That same old subject came up on AW yet again (Why do more men win awards in literary and most genres of genre fiction than women?) I don't recommend you read more than the first post in the thread. It's long, and mostly full of angry female writers shrieking at other writers (non-angry female and male). This, along with the correct way of dealing with writer's block, seem to be the perennial topics on AW.
The last time I got an overload of the weird backward logic so many women use to spur their anger over the discrepancy in who wins awards, MacAllister freaked out at me and started deleting my posts. So I just stay out of those threads now, because my opinion isn't popular, and I am too outspoken and confident a debater to meekly back down and go with the status quo when I don't believe it's right.
This makes me rather unpopular among certain female writers on AW, which is kind of funny when you think about it, because aren't we all supposed to be in favor of confident, bold female writers who will stand up to anybody if they perceive a wrong? I guess you're only supposed to stand up against wrongs committed by people with penises. Huh.
Anyway, early on in the thread a writer named Lydia Netzer weighed in with her opinion, one I was astonished to read. Didn't she know that you're not supposed to admit on AW that maybe women just aren't as good (yet) at writing award-winning literary fiction? Apparently not. The thread quickly devolved into the predictable rigmarole, with some posters going so far as to compare her to notorious dickwad misogynist V. S. Naipaul. Nice, people. Really nice.
I thought Lydia's point was spot on target, and that her blog post on the subject was incredibly well thought out and helpful in gaining insight into why the discrepancy between the genders (or sexes, really, since we probably don't know the psychological genders of most writers) exists. Unlike the whole AW thread, you should read Lydia's post. Then read my response to her post here, after the jump.
Yeah, it's another long one, guys.
So what do I think about the discrepancy in sex of award-winning writers? I agree with Lydia entirely, but I have a few clarifications I wish to make to explain my own opinion and I have some thoughts to add to Lydia's already well-stated thoughts.
I do think there are a lot of women out there writing on themes that are culturally relevant. I do think that motherhood as a theme, approached in the right way, can be very relevant to everybody, male and female, and can be just as important a book as one about war or abiding friendship or family dynamics or childhood or whatever.
In my experience as a reader, though, not that many female writers are writing in ways that reach out to lots of male readers. That doesn't mean they can't write about motherhood or "women's" themes. Men will read those books if men can connect to them. They will. Contrary to the prevailing opinion in the industry and on forums like AW, most readers, including men, will read any good book as long as they can identify it as a good book. Identifying it as something they might like to read before they even buy it (or decide to review it) is the key.
By the way, let me point out that there are also plenty of male writers writing on "men's" themes in a way that doesn't reach out to female readers. The male writers who win awards are the ones who make their books so accessible and so universal in emotion -- not theme or conflict or plot, but emotion -- that everybody "gets" them. Because in the end, humans are humans, regardless of gender, and we are all able to "get" the best stories, no matter what they're about on the surface.
I mean, have you READ Oscar Wao? Tomcat In Love? Anything by Ishiguro? Who cares that the characters are (mostly) male? What draws you in is the clarity and depth of feeling. The accessibility. The overarching truth. And truth is still truth, whether it's told from a male POV or a female POV, or from a genderless POV.
Now back to that "identifying a good book before you buy it" dilemma.
Personally, I think it's not female writers at fault for not reaching a broader audience, nor is it an inherently sexist industry. But it is an inherently flawed industry. It's an industry that blindly compartmentalizes fiction into easy-to-sell categories. Woman wrote it, deals with sexuality, includes a hint of humor? Chick-lit. Woman wrote it, has a woman MC, heavy theme? "Women's Fiction." Young main character? Young Adult.
When you can segment fiction onto discrete shelves in stores or lists on Amazon, it probably tends to sell better. But being identified by a specific label also makes a book seem less appealing to reviewers, who want to read A GOOD BOOK, not a "women's novel" or a "men's adventure" or a "legal thriller" or a "YA romance."
Now, obviously the industry uses this heavy-handed, narrow compartmentalization because it's working for them. And yes, as a reader it can be a lot easier to find precisely what you're looking for when the entire world of books is neatly categorized and placed on the shelf and coded with "You Might Also Like..." But it also makes it a lot harder to find what you're not looking for -- the book you stumble upon just because of its intriguing title or its beautiful cover while browsing stacks an stacks of spine-out novels. I don't know about you, but I've found some of my favorite books that way, by accident, while browsing. Who the hell browses equally through all the various sections of the modern book store? And who clicks at random on Amazon to get the same effect?
I think if the industry already had the same compartmentalizing/marketing fractures for men's fiction as they do for women's fiction, suddenly the discrepancy would vanish, because authors like Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh, who deal with themes of male aggression and the darkness of being male would find themselves in a category roughly equivalent to "Chick-lit," while the authors like Douglas Coupland and Tim O'Brien, who deal with themes of the depth of the male emotional world and how men relate to the people they love would find themselves in a category roughly equivalent to "Women's Fiction."
