Shut Up, Ladies

It made me so sad to see, in an article about Jane Austen, that even though Jane Austen remains super popular there has been a decline in respect for her as a serious artist. Because it’s ‘chick lit’… as if any genre is Automatically Bad. And as if anything a woman created that a lot of women really like… is Automatically Bad.

I was reading some fan responses to the Vampire Diaries over the weekend (sharp left turn from Jane Austen! Also, yes, I’m very cool!) —and I started to get viscerally uncomfortable about how often the women involved in creating it were named and hated on. Julie Plec and Caroline Dries were brought up time and again, with a constant refrain that they shut up, drop out, SHUT UP, if only Kevin Wiliamson or Jose Molina would save the situation. The dudes’ names only ever came up associated with praise.

The stuff the fans didn’t like which was masterminded by dudes, was talked about differently: that episode sucked, that season had this off time. Never, ever ‘this dude sucks.’

It reminded me of how I used to see the same hatred of Marti Noxon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which really sharply contrasted with the refrain of ‘Joss Whedon is my master now.’

Look, I am no expert on television here: I never know who’s written an episode, or who’s behind a certain plot arc. (I also barely know how to turn it on or change the DVD player settings, but that’s shame for another day.) I’m sure all these ladies are imperfect. Maybe all these ladies have done terrible things to their shows! Please do not tell me all the details of any of these women’s awful crimes against fiction.

My point is that I doubt that the dudes were flawless in their handling of fiction: the problem is the insistent pattern that goes ‘SHUT UP, WOMAN’S NAME, SHUT UP!!’

I remember looking at one site and seeing a female YA author being discussed. Her appearance, her manners, whether she’d written too many books, too many books in one series—I have seen at least six female authors called ‘whores’ (OH. I. SEE.) and ‘money-grubbing hacks’ for writing a long series. I have never seen similar criticism for, say, Rick Riordan (don’t stop writing Rick Riordan, that’s not what I meant! I like a long series! I’m just making a point!)—whether she was grateful or gracious enough.

Then I looked at what they had to say about a male author in the same field… apparently his worst offense was being friends with the female author… (Kind of like how the most criticism I see against Neil Gaiman is actually against Amanda Palmer, asking why he doesn’t get her to… guess what… shut up.)

It’s so much easier for people to hate on a girl than a guy. A lady’s success will so often be looked on with dark suspicion, while a dude’s success is looked on as his due.

Of course my opinion here is personal: I’m a lady creator, though not as fancy as the ones I’ve been discussing. I’ve had my appearance criticised, and the company I keep, and how I conduct myself, and that all sucks. Quite recently I remember a blogger described my behaviour at a public event as ‘attention-seeking’ (no! good gravy! who do I think I am, up on a stage talking?)… I’ve seen that word used for a lot of women, but I’ve never seen it used for a man. It’s almost as if… people see a dude up on stage talking and think ‘Yes, things are as they should be.’ And they see a lady and think ‘SHUT UP, WOMAN’S NAME, SHUT UP.’

I’ve said snarky things and been roundly criticised for my rudeness. (Like, this weekend.) So have many ladies! While snarky dudes are celebrated, quoted, applauded: while we all know that dudes can get away with a million more things than we can.

Having a semi-public job means a certain amount of scrutiny. Creators are always going to get critiqued, because that’s what people should do with art, and if people don’t care about your fiction you’ve gone wrong somewhere! That’s all fine.

But I wish, wish, wish there wasn’t that obstacle for women, that kneejerk ‘SHUT UP!’

Pride and Prejudice is two hundred years old today. Jane Austen wrote in another book, Persuasion, ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story… The pen has been in their hands.’

The pen should not be seen as solely belonging in their hands.

(Wow, this got long.) (Maybe I should shut up.) (But I hardly ever do.)

I saw and much appreciated the responses to this impromptu rant from writers I know and love like Maureen Johnson, Holly Black, Seanan McGuire and Kiersten White… and it reminded me of a point that seems applicable!

