Monday, January 14, 2019

The Reasons to Read Female Authors

By Sandra Ruttan

I was at home, reading a book the other day ...

And I read myself right into a wall of boobs.

Everything seemed to happen at chest level. Although there were the odd moments when the gaze drifted down to the legs, boobs were the focus.

The protagonist never saw a pair of breasts he didn't like, and for a guy who described himself as lacking ambition, down on his luck in the midst of a prolonged dry spell, he sure ran into a lot of boobs. Not 14% of the way in he was bedding the first woman, so at the time the story should have been having its call to action, he was calling for God.

The story's first turning point? Him bedding another woman. The reader isn't even at the 30% mark before the protagonist has had sex three times. With two of those occurrences at significant story markers I was starting to wonder if the book had been mislabeled mystery instead of erotica.

Then I picked up this other book and when something bad happened, the male author had the girl feel longing in her breasts. Let me tell you something; when something bad happens I may feel like my heart sinks or my stomach drops, but in no way are my boobs involved in responding to my emotions. Boys, they don't even naturally perk up when a handsome man walks into the room.

There were a couple of things I took away from those reading experiences. One was the clear conclusion that the author is a breast man. The other was that I couldn't straddle the gender line anymore.

I made a vow. I will read more female authors, and there are plenty of reasons I can think of for all people to set this goal.

  1. We aren't obsessed with boobs. The world is far more than peaks and valleys for us.
  2. Our protagonists don't send dick pics.
  3. We can go more than 5 pages without thinking about sex.
  4. We see men as creatures to be understood, not simply ridden.
  5. We don't trip over our dicks on our way to telling a good story.
  6. Our stories are more than recaps of our mastubatory fantasies.

Now, I may have started that oversimplified list of cliches as a way of venting over the absolute crap I was being subjected to (a low-level older guy who's amounted to nothing in his life and is nothing special to look at doesn't even have to try to have women just throwing themselves at him within a couple minutes of meeting him, legs spread - talk about a fantasy) but my resolve was serious.

I took my tongue out of my cheek and actually asked the question. Why should people read more female authors? And, while an exploration of the benefits of reading one gender risks reading like a criticism of the other gender, it wasn't hard to see that there were some very good reasons to consider author gender when selecting books. I had a draft of a rough post pulled together, and then I decided to do a little google search, and found that I wasn't alone in my thinking.

Why should everyone read more female authors?

1. A lot* of male writers are focused on their own self-importance. And just in case you need that opinion validated by a man:
"(M)any male writers, particularly younger ones, approach their work as if they – and not the books – are what’s important. They obsess about establishing a reputation, while ignoring the importance of just writing something good. I recall one highly ambitious young man telling me all the awards for which his first collection of stories would be eligible and rating his chances of winning each one ... He never mentioned that he’d like his book to make a connection with readers and speak to our times. All he wanted was prizes." 

2. Solidarity. Women haven't been given the same acceptance as men, so the female readership must right that wrong and help correct the imbalance an industry built on sexism created and continues to perpetuate. Studies have shown that it's common for male authors to command as much as 68-75% of review and feature coverage provided to authors by literary magazines and review columnists in both Britain and American. The New York Review of Books "shows a stronger bias. Among authors reviewed, 83% are men." The New York Times Book Review was notably better, with men only dominating 65% of the review space.
"I’ve been publishing novels for almost 20 years. In that time, I’ve become increasingly aware of similar double standards in the industry. A man is treated like a literary writer from the start, but a woman usually has to earn that commendation.
"Last summer, I attended a literary festival where a trio of established male writers were referred to in the programme as “giants of world literature”, while a panel of female writers of equal stature were described as “wonderful storytellers”.

3. Female authors tend to  focus on the quality of the work. Face it, when chances of getting nominated for any awards are slim to none, why worry about that? When the reviewers aren't going to focus on your work anyway, because you don't have a penis, you don't write for them either. You write for the readers.

"Female writers, on the other hand, seem more concerned with just writing good books ... Female novelists in the same situation are usually more interested in talking about books, in engaging with their readers and in sharing a platform with another writer rather than trying to dominate it. They seem grateful for the opportunities publishing has brought them, rather than accepting it as their due." 

4. A lot* of men are writing stereotypes, while women are injecting the breath of life into real characters, regardless of gender. "It’s in their depictions of both genders that female writers have the edge. I’ve grown weary of reading novels by men that portray women in one of four categories: the angelic virgin who manages to tame some quixotic lothario who’s spread so many wild oats that he has shares in Quaker; the pestering harpy who nags her boyfriend or husband, sucking all the fun out of his life; the slut who eventually gets murdered as payback for her wanton ways; the catalyst who is only there to prompt the man’s actions and is therefore not a human being at all, just a plot device. I find female writers are much more incisive in their writing of men, recognising that several billion people cannot be simply reduced to a few repetitive strains."

