Imagining women

During an interview to promote her first book, Into the Woods, in late 2010, Anna Krien was asked by Alan Attwood of the Big Issue why it was that the best nonfiction in the country was being written by women. Expanding on his question, Attwood cited Helen Garner, Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper and Amanda Lohrey as members of the female nonfiction vanguard. Lohrey, he prompted, had deemed Krien ‘brave’, applauding her unflinching analysis of the red-blooded Tasmanian forestry industry in Into the Woods. Hanging in the air without answer, Attwood’s assertion seemed to imply multiple contentions. Was there, perhaps, a mentorship dynamic that could account for the boom in journalistic essays and books being written by women? Had the category of nonfiction subtly shifted to include more intuitive, emotional or psychological writing? Or could it simply be said that after so many years of pioneering feminist thought, women were finally learning to write politically about issues of national concern, to demonstrate complex and noteworthy opinions on industry, business, labour and civics?

In the footage, Krien appears momentarily, if graciously, taken aback. Attwood pursues an earlier question: ‘Let’s talk about the female factor … was it a handicap, or was it possibly a help, to be a woman?’ Krien picks a thread off her thigh and talks about interview technique – how a subject might be more readily disarmed by a female interviewer. She tethers her answer to the specific circumstances of writing Into the Woods, avoiding general declarations about women writing nonfiction.

Then the interview lurches awkwardly forward, into different fields.

During this past summer – a time when women’s writing has been the subject of renewed attention – I have found myself wondering why a direct answer to that question is so hard. It would be exceptionally unusual, one imagines, for an emerging male author to be asked why so many of our best books are currently being written by men. And yet it would also be wrong to say that the query, asked of a female writer, is unforeseeable. As regressive and problematic as the question seems, it remains relevant because of the prevalence of its assumptions in publishing and readership communities. To foreclose on Attwood’s right to ask about the specific role of women in nonfiction is to abandon the opportunity to learn from our stumbling answers.

Sophie Cunningham, Julieanne Lamond, Jane Sullivan, Benjamin Law, Kirsten Tranter and Alison Croggon have all recently addressed the statistical under-representation of women’s writing. Their argument, loosely grouped, is that such poor representation amounts to systemic discrimination, since the writing that women produce cannot be considered inferior or incompatible with the public sphere of literature. The muffling of women’s voices in the written realm is, they suggest, the result of economic and social marginalisation (with which women collude, in dozens of small but palpable ways) and the devaluing of personal or interior narratives in the textual fabric of national identity, where those narratives are feminised and trivialised.

Men, too, write books about family, memory, loss and suburbia. Men, too, adopt the twee, the contemplative, the sentimental and the romantic as literary temperaments. But as the American author Lionel Shriver has pointed out, themes that might be considered quaint and localised in women’s writing are cast as synecdochic and political in books by men. So novels by women writers are often given mawkish, pastel covers – images taken from child-height of bodies, domestic settings and wispy plants – while novels by men are illustrated with images taken from overhead or in panorama, showing buildings, vistas and animals. Of course, there are exceptions, but the distinction still largely holds. Women’s writing is cottage industry – craft – while men make art and ideology.

Central to the argument is the contention that assumptions about women’s writing spill over into our mainstream reviewing culture, further solidifying gender discrepancies in the minds of prospective readers. The most recent set of statistics published by VIDA show both that there are fewer female by-lines in the major journals and that works by women are consistently under-reviewed. But statistics fail to represent the full tenor of criticism when women’s writing is reviewed. A male author writing around parenthood and identity (say, for example, Christos Tsiolkas in his ubiquitous novel The Slap) will be reviewed as charting ‘universal tensions’,1 ‘divin[ing] the zeitgeist of their country’s centre’ and ‘a perfect social document of what Australia is today’.2 A female author writing around themes of parenthood and identity (say, SJ Finn in This Too Shall Pass) will be reviewed as a ‘personal account, told intimately, [as if] between friends’,3 ‘like being on the listening side of a long conversation’.4

This is not to suggest that there aren’t substantive differences between Tsiolkas’ book and Finn’s, but simply that there are active assumptions made about the mentality and intimacy of such narratives, indexed by gender. And it is the way of such assumptions to create downstream effects – not just by censuring (censoring and centring) specific types of writing but by initiating what we might call precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting of aspirations and responses within the individual.

Even before putting pen to paper, paper to publisher, or manuscript to print, the decisions of writers and publishers are configured by gendered expectations. Such precorporation shapes the projects writers will undertake independently (especially emergent writers whose juvenilia offers less material security but more artistic plasticity). Precorporation affects the projects publishers seek to match with more established writers; it also determines what work will be considered ‘commercially viable’ and the books readers will (or will not) buy.

