Are Women Crap at Writing Non-fiction?

1st Oct 2013

Are Women Crap at Writing Non-fiction?
In response to the Samuel Johnson Prize longlist, we look at women and non-fiction: are we just rubbish at writing it?

On the 6th September, the Samuel Johnson Prize judges announced their longlist. Out of eighteen places, five were given to women. Pffffff.

Our ambivalence about this soon turned into outrage upon reading Mary Beard’s blog. Beard, who sat on the judging panel, wrote this blaming apology as a reason for the lack of women:

“It’s impossible not to reflect whether there are (with some obvious and notable exceptions) different male and female styles in non-fiction and whether it is the male style that seems to tick more of the “prize-winner boxes”.

Whatever. It would be possible to rant about this until the earth gets sucked into the sun, but as we tumbled helplessly towards oblivion we’d be no nearer to persuading anyone out of the stupid misconception seemingly all-pervasive enough that it’s held even by women who’ve made their living writing non-fiction: women are crap at writing non-fiction.

This is a pretty hard-held belief, especially when you compare our recent success in fiction prizes with non-fiction lists. Only four women have won the Samuel Johnson prize since 1999, the same number have won the George Orwell Book Prize since 1994. Only sixteen made it onto The 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books list by the Guardian in 2011.

Think of non-fiction and it’s generally a book about white guys authored by one. This is perhaps understandable: history, science and maths have all been dominated by guys for millennia: women are unlikely to dominate writing about fields they’re marginalised in.

Added to this is the centuries-old hangover from the Renaissance belief in novel writing as a feminine vice: men were so scared of looking girly whilst they made stuff up that Robinson Crusoe was first published as memoir.

It’s not for For Books’ Sake to do the judges’ jobs for them and sit spewing out alternative lists by rote, but just look: we’re not just good at non-fiction, we’re groundbreaking.

Why? Because, basically, you’re unlikely to find women writing about the establishment – or, if they are, they’re certainly not writing wholly from its perspective.

Some of our best-known works are non-fiction which deliberately set out to alter the status quo - and succeeded.Some of our best-known works are non-fiction which deliberately set out to alter the status quo – and succeeded. A Vindication of the Rights of Women was the first, written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792, and hundreds of years ahead of it’s time in its calls for representation in parliament and access to education.

Fast forward to recent years and there’s a whole explosion of angry non-fiction integral to feminist thought : A Room of One’s Own, The Feminine Mystique, The Female Eunuch, The Second Sex, Living Dolls, The Beauty Myth, Ain’t I a Woman? These works didn’t just intend to be informative, but to persuade, alter and change mindsets.

Even in writing which doesn’t aim for polemic philosophy this rebellious spirit carries on, especially when it comes to shedding light on the marginalised.

Noted biographer Claire Tomalin won the Whitbread Prize for her first book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, no doubt in part for the fact that until she published it, few were even slightly aware of Wollstonecraft’s work.

Diane Souhami recently said “I started writing about lesbians 25 years ago in the hope of contributing to breaking the history of silence,” and Bee Wilson has been quietly getting on with writing domestic history, so often brushed over, for a number of years now.

Patricia Hill Collins, meanwhile, was one of the first writers to discuss intersectionality in any depth, with Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology recognised across the board as one of the most influential books on gender, race and class studies ever published.

Moving onto the subject of race it’s jaw-clenchingly clear that writers of colour don’t meet the Samuel Johnson Prize judges standards either. According to their laws of what constitutes great non-fiction writers of colour just aren’t up to the task.

In the alternate universe the rest of us inhabit (which doesn’t involve imaginary literary fences between us and writers who don’t look like us) here’s a very limited list of the amazing women of colour who if they were white men would be racing to the top of lists like this:

Arundhati Roy, Ellen Johnson SirleafLeymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai, Ahdaf Soueif and Sabrina Chapadjiev.

Whereas once we were all about overthrowing the system, this championing of those still marginalised and oppressed is perhaps the defining characteristic of modern women-authored non-fiction.

Arguably one of the most influential non-fiction works of the past twenty years, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, is a furious demolition of modern, globalised capitalism and big brands, siding with culture jammers, Reclaim the Streets and the alter-globalisation movement.

We don’t do too badly on a smaller scale either: Katharine Quarmby admirably tackles disabled rights in Scapegoat and the prejudice against gypsies and travellers in No Place to Call Home; Laurie Penny recently penned an impressive missive against cyber-sexism whilst hiding from a bomb threat.

Basically: we’re not just not crap, we’re excellent at non-fiction. We challenge exactly the sort of beard-stroking mindset which sidelines us: that which takes the establishment’s wisdom for granted, even if it happens to be excluding large swathes of the population.

One day, we won’t need to kick against anything, and will write straight up history books and straightforward academic essays, without – whether meaning to or not – making a political point. It will almost be a shame. Almost.


  • Debbie Moorhouse says:

    I think you’re being a bit hard on Mary Beard. I don’t think she meant women’s non-fiction was crap; I think she meant it wasn’t of the type that meets the criteria for that particular prize. Which is a different thing entirely.

