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On Books and Gender


This year, I’m taking the AWW challenge to read books by Australian women writers. I’ve read ten without reviewing any, and wanted to set down some thoughts – not as a review, but as a sort of pre-review purge and audit of the status of women, at least in my reading list. It’s turned out to be a difficult post.

Gender is a tricky business. I’ve never been femme, and find a lot of the mainstream representation of ‘femininity’ leaves me feeling like an outsider (see #dailywife). I feel most aligned with other women when going into battle – as feminists and as people who work together for liberation. The mainstream heteronormative and white-supremacist narrative of femininity is deeply problematic for me.

At present it seems to me that gender is more of an issue than it has ever been, at least in my adult life. Perhaps because there is a conservative slide or backlash happening. The challenges to reproductive freedom in the USA are frightening, as is the social conservatism of some of our politicians here in Australia. I don’t mean to take all the credit, but I think the current anxiety around gender is partly to do with the increasing acceptability of homosexual relationships. Threatened, heterosexuality feels the need to go into performance overdrive. It panics and covers its girl children in pink glitter. In a fit of apologetic conformity, gay couples contort themselves into heteronormative patterns. The equality part of marriage equality would be nice, but it means conforming to a standard we used to be more interested in breaking apart.

[The aggressive marketing of pink stuff to girls is a more complex discussion than this post allows, but it is clear that capitalism plays a strong role in reinforcing gender stereotypes.]

What does it mean to write from this place? Aside from writing about queer experiences, what does the study of gender tell us about human experience, how does this feed our literature? I grew up reading feminist science fiction, Atwood and Le Guin, and writers like Angela Carter, who went back and fucked around with gender norms, or cruised into the future and figured out other possibilities. Fiction has long been a way of writing about gender, from Herland to Orlando to Middlesex. It is rich territory for a novelist because it intersects all these other social processes and power structures and relationships, is even embedded deeply in our language.

I was reading an interview with Jeffrey Eugenedes in the Paris Review (#199 from memory) where he said that ‘every writer needs to have a hermaphroditic imagination.’ Not that straight, cisgendered types can’t write, but that great books do not restrict their sympathies. Great writing steps outside prejudice and stereotype. Great writers have imagination – an ability to switch into another body, another soul. Imagination should transcend gender. To write, you have to be able to see people, complexity, character – not divide humans into binaries.

Part of writing well is keeping a watchful mind. You have to interrogate what you are doing because it is always easier to reach for the nearest cliché. While inventing, you have to check your assumptions and break your habits of thought. Habits are powerful, but only when you let them stay concealed. They are easy to ignore when we’re not thinking about them. Just as you might reach for a clichéd metaphor, I might reach for a domesticated female character, or an active male protagonist; an editor might reach for a good quality short story in a pile of submissions from men.

So as a reader, even as a reader who generally reads many books by women, I have welcomed the AWW challenge. But I’ve been bothered by it too, in that there’s a lot of gender essentialism creeping into the discussion. Women are sensitive, romantic. We care about feelings. (And men are all autistic? No thanks). I wonder if we are rewarding the books that give us good examples of woman-work, or man-work. Do women fail differently? Are we punishing women who write outside their perceived sphere of interest, the home? Why do we notice how family-oriented a woman’s story is, or ignore some of the more challenging or experimental books by women, or avoid calling women’s literary choices decisions?

It is not possible to be gender blind. It is only possible to interrogate the judgements that you make about gender, and the way that gender operates in your decision-making, and try to account for it. As a queer woman I am well aware of the subtle (questioning, pigeonholing, jokes) and not-so subtle (violent assault, discrimination) ways society has of policing gender. Gender essentialism doesn’t just punish the freaks, though. It stereotypes everybody. It might be everyday, assumed in many contexts, embedded in the language, but like racism, just because we are used to it, doesn’t mean it is right or natural.

What does it mean to be a woman who is good at maths and map-reading, likes thinking, hates pink, wears sensible shoes, writes difficult novels, doesn’t want to bear children? It shouldn’t mean anything about my social status. The thing about learned behaviour is, you can change it. Most of what I know how to do well, I have learned. Having a robust enough ego to withstand the trials of sustaining a writing career is learned, just as putting yourself down and saying you can’t do it is learned. Some days this is a harder battle than others. Sometimes I have to go back through my writing and take away the qualifiers of ‘maybe’, ‘kind of’, ‘I think’, and ‘I feel’, pay attention to why I put them there in the first place. Just as our writing is more likely to be rejected, women are more likely to accept relativism and deny ourselves authority. This is how we are taught to be (I reckon authority should be challenged, but there are better ways than self-denial to accomplish this).

Coming at this issue from a strong conviction that gender is constructed (if you disagree, go and read Cordelia Fine, then we’ll talk), I find I am disappointed by the old-fashioned terms of the debate. There’s something a bit Feminism 101 about asking whose fault this is. It doesn’t matter whether women write differently from men, or whether we have different preoccupations. Or whether, amongst women, you can have a complete spectrum of human experience (VS Naipaul certainly has no authority over mine). In the end, that’s not the issue. It’s an unanswerable question. I actually think it’s a distracting conversation.

Okay, there are more pressing gendered problems in the world. Family and sexual violence. Reproductive freedom. The suicide epidemic among queer youth. Dismantling capitalism. But you know what? Publishing more women, that’s actually a very easy problem to solve. A quota or woman-only edition is an easy thing to make happen. Reading more women writers? Easy. All I had to do was agree, and shift my behaviour very slightly. Structures and limits can and do help redress informal inequalities in organisations, and in individuals (you can google the studies). They operate best as part of a bigger-picture, longer-term strategy. So when people dismiss affirmative action as an inefficient or unfair way of solving the problem, well, that’s just lazy. If you don’t think it’s a good enough answer, think of a better one. And until you do, use a quota, or some other structure, because it’s much easier than constantly keeping these inequalities and presumptions in mind, and much better than ignoring them. While you’re at it, read and publish more people of colour. More migrant voices. More Indigenous voices. And please, get on with it, so we can get on with fighting those bigger battles.

