Are Women Crap at Writing Non-fiction?
1st Oct 2013
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:
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.