You’ve probably read the stats: books by women are being reviewed more and more by prestigious outlets, but gender equity in the literary world has yet to be achieved. And, books by women are far less likely to win major awards.
Organizations such as VIDA work to hold reviews and awards committees accountable for not only their coverage of women, but of all kinds of women. However, they tend to focus on the so-called literary genre. So, how do women in other genres — science fiction, mystery, street lit, women’s lit — fare?
Ahead of a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival centered on “Feminist Activism Through Popular Fiction,” authors Meg Elison, Aya de Leon and Kate Raphael weighed in on the challenges they face as women writing in their respective genres. Raphael, an activist who writes mystery books, says there’s an active feminist community among her fellow mystery writers. But, she says she struggles to publish stories about women characters who indulge in the same antics as their noir-ish male counterparts.
Meanwhile, Elison and de Leon ― a dystopian writer and a street lit writer, respectively ― both say there is a dearth of the types of stories they want to tell, stories about the reality of women’s struggles, amid an action-centered plot. Below, they discuss the specific road blocks that women who write popular fiction face:
What is the genre you write in, and what specific problems does it pose as far as gender parity goes?
Meg Elison, author of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife: I write speculative fiction, which comes under the big umbrella of science fiction. My first books are post-apocalyptic stories. Science fiction was invented by a woman, and most of my favorite writers in the genre are women. Post-apocalyptic fiction, however, is crazily unbalanced. Most of the stories that take place after the end of the world are by men, about men and written for men.
I read hundreds of books in the genre where women were irrelevant, used as plot devices and barely verbal. They almost never needed birth control and they definitely never needed tampons. I realized that the story that I wanted to read really hadn’t been written yet: What if the apocalypse was very asymmetrical? What if it (like everything else) was harder on women and children than it was on men?
Aya de Leon, author of the Justice Hustlers series: My Justice Hustlers series mixes elements of women’s fiction, street lit and erotic romance. They are politically charged tales of labor organizing, women’s health care and wealth redistribution that center on the planning and execution of multimillion dollar heists.
Street lit is traditionally male-dominated, and — as in most parts of the literary industry — male gatekeepers and audiences tend to ignore women’s writing. Every genre has its trademark cover art imagery. They function like signals to genre audiences: This is your type of book. The symbols of urban fiction are guns, money, jewelry and urban landscapes. While male cover models are sometimes shirtless, they are generally heavily muscled and often armed. Typically, women’s book covers in the genre skew toward romance tropes, rather than action.
In order to be consistent with other books in the imprint, my novel covers have a single young woman of color looking sexy in a sort of “come hither” way. A more accurate representation of my series would be a sexy, multi-racial group of armed women in the midst of a heist operation. A male writer wouldn’t have the same problem, because the mainstream images of male strength and sexiness are the same: power is sexy and power is power.
Kate Raphael, author of Murder Under the Bridge: I write mysteries, and women actually make up over 50 percent of published mystery and crime fiction writers, but as Sisters in Crime has documented, get fewer than 50 percent of reviews and far fewer in the most prestigious outlets. There is also a narrower range of characters that are acceptable for women in crime fiction. An agent rejected my book because my main character, a Palestinian policewoman, disobeyed her boss. So many mysteries involve a male detective pursuing an investigation after he’s been ordered not to, having his badge and gun confiscated, that it’s a cliché.
There’s much ado lately about the “strong female lead.” Why do you think that’s an insufficient literary exploration of feminism?
Elison: The “strong female lead” is just another trope. Too often, it means a stereotypical cool girl who eschews femininity to be one of the guys and wield weapons. Too often she carries her own internalized misogyny, or she’s just a regulation hot chick who happens to know kung fu.
It’s insufficient because the movement for the correct representation of the wild spectrum of human gender and sexuality is just getting started. We’re just staring to see tender boys in films like “Moonlight,” or fully realized tough women in books like Chuck Wendig’s Atlanta Burns. We’re just now seeing realistic trans and nonbinary characters, asexual characters and so many more. Ripley in a mecha suit is great, but not enough. A disabled Furiosa is a wonderful start, but it’s got to keep rolling.
De Leon: Pop culture stories with a strong female lead are an important component of feminism, especially in a media world that skews so strongly toward men: Male writers of books, and male protagonists on-screen with male creators behind the scenes. But Andi Zeisler’s recent book, We Were Feminists Once, reminds us that the ultimate goal of feminism isn’t to applaud an individual woman being “empowered,” but about creating gender equality for all women. I am most excited about the feminist potential of stories that have a broader scope of what they envision as far as interrupting and ultimately ending sexism in the world.
