Being marginalized as a female writer is certainly not a new thing. Just ask Jane Austen, whose novels even today are sometimes dismissed as silly “marriage plot” novels, despite the fact that at the turn of the 19th century, marriage was the single most important decision (and really, the only decision) women got to make about their lives. Clearly female writers have made great strides in equality since then; we no longer have to publish our books anonymously or under male pseudonyms (thank goodness!) and VIDA’s annual count is steadily showing less of a gender imbalance in magazines and reviews. However, we still sometimes find our books being trivialized or derided as “chick lit” simply because they are about the experience of being female.
Eager to be taken seriously, some women writers fall into the trap of putting others down. “My book isn’t a beach read, not like hers!” we might feel compelled to protest. “My book is serious literature, and I read only books by other serious writers.” But this stratification of women’s fiction is counterproductive, and serves only to put some female writers down instead of its intended goal to raise all female writers up.
As a devoted Janeite, I was recently re-reading one of Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey, when I stumbled across a passage that seemed to encapsulate this struggle perfectly. Friends Catherine and Isabella are spending a leisurely, rainy afternoon inside reading novels, when Austen’s narrator launches into this spirited tirade: “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?…Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure…”
“Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried…“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.”
Only a novel? Only women’s fiction? Ha! And that is why I am so delighted to be a member of the Tall Poppies Writers. We are sisters in the trenches of writing and publishing, and our goal is to lift each other up. I have a feeling Jane Austen would be very pleased by our endeavor.