Here it is: groups of writers, as well as individual writers, and how they are perceived.

This is probably not going to surprise you: when they are groups of ladies, or groups that include ladies, NOT SUPER WELL.

Let us consider the Inklings: a group of writers including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which is often considered a fantastic example of writerly communion and community. But lots of people want to be very clear that mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers may have been Tolkien and Lewis’s friend, but she wasn’t one of the Inklings. She didn’t attend meetings! Okay maybe one but it didn’t count! They were all, all dudes. (Okay. Maybe so. But chill yourselves, why is this so hotly contested? … Oh wait I know why.)

But everyone is definitely sure the Inklings read aloud from this other lady’s bad writing.

(Q: Have I ever mocked bad writing, sometimes by women, in a group of writers?

A: BOY HAVE I EVER. I have done nothing else for a week straight. But I STILL think the Inklings could’ve decided to mock a dude as well as/instead of this lady.)

There is an old boys’ network which exists, especially in Literary Fiction Circles, i.e. the most highly regarded and best paid. 83 per cent of the books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are by men… and 83 per cent of reviewers are men, too. (What a highly interesting coincidence!) When questioned about the Super Sketchy Numbers, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement (surprise: he’s a dude) said ‘The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.’ (Oh. I. See.)

These dudes with this power are able to silence any silly praise of ladies. Remember me talking about Dorothy L. Sayers above? This is what a dude writing for the New Yorker said about her: ‘I have often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well… but, really, she does not write very well.’ (Thanks for clearing that up, buddy.) Dudes are more likely to get awards, shiny objects that say ‘Here is your Well Done for Speaking Up, Dude. NONE FOR YOU, LADY.’

Dudes are more likely to get praise because of this network: they’re more likely to get awards because of this network. It provides a loop of infinitely helpful feedback for dudes, and so the praise dudes give other dudes is listened to, is given more of an official voice, whereas the message sent to ladies talking about books by ladies is too generally (stop me if you’ve heard this before) ‘Shut up, Woman’s Name, shut up!’

The Bronte kids, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, had a writing group: they all wrote collectively about a land of their imagination. Later, Charlotte, Emily and Anne all went on to write classic works of literature (under dudes’ names of course). Branwell went on to take a bunch of drugs. Critics at the time floated this brilliant theory: WHAT IF THE DUDE OF THE GROUP TOTALLY WROTE ALL THE BOOKS? (Shut up, the actual geniuses of the group!)

One of my great Writing Group inspirations is that of Jenny Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Pat Gaffney, Anne Stuart and many others. I’ve never seen anyone talking about that group except for the ladies themselves. (Because they’re romance authors?) (Shut up, ladies writing about lady stuff, shut up!)

So, my closest writer people and critique group, mostly ladies. I’ve heard us called a ‘clique’ (like Mean Girls, sure! Ladies=clique!) with suggestions we’re ‘pretending to like each other (For Some Reason) (you know how those catty insincere ladies are!)’

People talk about us as if what we do is sit around plotting pettily and doing each other’s hair. (It’s a fair cop: I have done Holly Black’s hair. Her whole kitchen was purple afterwards, it was like I murdered a giant grape. Will not make it as hair stylist: must stick to writing.) Shaping each others’ writing, talking about each others’ writing, talking about our literary influence (almost every lady writer I know: hella influenced by Robin McKinley)… any discourse we have is ignored or dismissed as untrue. ‘Shut up, ladies, shut up!!!’

Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that Neil Gaiman is pretending to like/forming a clique with John Green because he was a guest at his Carnegie Hall event. I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the overwhelmingly male critics of literature, writing overwhelmingly about dudes, are a) lying about how great these dude books are or b) being mean by talking about only dudes/dudes they’re friendly with/majority dudes/more positively about dudes.

