On Wednesday 13th July, 2011, authors Kirsten Tranter, P. M. Newtown, Mardi McConnochie and Georgia Blain met to speak about gender and genre in front of a very interested audience. The event was When Genres Attack 2: Attack of the 50ft Heroine. What followed was a lively discussion mostly (but certainly not limited to!) addressing the representation of women in fiction, chaired by Mark Harding from Shearer’s Bookshop.
The evening began with an articulate and varied discussion of expectations placed on female characters in fiction: none of the authors struggled to give examples of how their female protagonists’ actions and choices were questioned by readers (and editors..). Implicitly, female characters are often expected to be emotional, nurturing and selfless. They’re also given less leeway to make “bad” decisions, or choices that serve their own purposes. (These are not strictures frequently applied to male protagonists, it would seem.)
On the other hand, the panelists expressed some hesitation about female protagonists who were too accomplished to be realistic, or did not have any qualities that identified them as female. The ensuing discussion involved examining the two extremes that are commonly present in fiction: either a woman is all malleability and/or wisdom, or she is “superhumanly strong” and/or completely devoid of typical emotional responses.
The panel advocated very convincingly for a more textured, layered approach to the portrayal of women in fiction – without indulging in either of these extremes.
Georgia Blain suggested that as readers, we often seek to find characters in books both likeable and believable. (Tough asks, indeed!). Mardi McConnochie pointed out that writers “suspend judgement” of their characters, whilst readers judge freely. As readers, we judge characters harshly; we judge them as people we might know.
Of course, the controversial topic of one gender writing about the other (i.e. men writing about women, women writing about men) had to be addressed. There were remarks that often, female characters written by men just don’t “ring true”, though not attempting to “deny men’s ability to write female characters”. China Mieville and Stieg Larsson were both examples of male authors who had created very strong female characters (e.g. Embassytown, Millenium Trilogy) but seemed to have compromised on depicting how their characters were women. An interesting point raised by Mardi was that there doesn’t always need to be a strong clear demarcation between male and female characters: the gender becomes irrelevant at times. Kirsten has an essay coming out soon on gender in Mieville’s book, which should be an excellent adjunct to the discussion points raised this evening!
Georgia noted that books are sometimes seen as instructional on behaviour for young women (although no one brought up the dreaded T-word during this event). Though the status of books as instructional was queried (I personally would say yes, certainly. Mark would disagree.) The panellists mentioned a recent British article about research linking the impact of romance fiction on women’s health, which was vociferously challenged by those present.
The panel also discussed the (somewhat dire) reality that most men don’t read “women’s books” and counter-strategies pursued to negate this: for example, choice of book covers, or using an author’s initials instead of their full name (I’m looking at you, P. M. Newton).
During the fascinating discussion of the implications of book covers, Mardi McConnochie noted that “book covers are a shorthand of what to expect” – thus a book with the picture of a couple kissing on the cover… leads to certain conclusions made by the bookstore browser.
Mark brought up the issue of product placement in bookshops – particularly given that many recent book prize winners have been male authors, and these novels are naturally displayed prominently in shop windows and shelves.
Which brings us to another issue raised during the evening regarding Australian prizes for fiction: prizes for fiction written by women and prizes for fiction about women. Kirsten Tranter discussed the Stella Prize; which has been developed in response to a significant under-representation of female writers in most of the major Australian literary prizes. The Stella seeks to celebrate women’s writing, without bowing to biases regarding how women ought to be depicted in fiction.
…If only it were possible to write down each minute detail of the evening – but in retelling and rewording, one risks diluting the ideas so well-expressed originally! … Be assured that the When Genres Attack events are definitely worth attending in-person.
For a very well documented transcript of the proceedings, head to Kylie Mason’s twitter to witness her formidable feat of live tweeting so many ideas so well!
On a personal note,
I was thrilled to attend an evening with such a variety of thoughts and opinions on a topic very dear to me. Kudos to Shearer’s for providing an accessible venue (both literally and figuratively) to host these proceedings.
I do so hope we eventually become a society where more men can believably write about women. And even sooner than that, I’d like to see more people (especially men) reading books by women, or with female protagonists: very rarely are these books solely “about women”.
Written by Vani Gupta. You can find Vani on Twitter @_itsvani