recent book only this month: ‘How much better would these books be if Ferrante had paid more than lip-service to the men?’

We’re so used to seeing male names dominating everything – in our newspapers, female journalists account for only 31 per cent of bylines, and the representation of women in movies has barely changed for half a century – that anything not centred on white manliness just seems plain weird. It’s ‘marginal’, ‘special interest’, a ‘minority’ concern. It’s, well, not that important. Yes, yes, yes, we may cast a brief glance. But what does the white man say?

What’s worse, many people can’t even perceive what equality is. The gender representation women are allowed across professions, extending even to Hollywood crowd scenes, is surprisingly consistent: it’s 17 per cent. As Geena Davis points out, ‘If there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.’ The merest adjustment towards equity, even if it still remains inequitable, is perceived as feminine dominance.

But here I go again, collating evidence that structural inequality exists. I don’t need any more evidence. I see more evidence every day. Every day I see how people who are female, or poor, or disabled, or differently sexed, or the wrong skin colour, are carefully filtered out of our white, manly, heterosexual culture. And after decades of being a woman, I’m a bit tired of it all. I’m tired of arguing. I give up. From now on, I’m going to be a real man.



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Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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  1. Yes yes yes….I have even considered submitting manuscripts using a pen-name, but they would eventually find out that I was an imposter. Even watching the Book Club show on TV makes my blood boil. The women are allowed to express their opinions, and then whatever males on in the panel pipe in with the real response to the book in question. I, too, have just about given up.

  2. Fact is that most editorial meetings at publishing houses (and lit mags, by the way) tend to be dominated by women. Also, in wider society, men are not marketed to, not targeted. Men do read, but it’s predominately women who read fiction and who buy it, and so the female author is more likely to get a book contract. Despite this, there’s the fact that, as you rightly say, more male authors are reviewed in the newspapers and at places like LRB and NYRB. But these are only more at one end of a spectrum.

    1. Publishing is mostly staffed by women, but the CEOs are almost all men. So status and power still accrues to men, even if women are most of the footsoldiers. It’s hard to find figures on the number of books published, but in 2011, the gender split of SFF books published in Australia was 55% women (note that Australia is a bit unusual in its number of female SFF writers, I don’t think this is reflected in other markets). The thing is, I challenge you to walk into a bookshop and see this percentage reflected in the books on display: maybe you might find it in YA, but I look at the SFF shelves and I don’t see it. It’s about the books that get noticed and foregrounded, and reviews are part of that. And if this publication ratio is the case throughout all publishing, which may or may not be the case, it makes the reviewing stats even worse.

  3. I can’t really agree. If women looking to progress in an industry were met with “gatekeepers” (for want of a better term) that were men 90% of the time, that would be seen as enormously problematic. It’s no one’s fault that women drive publishing or literary agency (indeed, it’s hugely to their credit), but by the same token, there is zero acknowledgement in forums such as this that the predominance of women in taste-making and agenda-setting could ever be an institutional bias in favour of emerging women writers.

    When I think of the past 12 months in Australian publishing, the heat of attention has alighted largely on younger and emerging women. I can’t think of a single novel by an early-career male that garnered the focus of, say, Lost and Found (Brooke Davis); When the Night Comes (Favel Parrett); The Strays (Emily Bitto, even before the Stella win); The Eye of the Sheep (Sofie Laguna, even before the Miles win). I don’t think that’s problematic in the slightest – but it IS difficult to reconcile the Australian publishing landscape in 2015 with this heavy handed hand-wringing. (I must say, I find these titles very easily encounterable when I walk into a bookstore.)

    The dominance of women in emerging writer programs is even more overwhelming. To look at the last 3 years of the ASA’s Unpaid Mentorship Program is to see 31 of 36 places go to women. Hachette’s Manuscript Development Program this year has come up with a shortlist of ten comprised entirely of women. All well deserved, and all best wished to them – but, again, how does it reconcile with this view that women don’t have a fair shot at a career in writing? Is it really supportable to claim that it is “easier for men to be published” in this country in 2015? The counter argument is easier to make.

