Sexism in literature

MsT delves in the field of literature in Pakistan to find out about the prevalent misogyny


DESIGN BY MARYAM RASHID

Quick, off the top of your head, name five books that have gotten critical acclaim recently. Chances are the books you’ve named are mostly those written by a male author. ‘But that’s just because I read genres that are more male-dominated,’ you might argue.

Or, ‘Well, men write better books than women.’ Such arguments are overly simplistic (not to mention misogynistic, in the case of the latter) and ignore the deep-rooted sexism that is prevalent in the world of literature today.

Books written by men are often deemed more prestigious and worthier than those written by women. But that is not to say that female writers never get critical acclaim or recognition. There is, of course, J K Rowling and, more recently, Gillian Flynn, author of the contemporary thriller Gone Girl, to name a few. But overall, if females and males are writing about the same themes and in the same genre, it is more likely that the male author’s book will be given greater consideration over the female author’s book.

Take the example of Jodi Picoult. The American author has so far penned 23 novels on a wide range of subjects, from mercy killings and school shootings to childhood leukaemia and stem-cell research. And yet, critics consistently dismiss her work as being ‘beach reads’ or  ‘chick lit’.



On the other hand, there are American authors like Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections) and David Nichols (author of One Day) writing about romance, relationships and family but critics still consider their work worthy of careful scrutiny. There is also the strange phenomenon of men dabbling in female-dominated genres, such as romance, and immediately being hailed as respected writers. From Harlequin romances to the wildly popular Mills and Boons series and from Judith McNaught to Danielle Steele, females have been writing romance for ages. While these writers are popular, their books are hardly considered ‘serious’ literature. Yet, when Nicholas Sparks entered the genre, he was immediately hailed as one of the best romance writers —  all his books have been turned into million-dollar films, complete with A-list casts.

This phenomenon of male writers being hailed as the ‘saviours’ of female-dominated genres can also be seen in the recent popularity of young adult author John Green, writer of The Fault in Our Stars. Young Adult (YA) fiction has been around since the 1980s, with females writing profusely in that genre for decades, and some YA authors rankle at the idea that it took a male writing in that genre for it to be taken even slightly seriously. New York Times bestselling YA author Ally Carter expressed frustration on Twitter about this:

Gonna have to stop reading articles that (rightfully) praise #Tfios, but then denigrate all other YA hits. Sadly, it’s all the articles. Really, the overall tenor of ‘Finally, WORTHY books for girls’ is about to get me. I’m about to SNAP

Pakistan breeds sexism in literature

According to the author Saba Imtiaz, female-dominated genres are comparatively less-respected. “Women-dominated genres [like romance] are considered to be second-tier, ‘easier’ to read and write, and that lack of recognition of how long it may take to write that work is quite dominant,” she says. Her novel is sometimes categorised as ‘chick-lit’, a term Saba thinks is dismissive and belittling. “I’m sure that when I was younger I used the word ‘chick-lit’ too; I would hope that I am more aware now of how ridiculous a word it is,” says Shazaf Fatima Haider, author of the wildly amusing novel How it Happened (2012), who is equally offended when her novel is categorised as ‘chick lit’. “I don’t think of myself as someone who writes only for women, nor is the book solely read by women, so it’s quite amusing to see the quick categorisation based on the theme,” she says. “It is a novel about marriage and weddings and it is, therefore, usually considered as a woman-only book, which is a bit of a daft and one-dimensional way of looking at it. But that’s our gendered outlook at life for you.”



Shazaf says that famous, lauded authors and critics are also complicit in this denigration of literature written by women. “[Nobel prize-winning British author] VS Naipaul famously said that he didn’t consider any woman writer his equal. He also said, ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me,’” explains Shazaf. “Naipaul has also said in interviews that women writers’ views are narrow and sentimental. So yes, I think this sort of bias exists, though not many are brave enough to express it so overtly.”

It is not just critics who view books by female authors differently. Readers also respond differently to these books according to their gender. “Women tend to either identify with or despise a character or scene or the entire book,” says Saba. “But that’s because (in my book) the protagonist and her best friend are women and so there is more for women to compare or identify with. Men tend to be either entirely dismissive or terribly curious,” she adds. Shazaf also agrees that men and women respond differently to her work, although this difference, according to her, is justified given that there are more female characters in her books. “Women interact with the story more personally and make it their own, much more than the men do. This of course, is understandable,” she explains.

But why do men need male characters in order to find a work of fiction interesting while women are expected to automatically relate to male characters in the absence of any female character in a story? “Men’s stories are generally expected to cater to an audience that defies gender, but for some reason most stories written by women are pigeon-holed into catering for women only,” laments Amna Saleem, a 23-year-old avid reader. She says that most canonical writers also happen to be male. Moreover, if you look at any list such as ‘Top 10 classics to read’ or ‘Things every literature student has read’, you’ll notice that the majority of authors on that list are male. So readers are expected to revere and spend time critically analysing only male narratives of history, society and culture.

Failed past, present success

There is also a tendency to assume that female writers are drawing from their personal experiences when it comes to assessing and critiquing their work. “In addition to labelling women’s writing ‘frivolous’, there is also a tendency to draw in a female writer’s personal life and background into the conversation and critique, whereas a male author’s writing is never critiqued in this manner,” says Saba. This sentiment is echoed by women authors in the West as well. American author Adelle Waldman, who wrote The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, said in an interview with online magazine Brooklyn Based,

“In my experience, I think people are quick to assume I wrote my book to work out issues that are personal to me. I think people generally have an easier time imputing intellectual and aesthetic playfulness to a male author than they do to a female author — they can understand a woman writing from hurt or rage more than from a place of greater dispassion or from sheer aesthetic pleasure.”

Even if women are drawing inspiration from their own experiences in order to produce art, this is considered sillier than if a man does the same. Critic Anna North put it succinctly when she said, “There is a consistent devaluing of women’s experiences. A woman’s ‘self-absorption’ is considered a man’s ‘moving memoir’.” And this is not merely restricted to the world of literature, but is prevalent in all the arts. To take the example of music: Taylor Swift has often talked about how her song-writing about past relationships is considered by critics to be shallow and exploitative, while the same accusation is never levelled against her male counterparts. In an interview to promote her latest album 1989, Swift said,

“You’re going to have people who are going to say, ‘Oh, you know, she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends,’ and I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says it about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises a red flag there.”

This devaluing of women writer’s work is apparent in Urdu fiction as well. While writers like Umera Ahmed and her ilk are hugely popular with the masses, their work isn’t considered ‘worthy’ literature —  something that is perhaps illustrated by the fact that these popular authors are never present at literary festivals. However, according to Shazaf critical acclaim is not necessary for a work to be considered worthy. “Ms Ahmed’s stories generate a lot of debate about the inherent assumptions behind them. You can accuse her of reinforcing a lot that is wrong with this society. But then you can also see that her plays are wildly discussed and deconstructed.” On the other hand, in Saba’s opinion this devaluing of ‘digest’ writers is not necessarily about sexism, but is rather an issue of class as well.

However, just because there is sexism in the literary world doesn’t mean things can’t change. According to Shazaf, it is not necessarily true that men are more willing to read books by male authors rather than female ones. “I think most people are generally quite open about what they want to read. The bias and leaning is towards non-fiction rather than fiction; that seems to be the national taste,” she says. Muhammad Yousha, another passionate reader, says he reads women and men authors in equal measure. “My library has a ratio of 50/50 male and female authors,” he says. “I don’t look at gender when I read, and I definitely don’t mind reading books written by women as long as they’re interesting and well-written.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 22nd, 2015.

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