I worked with Fay Weldon on Monday (sometimes, I really do have a glamorous literary life). As usual, La Weldon said a lot of interesting things. But one of the most interesting, for me, anyway, was, ‘A lot of women writers are held back by wanting to be nice in their fiction, because they want to be good girls and please everyone.’
Just like many young women don’t think that there’s any need for feminism anymore, many new female writers think that their fiction will be a gender-free zone, where their womanliness has no impact on how they are read. Of course, both are sadly mistaken. There is still a 10% gender pay gap in the UK, women pensioners are, according to the government, ‘significantly more impoverished’ than male pensioners. 1 in 10 men will be treated for mental illness and it’s 1 in 4 women… And, despite Hilary Mantel’s recent successes, the vast majority of literary prize winners, grant awardees, Visiting Professors, etc, etc, etc are men, even though, on any given post-graduate course in Creative Writing, women predominate.
‘Girls will read about boys,’ my first children’s editor told me. ‘But boys won’t read about girls.’ I thought boys grew out of that, but an editor interested in the book that became The Saint Who Loved Me thought differently. ‘No man is going to read this,’ she told me sternly. ‘It’s got things about tampons in it.’
I hadn’t realised that. I hadn’t realised that because I wrote about a woman’s experience of the world, and wrote about marital problems, spirituality and life choices from a woman’s perspective, I was alienating 48% of my potential readers from the get-go. Male readers very much liked Welcome to Eudora from the various reviews and letters I got from them. How they got their hands on it remains a mystery, though…it was often shelved under ‘Romance’.
If you happen to, or make up your mind to, write in accepted literary models and if you write, in a way, specifically for men, you don’t seem to be ghettoised. But if you are a female writing primarily for women, you can pretty much forget being taken seriously by the literary establishment. Even today.
How much of that problem is about the writers being too ‘nice’ in their fiction and how much is about marketing, cover design and titling (the working title for The Saint Who Loved Me was St Rock) still remains a mystery.
But I know one thing – nobody is going to take my books seriously if I don’t. If I don’t stop being nice and wanting to please everybody.
I’m writing in the café today, because my new cleaner is in my house and my shed is still on order. While I was madly typing away (the tea here is strong enough to be a Class A drug), an acquaintance approached, smiling.
‘May I join you?’ she asked.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. I’m working.’
She raised her eyebrows and looked hurt as she turned away. I fought the instinct to run after her…to abandon my manuscript and explain. But I didn’t.
It’s a start.
3 thoughts on “Being Nice”
I encourage my students to explore their not so nice side so that they can make their heroines in particular more rounded characters. I’m with Raymond Carver who said you have to be prepared to “tell all on yourself”. I do an exercise which encourages them to make some confessions – not to be shared, and in a safe environment, of course. But yes, I not only think it’s about women wanting to appear “nice” but also women writers wanting their characters (and in particular main women characters) to be nice, quirky, funny, etc. It’s good for them to get their characters to do something “out of character” etc.
Here here Mimi. I think we’re also constantly trying to be there for children too, and feel guilty when we’d actually like to be writing. I’m learning to be more selfish, but it doesn’t come naturally. Incidentally, my copy of The Saint Who Loved Me has a picture of a Bond figure on the front. You’d think that would appeal to the boys. It probably does, it’s just the publishing industry/editors/agents that make these assumptions. Maybe men are more intelligent and discerning than they are given credit for?
I’m sure they are. Sexism, like racism, is always destructive to both sides…