How we write about women writers

Some years ago, the female editor of a broadsheet arts and culture section commissioned a short piece from me about the rising numbers of women writing crime novels. I had some lovely quotes from Val McDermid, but the editor asked if I could possibly ask Denise Mina for some too. I duly - and unwittingly - did so. Mina said about the same as McDermid so I put their quotes together. I presumed my editor just wanted some extra voices. When I asked after I'd presented the finished article, she said, no, that wasn't the reason. It was for photographs, and Mina was 'more photogenic'.

This was a serious piece for a broadsheet newspaper. I didn't write for her again, needless to say. Today, Eleanor Catton's Booker win has been slightly overshadowed by a description of her hair in the Times newspaper, and her 'user-friendly' Geek-nerdiness (whatever that means) above a headline proclaiming the death of 'chick-lit'. Presumably because 'chick-lit', that ever-offensive term, is deemed 'stupid' and Catton's work is 'clever' (look, she even wears glasses! She's the daughter of a philosopher and a librarian! Thank god she's also 'photogenic'!). In her interview with the Guardian, Catton says the following:

"I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel," she says. "In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime."

I find it hard to disagree with her, based on my own experience. Editors like 'personal' information, and I'm lucky with author interviews that they're less focused on the personal than some others kinds of interviews. But it's still demanded and we journalists still have to provide some of it. And yet, time and again at literary festivals and author events, audience members ask about technique, what influences the author had, how they write. Nobody ever asks about their love lives, or where they got their outfits from. So why mention it in an interview, when it's not what readers want to know? Does it really enhance our understanding of who they are and what they do?

The other crucial point about the Times article is, of course, the pitting of one kind of women writer against the other. The 'literary' against the 'popular', the 'serious' against the 'comic', the 'photogenic' against the what? 'Less photogenic'? Many years ago I also tried to pitch a feature about older women writers, featuring among others, the wonderful writer Agnes Owens. It was a tough sell. At that time, 'youth' was all, and pitted against 'age'. One other editor, when I suggested a review of Jane Smiley's latest novel, took a look at her author photo and made a face. Yet nobody worries about Salman Rushdie's looks.

The long-held complaint made by women is that male writers are never plagued with such dichotomies. Nobody cares what they look like, how old they are, whether they're serious or commercial. They're simply not assessed in the same way. But women are seen in these time-honoured 'madonna/whore' splits all the time, both personally and in terms of their work. It's little wonder that publishers are so nervous of cross-over literary formats when the media world has trouble enough dealing with socially-constructed divisions.

What has interested me about Catton's win isn't so much her age and gender (although I am pleased to see a young woman winning, just for the wonderful example she can set other young women writers who may be doubting themselves and their ambitions - we're a long way from Robert Southey telling a young Charlotte Bronte to stop her writing, but as Catton says in her interview, it was largely older male reviewers who didn't like her book and seemed to think she had a cheek even writing it), but that another historical novel has won the Booker. Historical fiction at the moment is crossing all sorts of boundaries, getting messed up in fan fiction, crime fiction, literary fiction, all the genres. It's proving ever-fruitful, this cross-over business, where traditional lines are blurred and you get the sense that this form could go anywhere. I was worried for a time, after the 'death' of postmodern histroical novels, when we'd all had enough, it seemed, of parallel present/past narratives, when The French Lieutenant's Woman could no longer surprise us and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had exposed the unreliability of historical sources. Were we just going to go back to 'solid' history, as though postmodernism never happened?

But I needn't have worried - and it's women writers like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton who have shown the versatility of the new form. Women will probably always be scrutinised for their looks, and always be commented upon for them. But as long as they keep winning the prizes, and challenging existing formats, that's what really counts. One day, hopefully, the media will catch on.          


  1. Thank you for putting this so eloquently. I was appalled to see this piece (coming soon after 'Putting the phoar in radio 4' front page of Sunday Times news review this sunday!). I do think objecting - as you are - counts too, and not just accepting that this is the media (after all, we are the media too, not that you'd know it from headline writers).

  2. Thanks, Lucy - and yes, I'm glad to see so many people objecting to what's been written. Signs of change, I hope!

  3. Bravo, Lesley. Great piece. Almost unbelievable about female author photos. Do editors really think readers are more likely to read a literary article if the subject is pretty and/or young? Are there any stats to suggest this is true?

  4. Thanks Linda. Yes, I'm afraid they do think that, and alas, I suspect stats bear them out. What i can't imagine is an editor asking a journalist from a quote from another MALE writer, because one is more 'photogenic' than the other. I'd be interested to hear if that has ever happened.

  5. Good for you - and I couldn't agree more. Thanks too, for pointing out the (cheering) truth - that readers ask interesting and intelligent questions of male and female authors alike, and don't seem to make any distinctions. In truth, I think you're quite right and readers don't care what the writer looks like or how old she is. But I suppose the media's obsession with youth and beauty is a sad extension of television's propensity for getting rid of older women presenters, no matter how accomplished or experienced.

  6. You make a good point that readers don't care what the writer looks like, only the quality of the writing itself. I see the glamour photos of women authors (and sometimes men too) and wonder why in the world the publishers think that is so important. I've also noticed photos on current book jackets that were obviously taken years ago before the author got - gasp - older. Despite what they think, I'll continue to select books on the basis of their quality.


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