And I’m not saying that dude authors, or any dudes, or any ladies buying into the ‘Shut up, woman’s name, shut up!’ thing are being mean, either. I’m saying, there’s a pattern we’ve all, to some extent, unconsciously adopted. I’m saying that when we think ‘SHUT UP’ about a lady we should examine that impulse.

Because until then, for all ladies… Our words aren’t as valued, and that doesn’t just mean our books: it means our critique as well, and our community.

Okay. *glances around* Uh. *hopes has not alienated all dude authors ever and shot all (slim already) chances of ever being asked to write a piece for a major publication or shot all (slim already) chances at an award*

I maybe have to both shut up and change my name to Benedict Cumbersnoot. ;) Excuse me…

  • Kandrel

    I wonder how much of this is due to the publishing ‘Good Boy’s Club’, and how much is to do with the fans themselves? I see them as separate entities with only limited control over each other. Both of them require cultural shifts to knock this on the head, but the cultural momentum is going to be huge.

    I’m curious, though, if the answer to this isn’t fed through small press and publishers. I know of a few moderately successful female authors in niche fandoms who seem to avoid a lot of the ‘shut up’ by writing for a more progressive crowd. Niche grinds into mainstream at a glacial pace, so the revolution we may be brewing in small press now may only hit wider culture in a decades or more.

    • Sarah Rees Brennan

      Well, the fans are a definite factor as well as the boys’ club: I talked about their perception of women writers quite a bit! It’s the same attitude, and they feed into each other.

      Small presses and publishers are great, but I also wouldn’t go to them in order to avoid the ‘shut up’: I can see lots of good reasons to go to them, but that’s not one, it’d feel a bit like leaving the field to the dudes. I think continued pressure to change on all levels and talking about these issues is important: I am also not willing (though of course I might have to, but I won’t accept it gracefully!) to wait decades.

  • http://twitter.com/ZMarriott Zoë Marriott

    THIIIIIIIIISSSSS! *RTs like a mad thing*

  • http://twitter.com/VictoriaLamb1 Victoria Lamb

    This is truth.

  • Meghan @ Coffee & Wizards

    Thank you for not shutting up. Please, never ever ever EVER shut up.

  • Pingback: Shut up, ladies?

  • Sana Shams

    Men do get away with a lot of things and while it is enough to make us women cringe, I just don’t think it is fair. I know life isn’t fair. But the thing is maybe in an ideal society the value of the written word would be more than the value of the gender. However, that isn’t so. So here’s to us ladies to never shutting up.

    You rock.

  • http://twitter.com/tara_francesca Tara

    This is super interesting. I’m just wondering though where you got this statistic: “83 per cent of the books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are by men… and 83 per cent of reviewers are men, too.” It’s believable to me, but I’m just wondering where it came from.

  • Rachel Hanley

    I was once appalled when I saw a terrible review of one of my favorite author’s books. The person hadn’t even read her book; she was reviewing the female author’s hair…pretty ruthlessly, too.

  • Valerie (pink)

    This is a disturbing trend I’ve noticed too. A woman puts herself in the public sphere and everything she does and is can be criticized. A man does it and only his work is fair game. I don’t understand and I don’t like it. I don’t think we should accept it, either. One time Hillary Clinton said, “Would you ask a man that question?” when an interviewer asked her who her favorite designer was. I’m not sure who was in the room at the time but I hope everyone shouted, “Oh, SNAP!”

    I’ve also noticed that whenever women break into a field the respect people have for that field drops. We greatly respected biology research when the field was still full of dudes; now that so many biologists are female it’s thought of as more of a soft science, easier than math and physics. (At least, that’s what I observed in college.) It’s harrowing.

    This article about how cheerleading used to be respected until women started doing it illustrates the point perfectly: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/12/28/the-manly-origins-of-cheerleading/

    Keep on not shutting up! Also, I’m sure that for every person criticizing your public appearances there are hundreds who walk away starstruck (if a bit peeved because you didn’t tell them for sure whether Jared would stop being an ass, bah!) I know I did.