Re-writing sexist literary prejudices

Women in literature — both as writers and characters — have had to contend with biases that stem out of societal conditioning. But it’s time to edit the ‘textbook’ subtexts



By Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta

Published: Fri 18 Mar 2022, 11:07 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Mar 2022, 11:20 PM

A leading Indian publisher laughed out loud, when I asked him the question: what have women brought to literature?

“Do you think a man could have written To The Lighthouse [by Virginia Woolf]?” he asked me.

Oddly, I felt good about the fact that a man who loves to read was telling me that women had made literature richer. By and large, men who love to read are a relatively rare breed. Even at early ages, just 24 per cent of boys (as against 44 per cent girls) say that reading is one of their favourite hobbies (Source: PISA 2018). A paper that addresses the gender gap in reading has a funny headline ‘Boy meets book, boy loses book, boy never gets book back’. The paper adds, “Reading habits are often formed in childhood and adolescence, and studies show that fathers are less likely to read themselves, which means that at a formative stage, children are less exposed to male reading role models. Fathers of sons are also less likely to read to them, than fathers of girls.” (Source: Deloitte)

Hmm. Time to visit a preference called androcentrism.

So, what is androcentrism?

Androcentrism is the tendency to focus society around men and their needs. Five ways in which this is seen

1. Men take women less seriously than other men

Extremely disturbing. But this is a quote from the book The Authority Gap, authored by Mary Anne Sieghart. If you take the top 10 bestselling female authors (Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Danielle Steel etc), only 19 per cent of their readers are men, while 81 per cent are women. In contrast, for the top 10 bestselling male authors (Charles Dickens, JRR Tolkien, Lee Child etc), 55 per cent of readers are men and 45 per cent are women.

2. Women writers are reviewed less than women

New books by men were found to receive 12 per cent more broadsheet review coverage than those of their female counterparts, as per a 2019 study reported in The Bookseller.

3. Male characters are overrepresented in children’s writing

Well-known actor and influencer Priyanka Chopra Jonas says it well about art itself: “People don’t go watch females in movies because they don’t believe that they can be heroes. The world has to change the way they look at their heroes.”

Such preferences originate in childhood. Priyanka’s opinion is reflected in a study titled ‘Sixty years of gender representation in children’s books’. Male characters are overrepresented heavily in a majority of children’s books (0–16 years) published between 1960–2020.

Perhaps we do need more Roald Dahls to create more Matildas. A line in the book actually says, “I’m afraid men are not always quite as clever as they think they are. You will learn that when you get a bit older, my girl.”

4. Even women have started writing more male characters

Point No 3 above implies that even young girls are growing up reading more about male characters than female. Is it natural, therefore, that as girls age, they also produce more writing about men?

A study of essays of children aged 5 to 13 revealed that almost 70 per cent of characters created by five-year-old girls were female — but that percentage dropped to 45 per cent by the time girls reached 13. However, the proportion of male characters in stories written by boys remained constant at around 85 per cent from ages 5 to 13. (Source: 2019 story-writing competition by BBC Radio 2 and Oxford University Press — The Times UK)

Evolution and economics

Another way to understand the ripple effects of this androcentrism in society is by trying to figure out why men (usually) don’t seem to write books about women, read books about them or even read books by women.

Do we blame this on evolution? What about preferences? It is an established fact that men tend to read history, biographies and science fiction. When it comes to history, women started to exercise their vote and occupy positions of power as heads of state only in the 20th century. Hence, there are far greater number of male statesmen to write about dating back centuries earlier. Logically, there are more biographies of males too —even though it has also been documented that some women were not able to claim their place notably in science, art and music. (Source: Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez).

The male interest in science fiction is attributed to the fact that women make up only 28 per cent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This is an evolutionary reality.

So far, so good. The problem is when men also tend not to read books in which the protagonist is a woman. Even today. So when a celebrated biographer like Walter Isaacson writes about Jennifer Duodna it is the exception rather than the rule. “One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are,” Isaacson says. By writing about a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist, he just contributed to creating a new hero for millions of readers.

