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On Being a Woman Who Writes

by Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo

In light of International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman and a writer. It occurs to me, do you think men think about what it means to be a man and a writer?

If you’re a woman, does writer become a noun that requires a qualifier, woman writer, that it does not if you are a man who writes? A man who writes is simply a writer. Woman and writer are separate entities, but, of course, not for the woman who writes. Can we split ourselves in two in order to think about what it is to write: as a writer (genderless), and as a person (woman)? No.

Women buy 70% of the books that are sold, yet women writers receive only 20% of book reviews. The numbers compiled by VIDA tell part of the story. But does the inequity carry to book publication as well? It seems so. A review of big houses and small presses in an article in The New Republic by Ruth Franklin, finds that, in fact, more men overall are getting books published.

Looking at my bookshelves, the vast majority of the books I own were written by women. Thinking back on my evolving reading habits, I realize this has been a conscious act, even if I hadn’t taken note of the accumulation. When I choose a book, I actively seek out those written by women. I read women’s work for two reasons: I want to know what they have to say; I am interested in their points of view, and I want to learn from them because I am a woman, too. Generally, I am more interested in what a woman has to say than a man. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who possesses this sentiment.

I’m trying to understand why women’s stories are deemed less important than men’s, are repudiated outright or relegated to that vicious category, “chick-lit.” Who’s making these decisions? Defining and setting the boundaries? A dismissal of women’s stories amounts to a dismissal of women’s voices. Of women themselves.

Should we try to write like men? Perhaps use more masculine themes and words. (I’m not sure how to go about that.) If our work is perceived as “masculine” in some way, be it the plot, the themes, the tone, the language, will that make it more credible? To then be dispensed that backhanded compliment, that veiled insult, “You write like a man.” Do we need to be either sexless or masculine in order to be “good” writers? In order to be simply writers? I am less interested in infiltrating the realm of “men’s work” than validating that of “women’s work.” Or, better yet perhaps, smudging any delineating lines between the two. I’d like to call it simply, “life work.”

Generations ago, the challenges women faced to be heard, in print or otherwise, were far more daunting than those we (at least in the Western world) encounter today. I don’t have to write in secret, nor must I feel abnormal or wicked or selfish or be considered a bad mother because I write. Grace Paley said, “Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in that feminist wave. No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it—the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.” In our mere existence today, we reap the rewards of the work of the women who came before us.

So what should I write about? What do I need to write about in order to be validated? Margaret Atwood said there is, “… a fear of the development of a one-dimensional Feminist Criticism, a way of approaching literature produced by women that would award points according to conformity or non-conformity to an ideological position.” I don’t want to be merely a vehicle for an ideology. What I can bring to my writing is experience and imagination. We witness then we chronicle. We find the singularity of the individual voice. For women, I think the very execution of writing is a feminist act—putting our voices out there, putting our stories out, validating them. We write not necessarily to articulate our thoughts and feelings because maybe that is not possible in the moment but because meaning is revealed, meaning becomes. It becomes apparent and it fuels ideas. If not for now, maybe for our daughters.

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Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.
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3  Comments
  • Tai Carmen

    Melissa, I love these musings. I completely — not only identify — but almost wrote about the exact same thing in my women’s day post, about the preponderance of male reviewers (I ended up editing that out in favor of focusing on the recent soaring fiction sales by women authors…) But it’s all part of the picture, the question.

    I also at one point in a working draft of my post asked the same question about whether or not writing more “like a man” will bring more success (ended up focusing on other things but the question is such a relevant one; one which I think is familiar to every female writer, I would wager.)

    My current novel-in-process is from a young female narrative perspective (early twenties…) and when my husband articulated that he wasn’t “my demographic” it caused me to rethink the voice of my next novel’s narrative voice: especially when the subject came up between my fellow women writers (we have a workshop) that *they* had felt the same concern over their young-female-voice-driven book-length pieces…

    I tried a few experimental chapters from a male character’s perspective and it was interesting — I found myself editing out a lot of poetry and emotionality. After a few chapters I stopped, thinking: This is no fun at all!!! And looking at it from a “women’s writer” perspective (which I’ll be the first to admit is a charged and ambiguous phrase) it’s almost like I let society’s subtle messages regarding the weight and importance of women’s perspectives in writing to cut out my voice. On the other hand, I would consider it a supreme victory to write a book which both men and women enjoy equally. Can it be done? Do such works exist?

    By the same token, I originally had mention, too, of that all too chilling phrase “chick lit” — at one point in my women’s day post working draft. It deserves mention. But –like the other cuts I made — I’m glad I did cut it, as you have filled in that side of the dialogue perfectly; female synergy at its finest.

    The number one fiction book on the top seller list might be a woman this week, but it’s a horror/thriller series. This is fine I guess, but it brings up two more points: one, she has incorporated that most unfemale theme of violence and gained success (reminds me of the success of The Lovely Bones…a bestseller by a woman with a young female narrator –unusual! — yet murder-based, and therefor oddly masculine still, one could argue…The other point being: “There have always been silly female novelists” to paraphrase George Eliotte…So does the accomplishment of non-literary commercial success by a woman still mean success in terms of the female voice in literature? Not entirely, I suspect. Perhaps to some degree…but it’s not enough somehow.

    I did not know that 70% of book purchases are by women, but it makes sense with our sex’s natural affinity for communication. And it makes the situation with male reviewers even more complex. It strikes me now too that critique’s, such as a reviewer must form, are more masculine in nature — if one subscribes to such theories as masculine vs feminine, which, in a Jungian archetypal way, I do — as it’s more scientific and less feeling-based than say, writing original material from the heart — does it simply make sense that there are more male reviewers? Could it be less a case of a literary glass ceiling and more a case of the masculine brain being more attracted to the job description — one could even poke fun a bit and say that they enjoy the importance of being judge jury and executioner, which the reviewing role affords.

    Musings, all — thanks for stimulating this most excellent and relevant discussion!!

    Tai

  • Kathleen Kirk

    I’ve been thinking about this, too, Melissa. Thanks for your thoughts, and, Oliver, thanks for your comment. I hope to read more in this discussion! I read a lot of books by women, too, and so does my book group (all women), but we also read books by men, so not to exclude them or accounts of their experience/writerly p.o.v., etc. I hope someday women who are writers can just be called writers, like men who are writers. But I hope women won’t feel they have to “write like a man,” Dorothy Parker’s wish, in order to be taken seriously. I thought we were past all that, but it appears we are not. We will be, though, in time. Yes?!

  • Oliver Arditi

    I think a lot about being a man and a writer: words are how I dominate those around me and impose my will on the universe! Seriously though, blanket use of the term ‘woman writer’ is ridiculous, like ‘monobrowed diplomat': someone’s gender identity is not irrelevant, to anything, but it’s hardly so remarkable if a writer happens to be a woman that it needs to be mentioned every time.

    Clearly, judged against feminism’s starting points, writing is a deeply feminist act for a woman: I’m not sure if it necessarily is in the contemporary context. Firstly, women are well represented on the shelves of the library I work in, and presumably elsewhere in the publishing industry, so I’m not sure the mere act of writing disrupts many assumptions; and secondly, many of the books women write, particularly in the genres women authors dominate, perpetuate a pernicious and conservative view of female identity and gender politics. I hardly think writing ‘Pregnant Midwife, Greek Tycoon’ could be counted a feminist act!

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