    It’s clear that most here are utterly convinced in the disadvantage of being a woman in publishing – at all times and in all contexts. But I don’t think the tone of this article from an established career professional does much for real debate. The Stella Count is shining light where light needs to be shone, but this industry is far from one-way traffic. To wit: noting that a male writer has given one-dimensional treatment to his female characters is a perennial lament in reviewing pages; is it really tenable to invoke patriarchal oppression when someone dares make the converse complaint about Elena Ferrante?

  4. I don’t think this is “heavy-handed hand wringing”. It’s a rant. I’m not sure it does anything for “debate”, either: the point is that I’m sick of “debate”. No matter what evidence is marshalled, no matter how many surveys, careful counts (of reviews, of bylines, of gender in crowd scenes or protagonists, etc etc ad nauseam), the “debate” is always that women have nothing to complain about, that it’s simply not true that women (or whatever other “minority” is being discussed) are disadvantaged by systemic biases.

    I’m talking about structural inequalities, which remain remarkably durable, especially at the top level of everything. Yes, women are writing, and some of them are very good at it: nevertheless, the attention paid to this writing, as shown in the Stella and VIDA Counts (“shining light where light needs to be shone”) shows that space, status and serious attention is given disproportionately to male writers. Despite all the talk. (Maybe have a good look through the links provided in the story). A recent visibility of women doesn’t necessarily mean equity, or even anything near it: this is why things like the Stella Count matter so much, because they reveal structural inequities that go well beyond anecdotage or individual instances. And nobody said “in all times and in all contexts” – romance writing, for example, is an exception, although it’s noticeable that as a female dominated genre, romance is routinely dismissed. You could say the same for YA as well. And as I said, these systemic problems go well beyond gender, to race, sexuality and so on.

    Despite this, you seem to be perceiving a recent visibility of women, and certain programs that seem to be attempting to address these inequities, as female “dominance”. If only. There are reasons why many people are “utterly convinced” of the disadvantage of being female, and I don’t know why you’re so keen to dismiss those reasons. If those systemic things change, I might, very cheerfully, decide to be a woman again.

    1. I would never argue that “women have nothing to complain about.” I didn’t, and the fact you so easily paraphrase my comment that way shows clearly where you’re coming from. I did read the links in your original post (thanks for your suggestion I do so – admirably mansplainy) and I passionately agree that the Stella Count and initiatives like it do vital work. But to read your “rant” is to behold a dystopian dimension in which women have so little going for them in terms of literary opportunity that a despairing hysterectomy of self is the only course left. At the same time, I suspect you don’t defend your claim that “it’s harder for women to get published” because you know it doesn’t hold water.

      The ASA Mentorships and the Hachette initiatives are two prominent pathways for the emerging, and not for one second do I criticise their gender break-downs; they are great programs doing strong work for literature. But there is nothing in their ‘charters’ or mission statement that states they exist to “attempt to address these inequities”; that you can unconsciously class them that way is instructive, as is the fact you would openly long for female dominance (“if only”). It’s totally reasonable to speak of female dominance of these two programs on the basis of their track record, and that is all I did. It’s disingenuous to say otherwise (that I was suggesting female dominance in publishing generally).

      I don’t see male dominance when I like Australian publishing in 2015, and I don’t want to. But when an aspiring writer on the male side of things is addressing proposals entirely to publishers and literary agents who are women, and sees so many visible emerging female writers among his contemporaries, he doesn’t necessarily recognise the picture you paint.

  5. “I suspect you don’t defend your claim that “it’s harder for women to get published” because you know it doesn’t hold water.” It’s hard to find stats that examine gender divisions in published books. Some genres, as I said, are in fact dominated by women. They tend to be genre commercial fiction, not high status literary fiction. Self publishing is pretty well dominated by women but has very low status.

    As I said, the higher the perceived status of anything, the fewer women appear. (But now I’m repeating myself). When women enter a profession in numbers (medicine is one example, teaching another) the status of that profession always declines. Likewise, woman-dominated genres such as YA, romance or fantasy are considered lightweight compared to proper “literature”. (As should be clear, I dispute these categories). These pie charts charting the major literary publishers – whose books are most likely to be reviewed in heavyweight, high status magazines – show that literary publishing is heavily weighted towards men. On top of this, the figures for People of Colour everywhere, and especially WoC, are disgracefully small.