In today’s progressive society, can we assume that we have overcome these evolutionary and historical biases? Surely, a well-told story must appeal to all! A contrary point of view is presented by Bernardine Evaristo, a Booker Prize-winning novelist. She says, “I’ve known this for a very long time that men just aren’t 
interested in reading our literature.” (Source: The Guardian.)

Which brings us to the economics and utility of women’s writing. A 2018 study of over two million titles published in North America between 2002 and 2012 found that books by women are priced 45 per cent cheaper (Source: The Guardian). Chocolat author Joanne Harris responded to the lower pricing by saying: “In an industry where women’s work is generally seen as of 
less value and relevance, for it to be literally priced lower seems to make a twisted kind of sense. It needs to be looked at in detail, as every case of this kind of thing adds subliminally to the general perception that books by women are disposable, forgettable and less worthy of attention.”

Are we now at the economic argument then? “It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym,” Penguin executive editor Anne Sowards has said. This holds particularly in genres where the target audience is male — such as science fiction.

Of pseudonyms and 
gender-neutral initials

Even today, female sci-fi and crime writers use pseudonyms or gender-neutral initials. Andre (Alice) Norton is a case in point. Arguably the modern generation’s most famous woman author, Joanne K Rowling, famously initialised her name so that readers could well imagine she was a John K Rowling.

What might move the needle is women writers entering male bastions. Biographies, for instance, have always been a uniquely male preserve, not just when it comes to the subjects but also when it comes to readership. A 2007 Associated Press study in the US suggests that women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

But here’s where this gets interesting. Biographies, as a genre, rarely contain examples of a male biographer writing a female subject. There are a few such as Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson and Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser. On the other hand, many women authors have written about male subjects.

It’s important here to realise that biographies are seen in a very different light as compared to memoirs. And memoirs are believed to be a female preserve. Take Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or Going There by Katy Couric as a case in point. Another female preserve is fiction — both mystery and romance. No wonder Agatha Christie never felt the need to take on a man’s name. In fact, the idea that women writers and women readers are important to make a fictional book successful is what makes an author like Steve Watson choose a gender-neutral name SJ Watson for his bestselling novel Before I Go To Sleep (enacted by Nicole Kidman in the movie that emerged from it).

Steve Watson says, “I wanted to reassure myself that the first person female voice was believable. If at least some people weren’t sure whether I was a man or a woman, then it was working, and I was immensely gratified when certain publishers were convinced the book had been written by a woman.”

The reverse is also true. Fiction writer 
EL James, author of the best-selling erotic romance trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed, is a woman — Erika Mitchell.

The biggest irony perhaps is that several of the most famous female fictional characters in history are written by men. Take Madame 
Bovary by Gustave Flaubert or Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy or even Lady Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Sensitive writers like Khaled Hosseini, who wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns, have kept women at the centre of their book. 
He writes in the book, “a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”

How women showed the way 
— literally

Which brings me to the conclusion that literature is going through its own evolutionary trajectory when it comes to recognising female authors and female characters. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Literature Festival, confirms that the previous edition of the festival welcomed an audience in which 67 per cent was comprised of women. “Nine of our 10 fellows of the First Chapter of ELF’s Seddiqi Writers’ Fellowship are women, which means that there is a natural rising force among women in the UAE literary community who are claiming their space on merit,” says Ahlam.

This is possible today because other women writers have fought an uphill battle. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication On The Rights Of Women (1792) paved the way for many women after her to not only publish their works but also to engage in the overall critical discourse surrounding the issue of women in literature. Even in the 19th century, much before Mary Anne Evans decided to call herself George Eliot, Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility by boldly identifying herself as “A Lady”, though fame eluded her for a long time.

African-American writer Toni Morrison’s book Song of Solomon, Indian-origin Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, and British writer Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve are a few examples of women in the literary firmament who chose bold subjects. In doing so, they have been recognised as being great ancestors today.

Summing up, men must pick up more books… in general. And write about all kinds of subjects too. Not only is it about the survival argument — those who read books live longer than those who do not read books — but also about a better understanding of the world around them. Maybe this better understanding could lead to clearing up prejudices… and fewer wars!


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