On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.


None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.


Writing Bubble

11 thoughts on “On women and writing

  1. Emma

    I am sure that I read male authors because there weren’t many female ones. and then as I grew older more women were published and they spoke to me so I sought them out. Perhaps it’s time, perhaps it’s life, but I’m following the same pattern as you.

  2. Tara Borin

    So many interesting points here, Sophie! I make a point of reading female authors as much as I can. I pretty much only read poetry written by women these days. I don’t know why that is, exactly. Just that it speaks to me on a deeper level. I’d even venture to say I prefer it. What really got me in this post, though, are you musings on motherhood and writing. I look at my 3 kids sometimes and think that there is no way I’ll ever become a published writer; how could I, with THREE?! But then I realize that having all these babies makes it even more important to me, makes me that much more determined to carve out an identity apart from mother. And as for the age thing…I remember reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (it’s a great story, I recommend it!) and finding out that she wrote it in her 20’s. I think I cried! But we don’t have to put out a prize-winner in our twenties or dry up forever. There are absolutely more paths than that! With age, with life experience, we can only get better. Your writing is important, it does matter. Keep at it!

  3. maddy@writingbubble

    Ooh, so much to think about in this post! You know, I actually think I’ve always read more books by women. When I was younger it was Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) for the sentiment, Mildred D Taylor (Roll of thunder hear my cry) for shocking tales from the American Deep South, and a fair few classics too like Jane Austen and the Brontes. More recently my love of the psychological thriller has fitted well with female authors and I LOVE Rachel Joyce (I see her book in your pile!) and Lianne Moriarty. But I’ve read a couple of the articles you refer to and they’re shocking aren’t they? That being male (or seeming to be) should affect an agent’s or publisher’s choice – it’s so wrong.

    As for the value of being a mother and writer – I think they’re incredibly meaningful. I read an article by Lauren Lavern recently about finding meaning in being a DJ and I think it’s similar with authors – bloggers too – we have the potential to touch people in ways we might never expect. Certainly, books I love really make a difference to me, even if it’s just to pour happiness or thoughtfulness into my day. And motherhood – we’re raising little people and I always think there’s value in that. Ok, this has become another epic comment. As usual you’ve made me think! Thanks for sharing with #WhatImWriting

  4. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    Ooh! What a thought provoking post! I am mostly sure (although I can’t check as all my books are still currently boxed up from our house move last year) that I have favoured female writers, as I think I ‘understand’ them more with their female POV. In fact I think I have only read one story that I can think of where I noted the main character was the opposite sex to the writer. Of course it does depend on genre too; sci-fi is predominatly male, but I also love thrillers where I have found quite a few female authors. I share your view that becoming a mother gave me drive and allowed me to pursue my creative imaginings. The alternative view seems antiquated in tying mothers to their children and kitchen sinks, I think the world has moved on. Although as women, we do have to see that we have a valid place alongside men, which is perhaps the remaining difficulty. xx

  5. Nicola Young

    Yes, I have also favoured female authors, though I’m not sure if that was a conscious decision either – you’ve really made us think about this Sophie! I know what you mean about whether writing is a worthwhile pursuit over a ‘proper job’. I most definitely put the writing to one side in favour of other work and it annoys me, as I think I might never get a novel finished if I always have to do that.

  6. Emily Organ

    A brilliant post and I think the dominance of male authors says something more about the gatekeepers to publication than anything else (I like this article from The Guardian which talks about the dominance of women in self publishing http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/06/self-publishing-lets-women-break-book-industrys-glass-ceiling-survey-finds). Traditionally men have dominated the written word, when I look at my own book collections I see quite a balance luckily – but that’s because I’ve made a lot of effort to read as much variety as possibly. I once read that men prefer not to read books written by women (but that could be something the publishing world made up). I think it’s sad J K Rowling had to make her name unobviously female and then she chose a male pseudonym! Robert Galbraith. Not helpful. And there’s also the fact the publishing world has created an entire ‘women’s fiction’ genre of its own complete with flowery twee book covers which few men would go near. I’m sure many men would enjoy ‘women’s’ fiction if it didn’t look so girly. Your reading pile looks fab, there are a few there I have tried and a few I’d like to read too.

  7. Sara (@mumturnedmom)

    This is so interesting, and I’m going to have to come back and follow some of the links in the post and read more. I think (although like Alice. most of my books are still in boxes) that I actually read a lot of female authors. When I was younger I read mainly fantasy, and of my top ten authors in the genre, I would say 4 or 5 of them are women. I read a lot of crime fiction, and all but a couple of my preferred authors are women (like Karen Rose, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, PJ Tracy…) and I have to admit I’m partial to chic lit 🙂 Hmm, once my books are out of storage I’m going to have to have a good look! My shelves will be full of Banks, Brookmyre, Parsons, Eddings, Feist… but a lot of women too! Love your reading pile 🙂 Rachel’s Holiday is a favourite of mine and I love Maggie O’Farrell (After You’d Gone is on my top books list), in fact I’m actually reading Instructions for a Heatwave at the moment!

  8. 38to39a

    Very interesting and thought provoking. I like to think I’m even handed in my choice of author, but I now need to go and examine my choices! I know I didn’t start writing books until I had my children: the plus point of post natal depression was that it made me examine my life choices and go for what i really wanted, rather than what other people thought I should. I hope that the more women, the more mothers who write and get published, the easier it will be to see the balance of books on our shelves changing. There are many years to make up for, however, and I’m now tempted to send out book proposals under a male or genderless pseudonym!

  9. Teika Bellamy

    Sophie, I recognised a lot of the links you cited re: sexism in the publishing industry, which is why I think independent presses show a real strength as they can be far more committed to publishing books regardless of gender, colour or background. The VIDA statistics are pretty scary too. http://www.vidaweb.org/
    Statistics don’t lie. Yet there is a lot of lip service paid in the publishing industry about not being sexist and yet, time and time again, the statistics show the truth. I think the bias is simply unconscious and unthinking. Questioning the status quo is good. Once you see the world through the feminist lens it is never quite the same again.
    And I hope you’ll one day add some Mother’s Milk Books books to that pile too!

  10. caramckee

    So glad that I’ve read this, thank you. I too have an over-representation of men, and I’ve noticed that people take my writing far less seriously than men writers that I know. My local writing group had a poetry slam recently (for the first time), and while about 2/3 of participants were women, 3/3 of the top placed poets were men! I have been writing for a while now, and people keep asking me if I’m looking for a job. Men friends don’t get asked that. I used to write a column for my local paper (unpaid), until I realised that the other columnists were all journalists retained by the paper (and therefore paid, although not specifically for the columns), and, guess what, all men. In fact, when the local paper took me on the editor said that it had been a while since they’d had a column written by a woman. He was hoping for flower arranging and baking.

    I lack confidence in what I do. Of course I do. Women are raised to lack confidence in what we do, and the values that respect men’s craft and belittle women’s ‘hobbies’ continue to permeate.

    Loving your work. Thanks again.


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