My recent read is far from the only book I've encountered where female characters seemed to be included for no reason other than to serve as a sexual pincushion. Do these men look at their young daughters and anticipate the moment when some man is leering at them for nothing more than their body parts?

Don't reward these male writers by keeping them in print. They need to go. NOW.

"(I)f the men in a novel behave as if women are simply there to have sex with or to tell them how brilliant they are, what does that say about the novel’s relationship to gender?"
5. Men have something to gain by maintaining the status quo, so many aren't concerned with any need to get women right or alter their approach to women in their work, while women tend to "get" men and present a more realistic perspective of gender and society.

"Having been expected to bring up families while running a home and catering to society’s expectations of what women should be, they have a better grasp of human complexity. My female friends, for example, seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in men’s heads most of the time. My male friends, on the other hand, haven’t got a clue what’s going on in women’s."  

This actually brings to mind the controversy over George Pelecanos' By The Book piece, where out of over two dozen authors of influence noted, not a single one was female. I had my say on the topic - with statistics and sources to support my claims about how women aren't treated equally in publishing or in the mystery/crime genre  - and don't want to simply rehash all of it. But in the same way that I emailed my favorite author recently about a quote I recall from about a dozen years ago, some things stay with me more than others. In the wake of the Pelecanos fall-out it was the attitudes of some male authors I know that grated on me and caused more ire. The fact that they just couldn't be that concerned about it, like it was no big deal, betrayed their comfort level with a system designed to keep women at least a peg below their male counterparts. In the same way that not recognizing that being white has afforded generations of people more opportunities and benefits that people who aren't white haven't enjoyed, the very definition of white privilege, not recognizing that being male has provided access to opportunities women have been denied is gender privilege. That saying, 'If you aren't for me, you're against me' applies. If you aren't willing to recognize the issue and actively work towards equality then you are perpetuating gender inequality.

Why yes, everyone is allowed to like what they like and read what they want. Even a white supremacist is afforded the freedom of speech that allows him to proclaim himself superior because he's pasty. And every decent person's freedom of thought is allowed to consider him scum for saying as much.

In the same way, a man who lives solely off the influence of other men (and insults the only woman he references in his NY Times piece) is fair game to be criticized and questioned for being sexist and by defending him you align yourself with his sexism. The most honest words are actions. If a professional writer can't bring themselves to think of one writer of the opposite gender they can say something good about, there's a problem, and it's indefensible.

If you aren't reading strong novels by black authors, you aren't looking hard enough. If you aren't reading great works by Indigenous authors you aren't looking hard enough. If you aren't reading worthy literary offerings by Hispanic authors you aren't looking hard enough.

If you aren't finding great works by female authors the problem isn't with the women.

6. Female authors cover all genres and subgenres. Women write hard-boiled and noir stories, and women write erotica and women write westerns. While I was taught when studying journalism that a good writer can write anything, given the facts, women actually do write everything.

7. Women are certifiable bestsellers. Since 1940, the percentage of women making the NY Times bestseller list has reached par, and this is in spite of a system that actively works against them by prioritizing review space for male authors and hiring more male writers than female writers. This means that they write great stuff that a lot of people are willing to pay money to read.

8. Our daughters. Let's model a world of achievement for them, instead of perpetuating one of gender limitations. We do this by showing them that they can do anything, that they belong everywhere. We show them this when the words of a woman sit in the hands of a man who isn't ashamed to read a female authors. We show them this when women are consistently (and equally) nominated for awards and when they win these awards. The future is what we make of it, and our actions convey messages to a watching world. Ladies, if not for yourselves, then tell the next generation of women that they can accomplish anything a man can.

9. Only women truly understand the intricacies of gender dynamics for women and how they manifest themselves in our day to day lives. It may sound simplistic, but in the same way that men were hardwired to fight to slay beasts and best others to show their worth as a mate and provider, women were being hardwired to compete at what we might call the feminine arts to elevate their chances of marrying well so that they could be provided for. These days are over. Women no longer need a man to bring home the bacon or give them permission to get a new dress, and yet much of the cattiness generations of conditioning has produced remains as girls compete with other girls for the affections of men. Hell, ladies, why do you want a man you have to "win"? Don't you want a man who worships the hell out of you because he loves you for you, not because you were prettier than the other girl or made yourself fully available when nobody else would?

I've lived this. I was in grade 9 and developed a crush on a particular boy. Not the first, certainly not the last. Unbeknownst to me, another girl liked him. Given that he did have free will, it really should have been down to him to decide if he liked either of us, but the other girl happened to be friends with some pretty tough girls I knew by reputation only. I met them the night they cornered me outside a dance and my 5 on 1 experience was of being beaten until my jaw was permanently damaged. A very decent guy stepped in and pulled them off of me.