    We do better than the US and the UK in some ways – as I said, SFF figures are closer to equity. But the 2014 Stella Count doesn’t exactly support your view that women are can look with complacency on their place in literary culture. Although, as you point out, women seem to do most of the back room work.

    Small point: I didn’t “unconsciously” class anything. If emerging writing programs are producing lists in which women appear prominently, that doesn’t happen by accident: it is the result of people making decisions very consciously, attempting to address systemic gender bias. That is the only way the wider situation changes. It’s happening in theatre as well, as a result of these conscious processes; but history demonstrates that it’s always two steps forward, one step back. Or, as we’ve seen recently in Federal Politics, three steps back. The real test is how these initiatives prosper in the long term, whether the usual weeding out of women as they progress to higher status positions will continue. I guess we will see.

    In the meantime, your ability to ignore the systemic situation almost completely, and that weird comment about my “open” desire for “female dominance” (a joke, my boy, a joke) maybe suggests why the problem isn’t being solved: people simply deny that it’s a problem. I have worked and lived for 30 years as a woman in a world in which every institutional card is stacked against women, and yes, that dystopia is what I see around me, every day. This isn’t, you see, a personal complaint. I’ve watched the same arguments being made for decades, generating small to no change. And there’s that awful knowledge that if you actually succeed, your success will be used to “prove” to those other women that they have nothing to worry about, even though the broader figures show they aren’t getting a fair deal.

    And in the end, you just get tired of it.

  6. Good charts! Kinda scary. Definitely agree with you on the representation of women and ‘seriousness’ of male vs female writers.

    One thing though: of the publishers I’ve worked for they are overwhelmingly run by women, and no, DEFINITELY not just footsoldiers, but all levels. That said, publishing pay is generally low for the reasons you outlined above (like teaching, nursing, etc).

    1. The ABS reported in 2012 that the number of female executives in Australian business generally was 12.2%. You would think publishers would be doing better than this, and I’d say they probably are. But even so, if you look at the top executives of our major publishers, they are still mainly men. The Random Penguins are doing well with 50% female execs, but the top guy is… a guy. http://global.penguinrandomhouse.com/management/ Allen and Unwin, a man. Scholastic, a man. Macmillian, men. UQP, a man. Harper Collins, a man. Text Publishing, a man. Black Inc, UNNWS and MUP have woman CEOs. (Then I got bored of googling.) Out of ten major publishers, three women at the top.

      Nothing against the men in question, who I’m sure are all excellent fellows, and the last thing I want to do is to erase the woman executives who do exist; but given that everyone agrees that publishing is overwhelmingly staffed by women, why do men dominate at the top?

      1. And now everyone with all these comments is just playing catch up. The debate could have been far more progressive if the original article published by Overland had contained all the stats and facts the author is now coming up with in response to other comments.

        Amateurish tosh!

        1. “But here I go again, collating evidence that structural inequality exists. I don’t need any more evidence. I see more evidence every day. Every day I see how people who are female, or poor, or disabled, or differently sexed, or the wrong skin colour, are carefully filtered out of our white, manly, heterosexual culture. And after decades of being a woman, I’m a bit tired of it all.”

    2. Well I have no idea why the CEOs are pretty much all men and that is definitely something to amend (as I’m sure will happen in the next decade), but that’s about the only executive/managerial position that is uniformly male (aside from maybe accounts?). Good old Walker Books is pretty much all women 🙂

  7. Back to the initial premise of the article – ‘I’m tired of arguing’ – there is too much protesting going on here – as ever – and no action to correct structural inequality – if that is even possible (hence the weary tone) – so what exactly is the point other than getting stuff off the chest?

  8. This is rubbish! Most short story prizes are judged by women and won by women. One doesn’t have to look very far. Overland prizes are the best example that it is mostly women winning.

  9. Seems to me that what the original rant is mainly against is not about publishing as such, but the unfair attitudes to equality displayed by mainstream media, and I am strongly inclined to agree with Alison.

    Trying to make the debate into one about access to fiction writing programmes or female literary agents is a red herring.

