You look at the facts — no, let’s get this straight from the beginning…what you believe are the facts — and it’s easy to form a solid, unshakeable opinion when it comes to writing and the sexes. It’s an enormously biased one which focuses solely on one side of the argument, and very quickly you’re convinced: women writers have it easy, or easier, while male writers — excluding the big names — struggle to get their voices heard. The more you think it, the more frustrated you become. Soon, everything you see in life supports this claim, and anyone questioning you is clearly wrong. Female writers? They don’t know how lucky they have it.
I know this because for some time, up until relatively recently, I had been convinced that female writers had it somewhat easier when it comes to gaining attention and the like. My reasoning? Like many, it was the following simplistic world view:
1) Women make up the majority of novel/short story readers on this planet: fact.
2) Many literary agents are female (the exact number is highly debateable, as is their precise level of sway within an industry which is difficult to pin-down and almost impossible to predict).
3) All over the internet, female writing groups are appearing. I doubt anyone would argue with me that the number of female-specific groups largely outweighs male-centric groups. Suddenly, being a female writer is rife with opportunity.
4) Women are (arguably) generally better at offering emotional support — although statistics show that in reality, men are as likely to be empathic as women — and doing this in a productive way which benefits everyone in a group, both on and offline. This alone (apparently) makes being a female writer preferable — commercially speaking — to being a male writer. In short: if you’re trying to sell your debut novel to the world, it’s quite likely that the support of your fellow sex will come in very handy. Even if you are an experienced writer, writing is constantly in a state of flux, so at any time you need all the help you can get.
These are the main reasons. There are many more besides but the point remains the same: on the surface, it would appear that women are at a serious advantage and that men haven’t got a hope in hell. I don’t blame men for thinking this — I know the frustration of breaking through as much as any male writer — although I would urge them to consider all perspectives before they start speaking of this situation as if it is fact.
Thing is, I just don’t believe it now. Another thing is this: I’m getting sick of hearing men complain about it. Here’s why (in relation to the aforementioned points) I think we all need to stop and consider this argument. Maybe then we can work together and not apart.
1) So what if the majority of readers are women? It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. A good book is a good book, and to say that women only read female fiction is an outrage and a lie (if you need further convincing, look at the new-style crime-fiction which many women have taken to both reading and writing). I haven’t conducted a survey, but I am willing to say in writing here that there are millions of women who like to read every kind of genre — thrillers, comedies, history and non-fiction as well as chick-lit. If this fact is true, then, in my opinion, it makes a mockery of the argument that men are at a disadvantage. Publishing may be unequal in many respects, often favouring men — in particular with the books that get reviewed by the biggest publications out there — but that doesn’t mean that every aspect is.
Another important thing to consider, like it or not — and I can only assume that some male writers reading this will not like it — is this: traditionally speaking, women are more in-tune with their feelings, and this is something which I believe is essential for writing of any kind. Could the reason some male writers feel downtrodden be the simple fact that they simply lack the emotional insight that makes writing of this nature possible? I know I’m going to piss a few people off by saying that, but here’s the thing: don’t take it personally. This isn’t an attack on male writers, it’s merely an investigation into what’s really going on here, or what might be in some situations. My point, then, is this: if you’re not able to write about the emotions and inner-world of your characters — more than that: their relationship with the world and the intense kind of thoughts which we all have yet don’t always make public — then your books probably won’t appeal to a large percentage of women out there who make up your potential audience. But there’s no need to panic. There are numerous genres which do not capitalise on this standpoint, and plenty of male writers have success each and every year with books that are a million miles away from the label of chick-lit. Many of these books are written with men in mind, and there are numerous examples of male writers — such as Wilbur Smith — who cater for this audience (or could be seen to).
Even if all this were not true, there are still a lot of male readers out there with big reading habits. Look at the enormous success of Fight Club and you will see that the book had a lot in common with much of women’s grittier fiction. Dark as it was, the writing was about what really mattered to men and this is what people want to see. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female as far as I am concerned: readers will always want to read books which they connect with. This is our ultimate challenge, and gender stereotyping doesn’t have to get in the way of it.