    • Beulah Devaney says:

      Having such an imbalanced list the prize is suggesting that women can’t write “good” non-fiction. And as this article shows women can and do write that kind of non-fiction. That’s where the title comes from.

  • sianushka says:

    I was a judge on a non fiction book prize recently and the winner was Ali Smith’s Artful. It really subverts everything you expect about non fiction (as you’d expect from Ali Smith!).

    • Beulah Devaney says:

      I’ve been wanting to read that for ages, it’s on the Christmas list!

  • Jay Ramella says:

    Women are not good writers in comparison to men, full stop! I speak as a female writer & include myself. Tokenism rules nowadays but female columnists from Liz Jones/Sophie Vine to Janet S-Porter and the rest of the D’Acre faker stable, including Boris’s sis Rache, should be put out to grass – and would be, if it weren’t for nepotism. Harry Potter & 50 Shades? Don’t make me laugh – can’t even remember the authors’ names but good luck to them – just don’t try & persuade me there is a contemporary female who comes near serious male writers like (Kingsly) Amis, Somerset Maugham or even Dickens & Shakespeare. As for Jane Austen, well, she has her fans but so does Eastenders…

    • Jane Bradley says:

      We’re sorry you feel that way, Jay, though I have to say it’s surprising you’d be reading For Books’ Sake if you’re of that opinion – we’re all about promoting and celebrating writing by women, and we definitely don’t agree that “women are not good writers in comparison to men, full stop!” Maybe you could have a look at the women writers who’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature for some inspiration which might change your mind…?

    • Rebecca Winson says:

      Well Jeffrey Archer has his fans, but then so does Top Gear…

      I won’t try to persuade you that there’s a contemporary female writer who comes close to the three you name, not just because it would take up my entire evening to finish listing them but because I’m pretty sure you’ve already made up your mind – you’re clearly educated and therefore I’m sure you’re aware that the Booker has now been won by a woman two years running, that the Nobel Prize for Literature has just been won by one and that the Brontes, Austen, Eliot, Behn and Woolf are all well established parts of the canon.

      I’m sure you’re also aware of the fact that taste is subjective, and therefore that you happening to like some male authors more than you like some female authors doesn’t mean that anyone with a womb is completely incapable of literary genius.

      So, okay, you think we don’t have a female Shakespeare, Dickens, or Amis. You’re probably right, although personally I thank God we don’t have an Amis – we don’t need any more self confessed “mild anti-Semites” in this world, whether or not they can grasp a pen.

      You’re probably right: we don’t. But apart from the fact that we used to die in childbirth or were permanently pregnant, or were left uneducated, or discouraged from the “vice” of making things up, so didn’t really get much opportunity to write until the second half of the 20th C, one of the prime reasons we don’t have a Wilma Shakespeare or a Charlotte Dickens is that people go around spouting nonsense that we’re just not capable of writing as well as men so we might as well not bother.

      There’s no point in trying to argue with someone spouting this, because the effect of their words proves their own point. Which came first, the prejudice or the effects of it?

      It’s incredibly sad that you don’t think you can write as well as a man could. It’s far more fun when you have a balanced view of your talents, you know. I’m not going to out-do Shakespeare but I can damn well write Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown and Andy McNab into a cocked hat. I’m sure you could too. And if more of us thought like that, there wouldn’t be less Shakespeares, or less Dickenses, there’d be more. Surely it’s worth aiming for that, even if it means a female Amis will eventually pop up?

      • Jay Ramella says:

        Sorry for such a late response and thank you for your reply. Yes, of course I know I’m good (sorry, ego wrote that bit!), but society is catching up and women writers have undeservedly swelled heads – Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey? Sorry can’t even remember authors’ names! We’ll see what happens no doubt and thanks for your really valued response. 🙂

        • Rebecca Winson says:

          Sorry, but putting the reputation of all women writers’ onto the shoulders of a kids’ writer and a bonkbuster penner (brilliant as lots of people think they are) is like judging Shakespeare as rubbish because you don’t like Jeffrey Archer. Just because you don’t like JK Rowling (come on, you know who she is) doesn’t mean you won’t like Doris Lessing. They are poles apart stylistically and content wise. There isn’t a debate here, however much you want to have one.

          • Jay Ramella says:

            Aha, but we do have debate material and I thank you for engaging with me. The point U have centered is that few people, (and yes, women are worst culprits in management, as in life in general), differentiate between opinion and judgement. ‘Not good’ as opposed to ‘I don’t like.’ There are plenty of writers I consider excellent but they don’t ‘grab me’ as they used to say in the 1960’s – same with music though this seems to be less reprehended! Thanks for your response.

  • Kate Gardner says:

    Unfortunately I think women are fighting the legacy of history here, far more than in fiction. Non-fiction is closely tied to academia, which is very slowly struggling with gender equality. To get non-fiction published in the first place, women come up against the barrier that men are taken more seriously when it comes to traditional “serious” subjects. It’s (for most people, clearly not all) an unconscious bias resulting from centuries of patriarchal values being instilled from birth. The best defence we have is raising awareness so that more people stop and question their values,