Writing While Female: Romance and the Vitality of Literary Culture

Oh, it's been an interesting few days across the book-o-sphere. Two recent articles have come to my attention, both of which deal with being a woman in the writing world.

One

First, via the inimitable Bookslut, we have a link to this piece: How to pitch (stories) like a girl.

It's about nonfiction writing rather than fiction writing, but take a look at this neat piece of rhetorical maneuvering:

At “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” which was organized by women’s nonfiction storytelling organization Her Girl Friday, a panel of experienced journalists and editors rejected suggestions that sexism or gender bias is exclusively responsible for the gap. Instead, they emphasized the need for young female journalists to develop the confidence to let rejection roll off their backs.

“You can’t see rejection as a real reflection of your value,” said New York Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan. “Every day, seasoned reporters pitch and get told no. Practicing pitching makes you a better pitcher. Rejection is part of the process.”

You see what they did there? It's not that the industry is biased against lady journalists, it's just that lady journalists aren't as professional as the men journalists. Yeah, I can see how sexism isn't a the problem AT ALL. And using a headline riffing on a sports-based taunt that reinforces the stereotype of women as automatically less skilled/talented in a male-dominated activity is SURE TO HELP.

Another lovely passage:

Although the majority of the discussion focused on confidence, the panelists also reviewed basic pitching guidelines: Spell the editor’s name correctly. Be familiar with the target publication. Explain why you are the best person to write the piece.  Keep pitches short. Always ask, “So what? Why me? Why now?”

Here is another way that sentence may have gone -- see if you can spot the difference! Although the panelists also reviewed basic pitching guidelines, the majority of the discussion focused on confidence. There is no need for this article to reiterate those pitch tips that hold true across fiction and non-fiction genres alike -- the much more relevant story here is that if you are a woman writing journalism, and you feel less than encouraged, that is your own damn fault:

“Female writers will pitch us, we’ll say no, and we’ll never hear from them again,” said Ratliff. He admitted that only two of Atavist’s last 15 stories were written by women (a confession that prompted a good-natured round of booing), but emphasized his commitment to correcting that imbalance.

Imagine -- women think that a rejection means their work is not good enough! When clearly it just means I haven't heard of you before, so clearly you are not serious. Try again later, if you can properly decode my unspoken expectations!

Essentially what they are doing is blaming the victims of marginalization for being marginalized. It discounts the fact that there are very real, palpable forces that convince women of their own lesser worth and minimal authority. Maybe we should think about changing those structures, instead? But no -- it's not that we live in a patriarchy/kyriarchy that silences all but privileged voices -- it's that those silenced voices just aren't yelling loud enough. (And when we do yell, we're hysterical or emotional or irrational. "What a fun game!" said no woman, ever. "I love not winning.")

Although they offer some rather condescending advice hardly specific to print journalism -- "Spell the editor's name correctly"? YOU DON'T SAY -- this passage about organizing group Her Girl Friday gives me reason to hope:

The group developed such an enthusiastic following that almost 500 people registered for Tuesday’s event on its Facebook page, and organizers had to set up audio for the attendees who spilled into a second room. Most of the guests described themselves as print journalists, but there were a fair number of documentary filmmakers and photographers in the room, too. Throughout the evening, the crowd was friendly, convivial, and supportive – exactly the kind of atmosphere that Her Girl Friday organizers hoped to build.

Sound familiar? This describes every romance conference I have ever attended. In fact, one of the very first things I learned about the romance industry when I was starting to really study it as a dewy-eyed undergraduate was that it is cheerful, and supportive, and welcoming -- as described in this life-changing episode of This American Life, which pretty much cemented my ambitions to write romance. Because I had spent plenty of time by then talking to other people who loved books, and who wanted to write literary fiction or sci-fi or fantasy, and I always came away with the clear conviction that the moment I opened my mouth and said, "I like writing love stories, here is one of my opening chapters," there would be disappointment and dismissal and the cruel, curled lip of scorn.

Two

Speaking of the curled lip… here, via Dear Author, is that second link I mentioned: Sarah Wendell taking a Kirkus reviewer to task for his ignorance of the romance genre and general assholery.

Allow me the liberty of imagining what was going through our reviewer's head:

Oh goodness gracious, I have to sully my critical faculties by reviewing an historical romance. Everyone knows romances are mindless bits of sexual titillation for bored country housewives, not hip urban sophisticates -- they're sold in drugstores and in Walmart, not in respectable bookstores like the Strand or City Lights. How can they be important? Nobody ever talks about them except for women. If romances were important, men would be writing them too ... Oh, this romance was actually well-crafted. I shall conclude not that my initial assumptions were false, but rather that this is the one intelligent historical romance that has ever been written in the history of the world.

The Ladies' Underground

These articles came from different corners of the book-loving interwebs, but they are deeply connected by the same tired old gender imbalances in the literary world. Women and women's writing are automatically less serious and worthy of critical interest, as though words can become less robust, less true, or less incisive when the hand holding the pen or tapping the keyboard belongs to a woman rather than a man. (Someone explain to me why Jonathan Franzen is so great again? Or better yet -- don't.) It is a great deal harder for a writing woman to achieve the same level of recognition as her male peers -- as evidenced by two years of VIDA numbers -- not least because she knows that if her writing has any flaws or failings, those will be held up as marks against all writing women everywhere. This is a huge burden of responsibility, and authorship is not the easiest life to begin with -- are we really going to blame women for being discouraged at this?

Romance as a genre provides a definite relief from the pressures of representation, but the genre itself is still the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. It did not take me long, however, even a decade ago in my naïve undergrad years, to realize that some of the most innovative, exciting, ground-breaking storywork was being done in the romance genre. The closing of bookstores like Borders and countless smaller independents (I will always miss you, Fremont Books!) has made many people despair that a once-lively American literary culture is fading fast -- but in romance, new genres and subgenres are appearing nearly every day. We have scholarly journals and college courses and academic texts dedicated to treating romance as an art and a subject worth serious consideration. Writers are taking risks with old conventions, or pushing boundaries both sexual and social -- and we are doing it as part of a broad conversation with readers, reviewers, and scholars about what a romance can be, and what a romance can do. It's similar to what McSweeney's is doing with literary and experimental writing -- but a thousand times bigger (and with significantly less self-conscious irony).

And it's all happening almost exclusively without mainstream literary acknowledgement.

The current startling popularity of the Book That Shall Not Be Named But Whose Title Rhymes With Schmifty Shmades has really made it clear how deeply out of touch mainstream literary media are with regard to romance, and erotic romance in particular. "This one has spanking!" people cried, while erotic romance fans are over here with our ginger-figging and our office-supply erotica and our cowboy pegging and who knows what else. And The Guardian, who just last year created a marvelous quiz to see if people could tell the difference between male and female writing styles (that included a passage by Harlequin author Laura Abbott as well as Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood), has recently compiled a list of other popular dirty books in the E. L. James mode -- a list that includes Judith Krantz, "Mills and Boon" (because they're all the same, of course), Flowers in the Attic, Wuthering Heights, and the poems of motherfucking Sappho. I mean, sure, I love Sappho as much as it is humanly possible to love Sappho -- but she's hardly current, is she?

Am I the only one who looks at such things and wonders: Where the hell have you been for the last two decades? We have done so much work in that time! And the so-called literary world has no idea!

You want a thriving literary culture? You've got one, provided you can check your assumptions at the door.