Women Write And Read Only Sentimental Nonsense. Seriously?

Posted: April 30, 2014

Stereotypes about women writers and readers as narrow in their reading aptitudes and too ‘sentimental’ still exist, but they do a disservice to all of us, women and men.

Some time back, we had dinner with some friends. Over pre-dinner drinks, the conversation meandered, until at one point, it touched upon the topic of books. Our hostess had recently borrowed a couple of books from me, and had enjoyed them; both by women writers. These were books I had enjoyed, as had a host of my bibliophilic friends, whose taste I have confidence in.

The host, who professes to read a lot, was extremely critical of ‘women writers’. According to him, their books “…don’t move forward, are repetitive in their wallowing in emotion, and are not good enough for me. Only women can read such sentimental nonsense.”

I had no issues with his opinion of the books in question – this can be highly subjective, and if he didn’t connect with a book, he just didn’t. It would have been perfectly alright for him to say he didn’t enjoy the books, even criticize them. What bothered me was not his dismissal of these books, but the blanket dismissal of the work of women writers as mere sentimental nonsense.

Even more than that, it was his view of women as readers, a view that I found offensive. It all reeked strongly of the arrogance expressed by Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who ‘lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal, not even Jane Austen’.

Why is ‘sentiment’ a bad thing, meant only for women?

Now, there are many levels on which this was so wrong.

First, there are only good writers and bad writers, if one has to classify by the quality of the writing. Not women writers and men writers.

Second, the dismissal of emotional themes in books as ‘sentimental nonsense’; sentiment, or emotion, is the basis of all human transactions. There cannot be a great story without conflict, and all conflict is based on emotion, even that due to circumstance. All young humans express emotion unabashedly. While the expression of emotion in girls is encouraged, even lauded, socialization teaches young boys to withdraw from this ‘humane’ side, permitting the expression of only anger and aggression. These boys grow up to be angry and aggressive men, of which only a few are courageous/fortunate enough to get back in touch with themselves.

While the expression of emotion in girls is encouraged, even lauded, socialization teaches young boys to withdraw from this ‘humane’ side, permitting the expression of only anger and aggression.

Third, the gendered assumption that most books written by women are literary balderdash. On the contrary, this blithely disregards the range of excellent writing that can be credited to women –

Literary fiction/nonfiction: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Pearl S Buck, Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Jhumpa Lahiri, Doris Lessing, Shashi Deshpande, Iris Murdoch, Ruth PrawarJhabvala, A.S.Byatt, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Colleen McCullough, Dodie Smith.

Classics: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne, George Eliot, Mary Shelly, Louisa M Alcott, S.E.Hinton.

Feminist writing: Maya Angelou, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy L Sayer, Betty Friedan, Eve Ensler, Shilpa Phadke.

Philosophy: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ayn Rand, Lois Lowry, Ursula K le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Karen Armstrong, Arshia Sattar, Simone de Beauvoir, Jennifer Hecht, Mary Midgley.

Business: Sheryl Sandberg, Terri L Griffith, Gita Aravamudan, Anne Kreamer, Lisa Bloom, Lois P Frankel.

Science fiction/nonfiction: Mary Shelley, Kitty Ferguson, Mary Midgley, Mary Roach, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K le Guin, Octavia E Butler, Pamela Sargent, T.V.Padma, Audrey Niffenegger.

Historical fiction/nonfiction: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ruth PrawarJhabvala, Ismat Chughtai, Georgette Heyer, Anne Frank, Paro Anand, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Indu Sundaresan, Madhulika Liddle.

Gothic fiction: Mary Shelley, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Bronte, Susan Hill, Anne Radcliff, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Anne Rice, Victoria Holt.

Detective fiction: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayer, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, J.K.Rowling (as Robert Galbraith), Sue Grafton, J.D.Robb.

Children’s books (There are many more great women writers here than men): J.K.Rowling, Enid Blyton, Gail Carson Levine, Julia Alvarez, Cornelia Funke, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Sharon Creech, E.L.Konisberg, Judy Blume, Jacqueline Kelly, Julia Donaldson, Beverly Cleary, Peggy Parrish, Beatrix Potter, Betty Smith…

Humour: Jane Austen, Peggy Parrish, Erma Bombeck, Betty McDonald, Fanny Flagg, Mary McHugh, Janet Evanovich, Beverly West, Helen Fielding, Zadie Smith.

Psychology: Harriet Lerner, Susan Cain Alice Miller, Susanna Kaysen, Virginia Mae Axline.

And then there is travel, adventure, medicine, scholarly works, mythology, critiques, romance, poetry, biographies, autobiographies, short stories, essays, fantasy, Young adult books, and so much more. These are just the author names that I have written off the top of my head – just to give an idea of the whole wide world of worthy women writers out there to be wandered into.

…this mindset would be detrimental to men who write books in a genre (romances and chick lit?) popularly expected only from women writers, thus doing men a disservice.

Fourth, this mindset would be detrimental to men who write books in a genre (romances and chick lit?) popularly expected only from women writers, thus doing men a disservice. There are at least two male writers I know of,  who write romantic bestsellers under a female pseudonym; Harold Lowry, who writes as Leigh Greenwood and Thomas Elmer Huff, who wrote under a number of pseudonyms – Jennifer Wilde, Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, and Katherine St Clair. Clearly, their publishers thought the books wouldn’t sell otherwise – who ever thought men could write so well on emotional issues?!

One has to only look at a list of male writers who have written the most delicately nuanced books of all times, to demolish this theory. The Bard himself (William Shakespeare) has plenty of such writing to his name. To cite a handful more, so have Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nicholas Sparks, John Green, Ian McEwan, Erich Segal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Markus Zusak, Arthur Golden, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Umberto Eco, Lev Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore … again, these are names that come to my mind immediately – there are so many more.

Don’t men like great stories too?

Fifth, one more gendered assumption that the ‘sentimental nonsense’ thus generated, is only for consumption by women; to an extent, this is reinforced by the profusion of frothy, pink-and-glitter covered books that come up for sale every mother’s day/women’s day – as if this is the only stuff they can digest. But, as I have said earlier, ‘there cannot be a great story without conflict, and conflict is based on emotion.’ This would automatically bar all men from reading great books, which, I’m sure, they’ll all agree, would be a pity.

From a commercial point of view, if most male readers thought like this, would it seriously impact sales of books by women writers? I hope not, but maybe this is why so many women writers write under a male pseudonym. After all, even Joanne Rowling’s publishers thought it would make better business sense to publish under an androgynous name, J.K.Rowling.

Otherwise, in most probability, half her readers would not have picked up a book about a boy wizard studying in a residential school of magic, and battling evil forces with most of his help in the form of a really clever witch.

Pic credit: Julie Jordan Scott (Used under a CC license)

In her role as the Senior Editor & Community Manager at Women's Web, Sandhya

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