Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Thorny Issue of Writers and their Muses, and the Sex thereof...

The Thorny Issue of Writers and their Muses, and the Sex thereof...and Writing Like a Man (grrrr...)

I dunno – been reading all these posts from those who must mean well, and no doubt seek to redress a perceived imbalance in male v female publishing opportunities. But really, do publishers seriously discriminate? Don’t they just want to sell books and stay in business? Why would they discriminate if more women buy and read books than men? Doesn't make sense to me. But then, it also does not make sense for people to whinge that more review space is given to male writers. Is it? Pick up a women's magazine and the books reviewed will be mostly by women. Are the blokes screeching about that? Maybe, just maybe the books that came in that week to the broadsheets, by men, were more interesting reads for the reviewers? Oh my gad the sacrilege.
My shelves are groaning with male writers because in general, over the years, and with some notable exceptions, I have preferred their work. Sorry and all that, if I am offending any delicate sensibilities. I am being honest, if that's OK?
But while looking at one of the early articles that flagged the need for female writers to ‘write like men’ if they want to get on, (whatever that phrase means) here, in Washington Post of December 30 2009 the old brain was working overtime... one minute I was wanting to laugh, and the next, not...and at the same time I was also reading about the poet M A Griffiths today, an Anglo-Welsh female poet who published her work solely on the internet, and sadly died early... but her work was so loved by her colleagues that they have collected it all together. ‘Grasshopper’ is published by Arrowhead Press.
But what interests me about her, specifically here is not how lovely her work is (and it is) but the fact that many of her colleagues on poetry forums thought she was a man – when all they had to go on was her work, or her forum monikers – Maz or Grasshopper. Read this here, from one of her female colleagues, Rose Kelleher:
Why did they think she was a bloke? Having read round this a bit - I think it is because of her boldness with language, and her interest in many many things, her need to write about them, from the intimate themes to the wider ones. And no doubt lots more reasons.

I used to take great pleasure in colleagues thinking a piece of my work posted anonymously for feedback, was by a male writer. Why? I’ve been thinking about that – and I think the answer is, because the stereoptype I would least want to fit is ‘ the woman writer’ because that stereotype (in my head - OK...)is a female who is mostly preoccupied with the things I am not.
Yes, I know, I AM a woman and I am a writer. But I would really hate it if anyone said – ‘Oh yes, I knew immediately I read your work – it’s got ‘written by a female’ written all over it.’

But then I re-read Rose Kelleher’s post about M A Griffiths. ‘Maz and the Male Muse...’ and I started thinking about the muses. Mine is not, never has been and never could be a female. Maybe the muses were depicted as females because they were invented by – er- men??

So what sex is your muse? Are you a woman writer who writes with one of the female muses wafting about in your study? Or are you, like me, fed by someone different? Is your muse something intangible, of the air? Or is it a solid person? The great painters had them. Why not us lot?!

Lots of links to M A Griffiths here by the way.

A quick peek at The Bookseller Top 20 booksales this week shows female writers on 12, men on 8. Maybe the statisticians need to get on with something else. Or get a bloke to do it? We all kow us girls can't add up for toffee....Bookseller.


  1. Interesting post. Can't say I ever thought of the gender of my muse -- my muse feels more like a possession, so I suppose it steals whatever gender it craves . . . but I do wonder about discrimination based on names and assumptions based on gender.

  2. Yes, I've read this stuff lately about sex discrimination, too. To be honest, I find I'm paranoid enough without obsessing about whether it's sex or age or religion or whatever that might slow down my progress as a writer. I think it's just healthier for me, mentally, to just put my head down, do the best work I can, and trust that it will come -- whatever "it" is.

  3. Thought provoking post. My own shelves favour the female writer, I do admit. The "differences" between the genders, writing-wise, was summed up in a comment by my partner as he confessed to a preference for male writing: "Women write at length and in detail about emotion, men write more about action."
    I enjoy your blog, Vanessa
    Mari G

  4. Hi Sue
    me too - I will find any excuse to worry. We just do what we do, right? How anyone can 'write like' as opposed to 'writing themselves' - even in multiple personas - is beyond me!

  5. Hi Mari - glad you enjoy the blog - your partner puts his finger on an interesting distinction - and it probably holds water... but then I have certainly also read plenty of action work where it is all action at the expense of depth of character - its all a balance I guess. Difficult to get right!

  6. For my novel in progress I have two women as my muses: a dead singer and a close friend ... I have thought of starting to submit my stuff, using a male pen name to see what happens ...

  7. Hi Louise - good ploy... good luck! Somewhere online is a fun website, too, where you can feed in examples of writing to ascertain what gender it is meant to be, style-wise. A god game if fairly daft!

  8. Dear Vanessa,
    I love this post and your attitude. I too have always felt it to be a compliment not to be recognised as a female writer and am horrified by the idea of being pigeon-holed (but then I went and wrote a novel called The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy - what was I thinking?). But seriously with my short stories I love being a male protagonist or often a gay male protagonist with issues with other men. Or family tussles based sexual twists or unevenness. What does that mean? I am a high-heeled mother of four no-longer children. ciao cat (great skiing lately, and slugging through translations!)

  9. Hi Cat

    I guess we can be and do what we like in fiction ... what has always astounded me is the number of women writers who confine what they write to the things they say they would like to escape.

    I dare say you'll start an avalanche of divorced ladies descending on Berlusconi - I gather he may be forced to appreciate older women more from now on?


  10. Oh I ought to say, re that first para - - a very few women write it so well it becomes something different...

  11. I don't believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the bogeyman or muses of either gender.

  12. Ha! fair enough Jim - although I am not sure the concept of a muse is quite the same as the three others - but we'll have to agree to differ.

  13. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, since a visit to my old (all female) college where the literary archives were launched and we discussed writing and publishing from a woman's point of view.
    Since then I have taken up a Fiction Editor role at a literary magazine and have been very surprised to find that the vast majority submissions are from male writers. So the chances are high that there will be a skew towards male writers in the pieces I accept. So now the question I'm asking myself is - why are women not submitting?
    I don't think I have a muse, by the way, just a curiosity.

  14. Fascinating. I've been mulling too - I know it is a contentious issue.

    But I read about exhortations to women writers to 'rise up and support each other', just because they are women... not because they write superbly... and I can't help thinking women are women's own worst enemies sometimes. What on earth are 'we' meant to do, exactly, in this rising up exercise?

    Why don't women submit in equal or greater numbers to the mag of which you are Fic Ed?? (which one, by the way??) It seems thus right across the board. Maybe it is to do with confidence, expectation of rejection, self-image, threats to self-actualisasation?. (Good old Mazlow).

    Seems something is going on, when most Creative Writing courses are peopled by female students in greater numbers than male.


  15. I'm over at The View From Here and, you know, everyone, submissions are open. To all good writing.
    I wonder if the gender disparity is confidence, or perhaps that men are more prolific writers, often being better at making time for themselves and their interests?

  16. I wonder...There may still be a disparity in expectation regarding who cares most for the domestic stuff in many homes - or maybe, (like me) the women have to get out of the house to write, whether they embrace the domestic or not. So for many women, the output is constrained?

    Fab mag to be with - congrats!