If male writers faced the same kind of strong marketing corralling that female writers face, all that would be left outside any category would be those authors who write on themes less easy to categorize. And I feel confident that there would be an even split between male and female writers among the Indescribables. Suddenly, women would be winning roughly as many literary awards as men, although the pool of potential winners would be significantly smaller.
As it is now, female writers' work is carefully scrutinized for its potential to fit into marketing blocks, because those blocks exist. So a big chunk of the women writing about themes which might appeal to a broader number of people (not only men, but also to women who don't often browse the Women's Fiction and Chick-Lit categories) are filtered out of the running.
We are left with the dumping ground for male writers -- the difficult-to-describe hinterland of "Literary Fiction," which I have already tried to express my thoughts on elsewhere. You have a statistically overbalanced proportion of male writers there not because "men's themes" (whatever those are) are more important, but because there's nowhere else to put them. Yes, female writers are there, too, but only if their writing is too broad for the convenience of categorization.
So why are women being categorized by the industry? Because women buy more books. It makes sense from a business perspective to bias your marketing toward the surest crowd of customers. If men read more books, and especially more fiction, the Flying Dutchman of literary fiction would have a much less testosteroney crew.
As I've already ranted about where it pertains to YA, I think this over-categorization of the industry is, ultimately, a bad and stupid thing. It is making it harder for people to find good books, and I like to pretend like I write good books, so I am not in favor of an industry which restricts my potential audience. It's making readers less adventurous by allowing them to stay camped out beside their favorite shelf in Barnes & Noble, where they can find an endless parade of comfortably homogeneous black-jacketed teen vampire novels, or chick-lit novels with pastel covers, or books set in Tudor England. Yay. All those books can be fun, and it sure is nice for the industry to keep a constant stream of reliable cash coming in. But maybe those readers would also really love a well-written story found on another shelf. How are they do find it, when shopping for books is too convenient?
All that being said, Lydia still makes a good point. "Women's themes" like motherhood and sisterhood and how a woman relates to her community or to war or to anything else can be just as culturally relevant as "men's themes" of fatherhood, brotherhood, etc. If those "women's themes" are written in a broadly accessible way.
You can have one book about a woman's biological clock ticking away, and it may feature a Prince Charming potential daddy and a demanding job with quirky co-workers and the potential mother-to-be pulling out her hair over wine and chocolate with her BFF, trying to figure out how to juggle her life. You can have another book about a woman's biological clock ticking away, and it may feature a man she loves who is just too much like her absent father who was an alcoholic anyway, and the potential mother-to-be becoming increasingly more confused and emotionally raw as she tries to figure out how to reconcile her attraction to a man who might not be good for her, and whether to bring the child she desperately wants into the world with another bad daddy like the one she had.
Guess which approach to the same subject is more culturally significant? Guess which one is more likely to be nominated for a major award?
Some really fun but culturally insignificant categories are populated mostly by women. "Quirky" sex tales. Shopping-and-wedding-planning beach reads. Vampires. Reimaginings and sexed-up sequels of Austen's works. Fun, if that's your thing. And fun is valuable. Fun has an important place in our lives. Fun is not something that's going to win the Pulitzer.
Why are so many women writing this kind of thing, instead of insightful examinations of the human condition? I said near the beginning of this behemoth post that many female writers aren't writing in a way that reaches both male and female readers. Why?
For some women, it's because they genuinely want to write the fun stuff. Great! Awesome! Write it! Fun is fun!
For other women, it's because they want to have a writing career, and agents and editors in service to a dramatically fractured and partitioned, over-marketed industry are pushing them to write something more commercial, something easier to label, easier to package, easier to sell. I know. It happened to me when I was encouraged to drastically alter my novel to fit it neatly into the YA category. I said no. Not everybody does.
Books that win literary awards and critical acclaim are books that touch our hearts and our minds in real, lasting ways. Male or female writers can do that. Male or female characters can do that. Male or female perspective can do that. If you want to win awards, write books that matter to our culture. If you're a woman writing fiction, and your goal is to write literary work that reaches a broad audience and that wins major awards, STICK TO YOUR GUNS. Don't let your work be compartmentalized and marketed to a narrow readership. Find the right agent who will help you achieve that goal. Don't become a victim of the industry fracture.
If you just want to entertain your fans (which is a perfectly reasonable and admirable goal), then write books that are just fun to read, but for god's sake, quit your fucking bitching about how you don't win awards. If you're not writing books with the real potential to win awards, then acting all astonished and indignant and being insulting toward men won't change a thing.