    I have a 45 year background in publishing, writing and reviewing, and the media have barely improved in this long period, in this respect. [There are more women working in publishing, these days, but that’s what one has come to expect in sunset industries.]

  10. Women disproportionately enter (emerging) writing competitions and mentorships because they rarely think they’re *born* writers, unlike countless aspiring Hemingways. In my editorial experience, women writers work from the assumption that their writing is less than, that it needs improving, that they are unqualified to write on particular subjects.

    What is really striking about the statistics is that regardless of how many women are published, or what they might be writing on, the fact remains that women – and their ideas, their writing and their intellectual authority – is not taken seriously in the way that men’s writing inherently is. (As but one example: ‘Please delete Beloved and Second Sex, they are good books yet had no world changing impact whatsoever,’ wrote one commenter recently on a Guardian article about ten books that changed the world. Note that these were the only two books written by women that made the list.)

    And if people think low-level women publishing workers are the ones making the decisions about what will be picked up and marketed, then I think that’s a pretty perverse view of the majority of the publishing industry.

  11. I’m never less than impressed when pseudonymous commenters reveal their deep knowledge of the publishing or literary worlds. All literary agents and publishers are women – all of them! All short story comps are judged by women! I don’t read gender but will you women get your foot off my neck!
    No, please don’t bother to fact check any of this or god forbid engage in a cursory analysis of publishing or how a judging panel actually works. A person on a comments thread wrote it!
    Honestly, there are better uses of anonymity than to make plain your incurious ignorance.

      1. Thanks Somethought.
        What part of Croggon’s piece shows a lack of curiosity?
        When she references Le Guin, the Stella Prize or VIDA?
        When she plainly puts the evidence for structural disadvantage?
        When she responds to substantive comments on this thread?
        Croggon marshalled evidence, put a case and is happy to keep the conversation going. That seems like an exercise born out of a fundamental sense of inquiry and yes of curiosity.

    1. Ah James. You’re part of the problem, rushing in to comment sections to defend writers capable of defending themselves. Give it a rest and get back to doing whatever it is you actually do.

  12. Writing and riding chime, but a bigger platform is needed to be heard and understood more widely and where needed in order to make the point, as Michelle Payne ably demonstrated when the opportunity arose.

      1. Further still, I’d love to be a woman writer, or a writer writing from a position of disadvantage. In one Buddhist scripture (I forget which) it is written that if a person takes their clothes off in public, they come back as a tree. I wonder what you would have to take off in public to come back as a woman writer?

  13. A rant is a rant and should be respected as such. But I would like to add that, yes, editors and editorial assistants are overwhelmingly female in publishing, but do you really thing they’re the ones who give the go-ahead on which books to publish? Not for a long time. It’s Sale and Marketing who actually choose – and Sales departments are mostly run by men.

  14. Well this argument went downhill really quickly. If debates like this aren’t nursed by publishers and media, then women may as well just go back to publishing books under male pseudonyms! When you wade through the history of literature, women were often not permitted to even READ anything beyond memoirs. Despite the Warriors and martyrs that made it possible for women to be published, as Jacinda said: many women aren’t confident about their writing or it’s ‘value’. What sort of structures divest women’s writing of its worth? Or who is to say what is or isn’t valuable? More to the point, I personally notice so many narratives and biographies objectifying women writers rather than anchoring their critique in their body of work. The very fact that we romanticise and sensationalise women writers publishing beneath the guise of men must say something about our attitudes towards gendering literature: to avoid addressing marginalisation of women in literary circles is to reinforce the kinds of oppressive philosophies that underpin their lack of acknowledged presence. A really interesting acknowledgment of this is a small book by Guy de Maupassant- I think it’s called A Life. It’s a narrative ironically focused on the life of a man which is really dominated by the presence of a woman. Sure it’s written by a man, but in Bel Ami, by the same author, a mans fame and fate is written by a woman…who writes him into a world of poverty where he belongs. So glad to read this article: not only does it highlight a topic that needs to be discussed more, but it’s really nice to see great people acknowledging the kinds of internalised sense of worth that women are at war with within themselves, in order to be able to write…this is also a rant. 🙂 Thanks Alison and Overland

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