To offer an example: at a panel sponsored by the Stella Prize in Sydney on International Women’s Day, the literary agent Sophie Hamley described how she had encouraged some of the women writers she represented – specifically those working in crime fiction – to publish under their initials rather than their full names. Writers in this genre in particular, she argued, sold fewer books and made less money if readers and reviewers had their purchasing decisions and criticism conspicuously ‘framed’ by the femaleness of the author.

Of course, it is impossible to quantify how much more these writers might have made by obscuring their gender: sales do not turn on the name on the cover alone. But Hamley – who claimed to speak as a pragmatist – could only envisage a prospective readership who would find it an impediment to know that the author was a woman.

The use of initials (rather than a pseudonym) is intended to remove any opportunity for bias. But there is a more insidious effect – by obscuring the author’s gender, the publisher permits the readership to make a purchasing decision without ‘activating’ prejudice. Discrimination is often distasteful, even to the discriminator. If conspicuous indicators of femininity are scrubbed, readers don’t have to weigh up the role gender plays in their reading habits, and so sexism continues unexamined.

But here, a hesitation. I want to avoid glibness when I speak of ‘the literary terrain’ in respect to gender. To be clear, I am not only referring to the publication and commercialisation of writing products but also to a gendered encoding of creative production (often called ‘practice’, as many writers prefer to think of their profession in yogic terms rather than as an act of commerce). The arc of creative practice – its goals, rewards and pressures – also has gendered trajectories, just as specific types of cultural product are so categorised (romance books are feminine, for example; sports books are masculine).

Joan Didion wrote that the impression Time and other journals conveyed of the feminist movement of the early 1970s was of activists motivated not by any socio-economic worldview but by a ‘collective, inchoate yearning for “fulfilment” or “self expression”, a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas.’ This anachronistic, psychosocial account of feminism – politics as just another release of women’s repressed creativity – persists in subtle ways today. In literature, it is expressed in an understanding of women’s writing as therapy, as diary-work, as constructive disclosure: a creative practice that privileges an inner self, rather than pushing outwards in dialogue with institutions and histories.

Some writers have expressly disavowed the label ‘woman writer’ precisely because it implies a notion of the mind embodied that is simply not mirrored in the phase ‘man writer’. Cynthia Ozick, for example, has said:

I absolutely reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ as anti-feminist … People often ask how I can reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ and not reject the phrase ‘Jewish writer’ – a preposterous question. ‘Jewish’ is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and ‘woman’ is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.

No writer wants their work to be treated sui generis, to be valued because their personal attributes satisfy a quota. In her 2011 essay for Kill Your Darlings, Sophie Cunningham asks why women writers are so ‘backwards coming forwards’. But how many of us believe that the qualities of humility and self-effacement should infuse the proper disposition of creators, that the work should speak for itself (a conception so often reinforced by our female peers)?

Discrimination in publishing will not simply be corrected by the printing of more work by women. Equality doesn’t equate to a condescension by the empowered, so that a tokenistic space ought to be opened up for others who are less equal. Neither will marginalisation be rectified by the wider promotion of women’s writing as unique and separate from the prevailing voice of our common literature. If the structures that enable discrimination are to be pulled down, they must first be engaged with – prised up from the ground level and transformed, to build in their place a better discourse. Part of this process is to look at the role of women’s interior lives in our political imagination.

I set out to examine a category of writing that has so far been absent from the ongoing debate over publication bias – specifically, journalistic long-form nonfiction. It’s a small but important part of the market, since these are books that conspicuously attempt to affect political discourse and define electoral behaviour. The book (and perhaps now also, the movie-length documentary) allows room for synthesis and analysis, for exposing conspiracy and scrutinising dynamic phenomena.

Factual narratives, especially those built on investigative research and hard-nosed interviews, have long been considered a masculine genre. Commentaries on war, class and violence have traditionally been the preserve of correspondents with XY chromosomes. But, as Alan Attwood rightly acknowledges, there is a distinctive, if diagonal, history of nonfictions written by women. For Attwood, gender causes the nonfiction genre to slip – augmenting its possibilities, provoking it into new postures and practices. What, though, if we were to invert his logic to ask how nonfiction destabilises gendered notions of authorship and creative practice, and how, in turn, fiction sustains those notions?

In her lecture ‘Professions for Women’, Virginia Woolf pointed out that, at first glance, there seemed very few material obstacles in the way of becoming a novelist, and that this could explain why it was acceptable for women to become writers even before other creative professions opened up to them. One does not need expensive tools or to live in a certain kind of city or even, necessarily, to have supportive peers to produce a novel. One can avoid substantially disrupting family life; one can keep some semblance of household order.