The experience of deliberately reading books by women has been wonderful because it has been social. The most joyful parts of this exercise for me thus far have been firstly, having the challenge as an excuse to buy contemporary Australian fiction, and secondly, having conversations about writing on the web, which has helped me to discover ‘lost’ classics like Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers, a book which has utterly delighted me. Introducing the challenge has led directly to enriched and enlightening discussion.

I haven’t written much about gender and writing. This is in part because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a feminist writer (who only writes for and about women) or a gay writer (who only writes for and about “gay issues”), and partly because gender is such a messy and tricky problem to discuss. But it’s also a way of trying to avoid the fact that these things put me in a vulnerable place, socially and professionally. I really, really don’t want these obstacles to be there. I don’t want to be subject to them. That’s not how I want to live.

But I can’t ignore it and hope it goes away. Writing by women is constantly devalued. When I know that my words will be devalued, it becomes difficult to speak or write. Let me quote from that great rant on Franzen in The Rejectionist:

“If I ever create anything noteworthy, will people spend the next century and a half critiquing my looks and my sex life, pelting me with insults for trying too hard to be one of the boys? If one of the most famous female novelists of our time is still critiqued for her looks and sex life, what the hell can I expect?”

I am [deletes qualifier] good at this book-writing lark because I am disobedient. I’m good at being an exception to some rules, and breaking others. To be a writer is to persist despite many and varied obstacles. From the subtle sabotage of self-questioning to the obvious impenetrability of certain institutions, there are plenty such obstacles. They usually only become visible to us when we come up against them (hence ‘glass ceiling,’ remember?). We should be rewarding women writers for succeeding in spite of these obstacles, ‘backwards and in high heels’ (or in my case, comfortable sneakers).

We need to choose to combat the habits of oppression. We need to use the clumsy tools we have to work together across a spectrum of politics and experiences. Our liberation is bound up together. I have been surprised and dismayed to see that all of the Australian women writers I have read for this challenge so far have been white. Surprised, because that privileging of certain voices was invisible to me as a white person, until I looked for it. So I am going to step up and change it (it’s easy to change). The next five books I read for the challenge will be by Australian women of colour. I’m eagerly awaiting new titles from Ali Cobby Eckermann and Marie Munkara. More suggestions are very welcome.

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9 Comments

  1. I was surveying my own reading for the challenge yesterday after Ben Peek’s thought for the weekend – “In Australian Speculative Fiction we are rapidly approaching a time where the fight for equality will not be on gender disparity, but instead on matters of race and sexuality.”

    My reading for the challenge was very white and very straight.

    I couldn’t think of a SpecFic writer who was Aboriginal/non-white. I will have to go outside of my “dabbler” category to find women of colour.

    Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Thoraiya wrote:

    Sean, I had Alexis Wright and Tara June Winch on my to-read pile; I managed to read some of Anita Heiss, Sally Morgan and Melissa Lucashenko.

    Spec Fic, there’s Yaritji Green, who had a story in Eneit Press’s anthology “Baggage,” and Archie Weller, who has a story in UAPress’ “Walking the Clouds.”

    Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  3. jenjen wrote:

    Via Twitter, a few links to lists of women writers of colour. Here’s some:

    http://tseenster.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/aww-2012-diverse/

    and here: http://anitaheissblog.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/anitas-bbc-black-book-choice-reading.html

    Keep them coming!

    Monday, March 26, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  4. Shelleyrae wrote:

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. I found it very interesting.
    I have previously read several titles by Australian women of colour (eg. Anita Heiss, Sally Morgan, Randa Abdel Fattah, Rebecca Lim) though none specifically for the challenge so far this year. I do have a few on my wishlist however

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

    Monday, March 26, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  5. tseen wrote:

    Thanks for linking to my post on women writers of diverse heritage, Jennifer. :)

    I’m adding to the list as people forward suggestions (Rebecca Lim added this morning, courtesy of @ElizabethLhuede!).

    Thanks also for a great post – very much enjoyed reading it.

    Monday, March 26, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  6. meg wrote:

    Hey Jennifer, I was the lady who wrote the Franzen-rant for Le R’s blog that you quoted here. Thanks for the link and glad you liked it!

    Obvi I agree with all of this! Jeanette Winterson in particular I think has said in interviews/written a lot of good stuff about how she’s a writer who happens to be queer and feminist, not a “lesbian feminist writer,” which is something I find myself concerned with far too often.

    But I am curious what you mean by “In a fit of apologetic conformity, gay couples contort themselves into heteronormative patterns” ? As a gay-ass but girly-looking usually-read-as-straight lady in a (decidedly not heteronormative in dynamic) long term relash with a twinky/boi/butch type I’m sort of skeptical of the suggestion that queer pairings that visually read as butch/femme or something are heteronormative? or that girly-looking queer ladies are necessarily participating in some sort of hetero paradigm or something? I dunno. I think there’s a lot to unpack there but am a little curious as to what you meant there.

    x m

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  7. jenjen wrote:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. M, I was mostly referring to the big campaign for gay marriage in Australia – not meaning to judge anyone’s legitimacy, just bothered by how focused we sometimes are on becoming more acceptable. I could have expressed that better.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  8. aggyk wrote:

    Great post Jen Jen, as always I dig your work.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  9. Thanks for the links peeps.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink


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