In June of 2011, the intractable Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul made the claim that women authors are unequal to him. “I read a piece of writing,” he said, “and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.”
Naipaul is a far from uncontroversial figure, and can hardly be said to represent the generally accepted position on women writers. Nevertheless, his dismissal of writing by and for women - a dismissal predicated largely on its supposed sentimentality - is revealing on a societal level, and brings to mind Virginia Woolf when she wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929): “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unresolved problems.”
For some working in the media, this perception is not restricted to fiction. In an email interview, Anna North, former editor of and writer for the current events and pop culture blog Jezebel, notes that part of this difficulty comes from the fact that “women’s issues,” while a useful general designation, is also vague and just plain misleading. Just as Naipaul’s designation of women’s writing as “sentimental” is a glossing-over of myriad individual voices, grouping the heterogeneity of women’s concerns together ignores the real differences that exist among women along political, social and cultural lines. Not only that, but such a categorization ignores those who fall outside mainstream definitions of “women,” such as trans- and non gender-conforming individuals. What’s more, North notes, with a “site that is explicitly for women, you can try to be as welcoming as possible, but you’re never going to please all women, any more than you can please all people.”
It is not as though Jezebel (or Shameless, for that matter) are alone in generating content with an alternative perspective - the openness and diversity of the internet has allowed for an explosion of expression. Nevertheless, insofar as the relative lawlessness of the web makes it easy to dismiss perspectives as peripheral, the high number of voices can be itself a problem. As North points out, “it’s not enough for women, people of color, queer people, to have a dedicated space online – the print world, major websites, TV, book publishing all need to make more space for them and acknowledge them as major, not fringe voices. I think dedicated spaces [on the internet] can actually help with that by giving previously marginalized people a platform, but people with hiring power need to be looking in these spaces for the next generation of critics, pundits, reporters, writers of all stripes.”
Even when the forum is available and allows writers to reach a wider audience, this doesn’t necessarily challenge the public perceptions of this writing. In February, an article in British newspaper The Guardian suggested that fiction writing by women, and the authors creating that fiction, are unfairly criticized and derided - not only by men but also by other women - as being cloying, unserious and - god forbid – popular.
Think of the dismissive reductionism of an umbrella term such as “chick lit.” While The Guardian may have simplified some things, particularly the kind of elitism that exists in the divide between popular fiction and literature, it nevertheless points to a trend towards marginalization, a trend North sees as also being at work in nonfiction writing: “I think it’s a struggle for many female writers – especially those who write about issues affecting women – to have their work considered important in the same way that men’s is. As much as Jezebel appeals to a surprising number of men, I’ve sometimes heard it dismissed as “just a women’s blog,” which annoys me because the opposite – “just a men’s blog” – doesn’t even make sense.”
Jezebel occupies a place along the continuum of media outlets from conventional to radically fringe. While not precisely mainstream, the blog occasionally strays dangerously close to that territory, participating in the same practices (such as the bashing of female celebrities) that characterize much of the rest of popular culture. Could this suggest a troubling dimension of writing by and for women - that in order to be popular enough to be heard, it has to sacrifice some of its own independence from the principles it is supposed to exist in opposition to? While this might in part be true, it’s also true that other outlets with reach, online and otherwise, manage to avoid these tendencies.
Despite the difficulties, North, whose own decision to write for alternative media was born out of a genuine frustration with the commodification of women’s perspectives in much of mainstream media, is philosophical when advising those who would consider following a similar path. “Develop a thick skin,” she suggests, “know that you won’t please everybody, and that people you respect and care about will sometimes tell you you’re wrong. Consider that maybe you are. When you get too angry or stressed or overwhelmed, I find it helps to have a pet — or at least look at pictures of them on the internet.”
In other words: cue up the cat videos, and start writing.
Moira Donovan, 24, is a graduate of the University of King’s College