2) If you’re worrying about sending your manuscript to a female literary agent and it being rejected because you are male, stop it, wipe that out of your mind right now. You have much bigger things to worry about and they are not going away any time soon. It won’t be rejected because you are male — probably, unless your work is deemed repulsive or disrespectful to women and that agent found it especially offensive — it’ll be rejected because it just wasn’t good enough. Fact. If a female writer produces a better novel than you do, one which is believed to have a better chance of commercial success, then it will almost certainly be accepted. Of course, there are holes in this argument: the agent might be looking for another female writer, or she might simply be of a disposition which makes her more likely to choose a book which is traditionally more female (although I don’t like that term: I think it’s condescending. Male and female attributes can be interchangeable after all, and there is absolutely no reason to suggest that a man cannot write the kind of story which women want to read). Complicating matters further is the fact that just as there are sexist males out there, there are sexist females who just won’t get on with male fiction and will always be against it. Even if you’re a man who writes under a female name — as many romance novelists have been known to — you may be at a disadvantage. But that? It’s just called LIFE, so it’s a waste of time moaning about it.
Another thing to take note of is that before most manuscripts make it to a literary agent, they go to an assistant for initial evaluation. This means that there is often as much chance of a man reading your novel as a woman (debatable, as many women perform a dual-role as admin/assistant and slush-pile reader, but possible nonetheless). Note: this isn’t just me making assumptions. I can verify much of this with real experience, as many of my editors are females, and in the past I’ve had contact with a number of female literary agents — all who have accepted work from male authors and will continue too as long as they can see good business sense in it.
3) The debate about online female writing groups/reading groups is the perfect breeding ground for male anger and female resentment; in this debate, all the elements of psychology, common sense, reasoning and rationality often go out the window and are replaced with bitterness, anger, frustration and sheer disgust for the incredible success of others. And when you think about it…why shouldn’t the men out there be a little bit miffed? I can, in some ways, see the complainers’ point and see this from both sides. Although, in this case, I would argue that what many men are angry about isn’t the fact that these groups exist. It’s that they feel isolated. That they are not included. They simply wish — as I do sometimes, I have to be honest — that more male writing groups existed. Well, wake the fuck up, dudes, it’s not womens’ fault that evolution turned out this way. Besides, if you’re that concerned, get off your arse and start your own writing group like many of these talented female authors have. Don’t say “they’ll just call us sexist,” either, because to be honest who cares? Women received the same backlash and it did not stop them from forging their own path. I’m talking about history, too. Women haven’t exactly had it easy, have they now? Anything they have achieved in fiction writing should be commended, not belittled.
4) Now onto Women are (arguably) generally better at offering emotional support…
First, let’s look at the case of female comedians: ever noticed how there are very few, popular, professional female comedians out there? It’s got to be hard operating in a world which is so completely male-dominated; where everyone says “you’re shit,” even when you’re actually very good. And the worst thing is that as funny as some of these women are, even after battling for years to reach a similarly high level as some men, they still suffer from a lack of respect — both from peers and the general public. Where men can fiddle their tax and all but get away with it, when a woman steps out of line then the playground politics come out; if she fights against it she’s a know-it-all-bitch, and if she says nothing she’s guilty — regardless of the evidence. Because that’s what it’s all about: composing stories which suit our way of thinking — agreable stories which we can, subconsciously or not, manipulate until we’re satisfied we’re being discriminated against and the world is out to get us. Our biases outweigh everything, after all, and as humans searching for answers where there is often only a complicated pattern of events, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do about that! After a life-time of conditioning and being told that male comedians are better, very few of us are able to see through the bullshit and view everyone on even ground.
So, circumstance can be a pain.
And that’s all this is, I think. It’s not womens fault that they help one another, look after one another and rally to support their friends when the time comes and help is needed. It also isn’t their fault that, when meeting a new female friend, they are often able to put aside their own agendas — like the desire to sell their own book, or their own pure arrogance — and act in a supportive manner. The fact that many men are not capable of this should have nothing to do with it. For me, that us men are so far behind in creating our own reading-group sub-culture is a separate thing and should be treated as such. If us men want things to change then the first thing we all need to do is to stop being jealous and asserting blame. Women have been through a hell of a lot of shit in the past few hundred years, less you forget: they carry our children and often bear enormous parental responsibilities when times get tough (not that men also don’t, but come on guys, we’re not the ones actually having the babies, are we?). These are separate issues too, so come on, let’s focus on the right things. Surely that’s got to be possible? I’m hoping we’re about to find out.