Raphael: So many of the strong female leads are still very stereotyped. There’s still an expectation that a woman can be beautiful, fashionable, f**kable, vulnerable, not shrill and at the same time be kickass. Of course some women are all those things, but many aren’t. The real-life struggles of women are often oversimplified. Like, who’s doing the childcare? And how does the driven woman cop or spy or agent or lawyer feel about leaving her kids to go running off after the murderer at all hours? If she’s heterosexual, is her husband resentful, and if so, what does she do about it? I try to introduce those dilemmas in my books. In a feminist novel, women should see characters like themselves ― women of different races and cultures, different body types, dykes, mothers, single women, poor women and hopefully not in a United Colors of Benetton way, but in the messy, complex way that exists in the real world.
“In a feminist novel, women should see characters like themselves ― women of different races and cultures, different body types, dykes, mothers, single women, poor women.”
Would you say you set out to write a feminist book?
Elison: Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. There is no part of my outlook or my work that is not shaped by my experience as a woman, and my belief that we are entitled to equality and almost always denied it. Writers and artists will often try to dodge or soften this label, claiming their work is for everybody, that it’s just a story about people. My work is for everybody who agrees that women are people. That isn’t too much to ask.
De Leon: Definitely. I’m not interested in turning readers on or off with the feminist label. I’m interested in embodying feminist values.
Raphael: Feminism is really core to who I am so I can’t conceive of not writing a feminist book.
In what way do you think your politics work alongside your storytelling abilities? Do they complement one another? Enhance one another? Work against one another, at times?
Elison: The story must come first and definitely did for me. Wrapping a story around your politics invariably turns out a monstrosity like Atlas Shrugged, where somebody just rants for 40 pages about your philosophy. Nobody is fooled. Letting your life and your truth come through in a story without fear cannot help but be built partly of your own politics. My stories contain myself, my sexuality, my identity. Those things are political; they do not come apart. If a writer finds that their politics work against their story, it is likely because there is some part of themselves about which they cannot or will not tell the truth.
De Leon: I was really interested in reaching beyond the traditional feminist audience. That’s why I wrote a book that has elements of chick lit and romance. I wanted to mainstream subversive political ideas by serving them in the forms that women have been taught to consume. And I was interested in remixing tropes of romance and chick lit that seemed to conflict with feminism: hunky men, swooning moments, stiletto heels, shopping, competition between women. I wanted to engage all those mainstream appetites, but challenge them, as well.
Raphael: It’s a tough question. Again, the crime genre lends itself to political storytelling because it’s concerned fundamentally with questions of justice and injustice. A good crime story lays bare the power relations in a society ― in my case, in Palestine and Israel. So it was well suited to what I wanted to do. I could never set aside my politics to tell a story, because a radical analysis of social relations is how I view the world. If I didn’t bring in radical politics, and activism, I wouldn’t be telling a true story and certainly not one about Palestine. I just am not interested in apolitical stories, they seem flat and devoid of meaning to me. I can barely stand to read one, so I could definitely not write one.
Have you always felt comfortable imbuing your work with your identity as an activist or feminist? What obstacles have you faced in trying to do this?
Elison: I don’t know if “comfortable” is the right word to describe it, but it has always felt right. The obstacles are mostly that people whose opinions don’t matter will shout them at me on the internet. I’m perfectly capable of handling that. I’ve had a lot of thoughtful conversations about my depictions of gender and sexuality, and it’s fascinating to hear different interpretations of my work. But the difference between that conversation and an anonymous all-caps accusation of feminazism is pretty easy to discern. Though I respect the work of authors like Roxane Gay and Lindy West who give of their time and patience to try and educate trolls, I find it a poor investment of both in my case.
De Leon: In the past, I think I was more preachy. I had a harder time writing flawed protagonists. I wanted everyone to be much more honorable, but they weren’t very interesting. […] I hope to bridge some of that with a book that is politically charged but delivers all the feels in the romantic arc, and a good heist plot, as well as upending stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, and class. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do, whatever the cover or the genre or the shelf in the bookstore.
Raphael: I have no choice because if anyone Googles me, the first hundred things that come up are going to be my activism. I do a feminist radio show, I used to write for feminist and queer newspapers, I was interviewed by the FBI after 9/11 because of my feminist and antiwar organizing, there are stories about me being deported from Israel ― that’s just who I am. For sure, it narrows the market.