I never hit back. And that doesn't make me weak. It makes me better than. But it also taught me that girls see other girls as rivals, instead of allies, and it's made it hard for me to make friends with other women, which is my own problem.

10. Besties before testies. I'm putting it on a T-shirt.

I've been open about the fact that I've had a tendency to read more male authors. I was always a bit more of a tomboy and I grew up with primarily boys my age in close proximity, so if I wanted to go outside and play much of the time I was playing street hockey with the Townsend brothers or fort-building with Ed.

Perhaps the cattiness and viciousness of so many girls I knew deterred me from embracing other female authors as quickly as I should have, for those personal reasons I mentioned. I get books sent all the time with covers that strike fear in my heart, of pages of fashion references and make-up tips and hair primping, and I thought about reaching out to female authors to ask them to recommend other female authors and realized I didn't even know enough that I could approach to get a worthy list together. It's a shame, but I also don't need to be friends with anyone to come up with my own list of writers I recommend.

The more female authors I've read, the more I've appreciated the depth and scope of their work. I have no doubt that when I pick up a book by Val McDermid that I'll lose sleep. Every character she writes compels and her stories are entertaining, shocking, intriguing. The same can be said for anything I've ever read by other bestselling female authors, but I can go far off the conventional bestseller list and name plenty of other female authors who have given me hours and hours of reading pleasure. B. Fleetwood wrote 2 early contenders for my favorite reads 2019 list, since I read them too late last year to consider them for 2018. Imogen's Secret and Imogen's Journey had me up all night. I read them back to back within a couple of days. Other books on my favorite reads list from last year included Hannah Moskowitz's Salt, which was a fantastic YA story about family and redemption and monsters. With all due respect to Joe R. Lansdale (Hap & Leonard!) Terror is Our Business: The Dana Roberts' Casebook of Horrors would not have been the same without the contributions of Kasey Lansdale. Rebecca Roanhorse knocked it out of the park with Trail of Lightning. Another favorite from last year was Nancy Springer's The Oddling Prince.

What I note looking at some of my choices is that, no matter whether the women were writing male protagonists or female protagonists, all of their characters were ones I wanted to spend time with, ones who resonated. I could go even deeper with my reading - Mindy Tarquini's Deepest Blue is an entertaining folktale that looks at family secrets and grief over loss. Jenn Stroud Rossmann looked at ethnicity and identity and what defines family, as well as grief, in The Place You're Supposed to Laugh. Creatures of Want & Ruin by Molly Tanzer pulled back the layers of gender stereotypes in the 1920s and gave us real women who were heroes in the face of evil, and they didn't need no stinking man to take care of them.

Sara Gran's Come Closer is one of my all-time favorite books. While others celebrate Lucy Maud Montgomery for her obvious literary contributions, I'm a sucker The Blue Castle's Valancy, who defied gender expectations for her time and decided to - shock, gasp! - do what made her happy.

I was thoroughly entertained by every story I read in The Dame Was Trouble - a collection of Canadian female authors writing female protagonists in settings contemporary and futuristic. And let's not forget two of the best short story writers I know - Patricia Abbott and Sandra Seamans. Everything they write is superb, made all the more impressive by how hard it is to write great short stories.

There are men well worth reading. The last thing I want to do is attack gender stereotypes by perpetuating other biases. I love men. I married a fantastic one, who has inspired me to read a wide range of works by authors of all ethnic groups, genres and genders.

However, I'll be looking hard at the men I consider reading in the future. If I have a reason to believe there's bias on their part I won't be spending my time with them. I am anxious to embrace diverse authors and read widely in the years to come, and I will not knowingly support any author who perpetuates a system intended to hold back others because of their race or gender.

And if you get women wrong? I'm out of there. Particularly in crime fiction circles, we all know the majority of mystery readers are women, so it's long overdue for male authors to get off their horny horse and have protagonists that look at women with respect, in their eyes, instead of at chest level. Male authors that can't do that need to at least be honest with themselves and their readers and go write erotica.

*I've said 'a lot' because I don't want to paint all male authors with the same brush. With generalizations there are always outliers. My goal is true equality; however, I also realize that in order to equalize things, sometimes the pendulum has to swing the other way for a while before it levels out. So for the next several years we should see more diverse authors being published. We should be seeing less from white males. It's part of the equalizing process, and it is essential to align publishing with the population; if we continue to ignore an increasingly diverse society that does not adhere to the same biases we cease to be relevant. White men will still be published, and read, but it will be a little harder and the wheat will be separated from the chaff. If this means that the racist and sexist authors get swept curbside, then that's a great thing.

1 comment:

Rusty said...

There's an equalization process in progress,you're right. In the midst of it there will be some loud and angry howling. Thanks for being part of the calling-out process, Sandra.