Are Women Writers Disadvantaged?

There’s an article in today’s The Daily Telegraph headed “It’s the same old story of women writers, claims novelist“.  The article, written by Rosa Silverman, is as follows:

Women writers remain disadvantaged by a male dominated literary world in which men do not want them to succeed, a female novelist has claimed.  Elizabeth Jane Howard, who wrote the Cazalet tetralogy, said that female authors suffered “a hard time politically and sexually”, suggesting little had changed since the 19th century.  Jane Austin was “respectfully received” but others such as George Eliot had to disguise their names for “a better chance of being taken seriously,” she noted.  Almost two centuries on, writers such as JK Rowling and AS Byatt did the same, possibly for similar reasons, she said.  Howard, 90, who was married to the author Kingsley Amis, said that instead of allowing women to succeed on their merits, the world of male critics and editors “scratch each other’s backs.  I think men are more sympathetic to the work of men,” she said.  “They find domestic, emotional matters more difficult.”  The writer VS Naipaul was among those who have expressed the views to which she  was referring, Howard said.  In a 2011 interview, he dismissed women writers as “unequal” to him and criticised their sentimentality.  Howard, whose fans include Hilary Mantel, who has won the Man Booker Prize twice, added: “I think at higher levels, a talented male writer would have an easier journey than a talented female writer, who might very well get bad reviews.”  Although there are signs that men’s perceptions are changing for the better, the general position of women around the world “is showing no signs of improving”, she added.  Howard, who won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her first novel, The Beautiful Visit in 1951, said: “Women are not starting from an equal position.  People say that because they have got the vote, the problem is over.”

I would be very interested in what my readers think of Ms. Howard’s views.

I think that she almost certainly has a point, but that she overstated her case.  I think it is wrong to imply that women writers are as ill-received now as they were two hundred years ago.  It’s also not clear to me that Rowling and Byatt used their initials rather than their first names to prevent discrimination.  After all, it is very difficult to hide one’s gender in today’s world (behind initials, or almost anything else).  As I may have said elsewhere, I think that women are definitely better at expressing emotion than men (part of the DNA?).  If one accepts that this is true, would it be fair to say that women tend to choose themes which allow them the liberty to display their superiority?  And would it also be fair to say that men find this superiority uncomfortable?  If so, this may account for Ms. Howard’s perception that male critics and editors discriminate against women.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that women writers suffer “a hard time politically and sexually”.  They don’t seem to be suffering sexually.  What male author can match the success of E L James Fifty Shades of Grey?  And what do politics have to do with writing?  I would have said that “women writers may suffer discrimination professionally and socially.”

It seems to me it is an exaggeration to say that the general position of women around the world “is showing no signs of improving”.  I would argue that women writers are winning more recognition in the West, where there is a greater appreciation of the expressive skills of women.  In the Middle East and in Asia, progress may be slower, but I have the impression that women are finding greater professional recognition in many fields.

What do you think?

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