I’m just going to come out and say it: the literary industry is biased in favour of male authorship. As helpfully shown by these infographics at VIDA, we can see that those who identify as women authors have their books reviewed significantly less than male authors. Not only that, but a similar trend has also been noted in Australia, where despite two-thirds of books being written by women, two-thirds of book reviews published focus on male authored books.
Despite the publishing industry being increasingly populated by women, there is no denying the women writers often receive the short end of the stick. As a writer who also happens to be a woman, this is a reality that unnerves me.
Like so many others searching for support, understanding, and honest critique within my writerly pursuits, I have turned to women’s writing groups. Similar to women’s writing magazines like Mslexia, these groups can be great places to bolster the confidence of female writers, getting them the support they need to break into the industry; it can be the perfect platform to help re-introduce female voices back into the literary narrative.
These writing groups can be invaluable to women… but I have also found that they can be detrimental, if they are not handled carefully. But how?
Here are a few things to watch out for, whether you’re running, or attending, a women’s writing group.
Your Gender Does Not Define You
As women, I am aware that the label of our gender often precludes anything we write about. The fact that many women still choose to use male-sounding pseudonyms to find success, or the reality that Amazon lumps women – who write across a wide range of genres – together under the category of ‘women writers and fiction’, shows that regardless of the stories we wish to tell, our gender is often a deciding factor on our success, and where we are placed on the bookshelf.
“You are a writer, first and foremost, not just a woman who writes.”
Within a women’s writing group, it is possible to feel pressured into making your work reflect your gender. When I attended my local women’s writing group, many of the ladies present shared pieces of ‘women’s fiction’ – stories about love, family life and children. And often times, when I pulled out my short story featuring dragons, giant swords, and a predominantly male cast, I felt the atmosphere in the room shift. I left sessions feeling that I wasn’t writing what I was supposed to write — that I should be doing more, as a female writer, to present female issues in my work.
But here’s the thing: a women’s writers group is designed to be a place where women have their voices heard. Women who want to write about women’s issues. Women who want to write about dragons. Women who want to write any idea that’s burning inside of them. The idea is to support women who write, and to help them develop their writing in a safe, supportive environment. If you don’t want to be the next Margaret Atwood, you don’t have to be – you are a writer, first and foremost, not just a woman who writes.
Men as the Norm, Women as ‘Other’
Tara Sparling wrote an article discussing how she hates the label of ‘women’s fiction’. One of the predominant reasons why is the fact that there is such a thing as ‘women’s fiction’ to begin with. Why is there not a ‘male fiction’ category? Why is the male perspective considered the norm, while the female perspective is understood as something inherently different? This issue is most poignantly highlighted by Simone de Beauvoir in her famous text The Second Sex, wherein the male perspective is often considered the objective perspective on reality: “Representation of the world… is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”
However, there can be a recurring sense of self-congratulation within women writer’s groups; a sense that being a woman inherently makes you and your work something special, odd, or different. To do this, whether intentional or not, perpetuates the myth that the male viewpoint is the neutral viewpoint. Women are not inherently special, the same way men are not the objective view of the world.
While I believe it is important to represent the voices of women in this industry, it’s more important to encourage voices that hold substance. Being a woman shouldn’t be enough to earn praise and admiration – writing, editing, turning to others for feedback, being a supportive writer, and creating a beautiful piece of work, should.
Women are underrepresented in the literary industry in many ways, it is true. The views of women are often disregarded as ‘chick lit’, and some gender-specific issues that relate to women are often under-heard, or not represented at all.
“When gathering at a women’s writing group, it’s important to recognise the potential for an echo chamber.”
There is no denying any of this. However, when gathering at a women’s writing group, surrounded by women who have similar perspectives as yourself, who are fed up of not being heard, or who feel hidden beneath the prevailing male narrative, it’s important to recognise the potential for an echo chamber. To perpetuate the same ideas over and over, to encourage a particular way of thinking when regarding books, story ideas, and to feel a sense of negativity towards ideas that do not fit the norm of what a ‘woman writer’ should be concerned about.
Equality cannot be gained by disregarding others. Keeping an open mind, and the ability to openly challenge ideals with confidence, will help to keep the writing group from turning inwards. Women’s writers groups are, after all, a wonderful platform for women to break out into the industry, and can help bolster the confidence of many women who do not feel heard.
Writers are always learning. And these groups are here to encourage that in a healthy, open, and creative space. After all, if women cannot speak freely, write what they wish to write, and be recognised for their hard work within a women’s writer’s group, then how can they do so when they finally release their writing into the world?