Long before women could move freely in social forums, their minds could roam to the fictive critique of those forums: consider Jane Austen, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and George Sand (Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin). For fiction is not reality – fiction uses metonym and metaphor to create the illusion of reality. An author can always resort to the ingénue’s contingency: it was all made up. Novels can be seditious. But a work of fiction, however partisan, adopts as its premise its inherent untruthfulness. Likewise, when we read fiction, we often think of ourselves as escaping reality.

For the feminist Susan Griffin, there are correlations between the mentality of fictional narratives and the patriarchal construction of women’s psychosocial lives: ‘In the public imagination the feminine world has the same flavour as a fictional world. It is present but not entirely real.’ Griffin’s statement accords with the encoding of women’s creative practice as ‘self-fulfilment’, the dive inside. The techniques of fiction are supposed to come more naturally to women because their inner lives take form in public discourse as a kind of unreality. It is this assertion – that women are keyed to an emotional, interior imaginary to the exclusion of an intellectual and transacting one – that is literary discrimination’s taproot.

As participants and reporters, women are often constructed as removed from the events that commercial nonfiction narratives highlight. To tell a national history from a feminine province or through a female protagonist remains, in some sectors, revisionist.

In the moments before Attwood shifts gear in the interview with Krien, she skids into an important afterthought on female nonfiction writers: ‘When the story isn’t taking them seriously, [women] can actually get more of a foothold, and better observations.’

Here, then, is the transformative device that makes the story take the author seriously. The fact that the narrator is somehow below the story’s level of interest gives her a subversive edge. Writing nonfiction not only destabilises gendered notions of authorship, it destabilises gendered notions of authority.

The writers that Attwood lists so often engage in pursuing an inner narrative alongside an outer one throughout their books (an inheritance of New Journalism and so-called ‘creative nonfiction’). They accept that an exploration of the unknown may fail to produce a consistent narrative path – that unity of self is in fact a limitation. These are writers who show us their shifting, inconsistent selves, not out of narcissism, but because not to do so would be inauthentic. They incur upon the narrative; they let the narrative trespass upon them. They use lyric, the language of poetry, and swear and slang with equal grace. They accept Richard Bausch’s provocation that ‘bad politics hurts people on the personal level, and good writers report from there about the damage’.

Truth, for many of these authors, is a product of bodily experience. Of registering a fact that loosens something in the nervous system, only later made available for cerebral analysis. They find a middle path between Cynthia Ozick’s rejection of embodiment, and the essentialism of women’s thinking so ensnared by their corporeality. The mind has always formed thoughts in a sensual context, they argue, has always been an instrument of erotic instinct and perceptive impulse. These authors do not allow knowledge to be fenced in the scant fields of the discarnate. They are comfortable leaving contradictory evidence in a state of structural friction, rather than resolving divergence into simplification. They seek, to quote the psychologist William James, ‘the reinstatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life’, even as their writing advances an overtly political agenda (indeed, this recognition of irreconcilable complexity is itself, a political act). In short, these are writers who use nonfiction to burn down the barriers between masculine and feminine discourse, inner and outer worlds, form and content.

While I have been writing this, a certain anecdote has been running around in my head. How at the first launch party I ever went to, for an anthology that included a (fictional) story I’d written, an older woman writer whom I greatly admired approached me put a hand on my shoulder and noted how bold it was of me to have come to the launch alone. ‘I’ve been watching you,’ she confided, ‘I think it’s wonderful to see a young woman so self-possessed.’ She seemed to mean it as sisterly solidarity: how hard it is to meet new people without an escort or friends, what confidence to navigate a room of strangers solo. At the time I believe I felt proud. Until she left, and then I felt freakish. Un-emboldened by the comment, I thumbed my champagne glass and studied the cover design for an hour before leaving. It was, of course, a kind of aspersion – one that hinted at demurring. You’re single-handed, on the outside of this scene, there wrapped up in yourself.

In thinking about the relationship between genre and gender, I mean to claim those attributes. Not to champion writing that is dainty, plaintive or detached. Nor to argue for the aesthetes’ belles-lettres, or work obsessed with the personal to the point of being trite, but for writing that challenges itself to new kinds of transformational knowledge, writing that uses genre conventions to meddle with what we think of as ‘authority’ in our public literature – a kind of praxis. Of all the arts, literature has the best capacity to examine the reality of how we dwell in ourselves, the world and our public discourse. ‘Woman’ is not an imaginative category. Yet categories of the imagination challenge the way women’s creativity is politicised. In nonfiction might be found a set of tools with which to begin loosening the screws, and shaking the building.







Rebecca Giggs

Rebecca Giggs is a Western Australian writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

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