Gender Bias In the World of Writing

This week the Debs are talking about being a woman writer–how does gender play a role in the business of writing?

The world of publishing, reading and writing is fraught with gender bias at every twist and turn. Case in point:

V.S. Naipaul, who I was very disappointed to know is an angry, abusive, misogynist, said that women will never be able to write as well as men, saying in the London Evening Standard, “”I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” The reason: a lady-writer will betray her “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” Also, “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.””

To counter this, the Guardian set up a test to see how well people can tell the gender of the author. Fortunately, I failed miserably. That same article references another site that tries to determine who the author of a piece of uploaded writing might be. It was broken but I found another. I took a chance and uploaded the first page of FEAST OF SORROW. I felt pretty strong about them not being able to identify the author as a woman and sure enough, I was right. For this test, submitted text is evaluated based on two types of writing: formal and informal. Formal writing includes fiction and non-fiction stories, articles, and news reports. Informal writing includes blog and chat-room text. (Email can be formal, informal, or some combination.)

I often hear that my writing is sparse, and the (very nice) review that the Associated Press did said as much, “King’s writing style is spare and simple, but she brings to vivid life the twists and turns of both families — slave’s and master’s.”  I am someone who tends to get more to the point in my writing than spending time with over-wrought description. In light of the article above that I reference, I wonder if the reviewer hadn’t known I was a woman, would she have called that out? Are women expected to write a bit more flowery prose? There is a Goodreads group that is reading FEAST OF SORROW for their June book (how freaking cool is that?) and one of the comments in that group, by a woman, about the AP review, caught my eye: “Bit concerned by the reviewer classing the author’s writing as “spare and simple”. I hope that isn’t using word play to make a positive out of a negative. Not a fan of simplistic, unintelligent writing.” Fortunately other group members helped to clarify, and I hope that when the woman reads the book she will still be captivated. But it made me wonder for a moment…if I had used my initials instead of my name what sort of difference in treatment would I have in general about the story? Would my writing be “manly” enough to be believed? It sounds as though that could be the case.

When my publisher first discussed cover art with me, they asked me for ideas, but not an hour later, they came back with a design from their artist. She hadn’t read the book but based on what she knows of what sells historical fiction, she put together what was arguably a gorgeous cover, but upon seeing it, my heart fell. Not only was a super sexy, leggy, headless woman on the cover, but it was airy and golden and there wasn’t a single man on the face of the earth that was going to look at it and say, “I want to read that.” My book is mostly about men and I wanted a strong cover that reflected men and power and food, which the original cover definitely did not. Fortunately when I raised my concerns they listened and worked with me on something different which seems to have more of a neutral gender appeal.

No wonder men don’t want to read fiction books by women. From the second they lay eyes upon it, it glows with a femininity that belittles the merits of the woman writing it. Stacked and Fast Company covered this topic a couple of years ago but the same articles could still be written today. There is even a Goodreads list with nearly 400 books with faceless, headless, half-faced women on the covers. And lately the trend has been about legs rather than even bothering with the upper body. I wonder why even bother with a person at all on the cover? Show the person, or not. But the in-between is maddening, IMHO.

The men that read my book tell me how much they enjoyed it, which is great to hear, especially since the main characters are all male. Still, I wonder how many men will never read it because I’m a woman or because of how it’s marketed or because they may think it’s historical romance.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, ““Literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”   Sadly, this is still mostly true. While there has been some progress made in equalizing women writers, there is still a long way to go.

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Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. It is interesting how sparse and simple writing (the most difficult kind to do well) gets turned into a negative depending on the writer. It reminds me of a speech Barbra Streisand made once, where she pointed out that, as a film director, she’s often been criticized for being a perfectionist, something that is usually cited as a positive for male directors.

    Good point about the book covers, too. That display of all those faceless body parts is really creepy.

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