The Hazards of Writing While Female

The commentary on Sally Rooney’s “sensuous lips” demonstrates that women writers still struggle to be taken seriously.

Sally Rooney poses with a copy of her book "Normal People" against a yellow background.
HENRY NICHOLLS / REUTERS / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Why has the literary world gone crazy for Sally Rooney? Is it her age—28? Is it her two acclaimed novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People? Or is it her “sensuous lips”?

According to the Swiss critic Martin Ebel, it is all three. In a recent article praising Rooney’s work, he wrote that the hype around her was helped by “promising” photographs where she “looks like a startled deer with sensuous lips.” The phrasing prompted a Twitter hashtag—#dichterdran, meaning “that’s more like it”—that was full of sarcastic suggestions for how male authors could be written about in future reviews.

Ebel’s piece points to a larger problem in the media: an asymmetric value system where men do, and women are. Elif Shafak, the author of 10 novels including 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, told me that she was once interviewed by an American writer in Istanbul. They had a wide-ranging conversation about literature, history, and politics, “and then when his travel book was published, I saw in horror that he had mostly written about what he thought I looked like.” In Shafak’s telling, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.”

The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers. To understand the backlash to Ebel’s description of Rooney, flip the genders: Imagine if the review pages were dominated by women writing about women, interspersed with the occasional mention of a young male writer, commended for his strong jawline or “sensuous lips.” How amazing that he writes so well about the slave trade, when he could be a model!

Rooney’s youth makes her a particular target for this type of dismissal. Shafak told me that male critics in her native Turkey would refer to her as their “daughter” in reviews: “The critic and I might even be the same age, but because he is a man, he thinks he’s somewhere above [me].” Ebel’s assessment—in translation—appears similarly patronizing. (Ebel did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted to Tages-Anzeiger, the Swiss newspaper that published his article.) Rooney’s book is “absolutely worth reading,” he writes, but sometimes seems like the “twinkling of a twentysomething on a train.” Funny story: When a 20-something Martin Amis published The Rachel Papers, in 1973, the author’s youth was considered an asset. “In a patriarchy, a woman writer will be respected only when she is ‘old’ in the eyes of the society, only when she is defeminized, desexualized,” Shafak said.

There is anecdotal evidence that gender affects every step of the publishing process. In 2015, Catherine Nichols submitted proposals for a novel to agents and publishers under both her own name and a “homme de plume.” Her male alter ego, George, received far more interest: His manuscript was requested 17 times, compared with two for hers.

The tone of the responses was also different. “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me,” Nichols wrote. “George’s work was ‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’” These replies were not, Nichols argued, simply due to unconscious bias, but a reflection of the reality of the marketplace. Agents probably knew that George’s book would be easier to advertise and more likely to get reviewed. When George wrote about a female protagonist, it was edgy; when Catherine did so, it was “women’s fiction.”

The dismissiveness woven into that label—when do we ever talk about “men’s fiction”?—is part of a pattern of associating female writers with the personal, the domestic, the emotional, the subjective, and using that to diminish them. In an essay for LitHub, Siri Hustvedt wrote about Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of a multipart memoir that chronicles his home life in punishing detail. How would such a work be received if written by a woman—a housewife complaining about child care? “No matter how artistic, the hypothetical Olivia Krauss, writing the same work would never have been taken as seriously,” Hustvedt wrote. “In fact, Olivia Krauss would disappear.”

It is a difficult point to argue, because literary value judgments are inevitably subjective. In any individual case, some readers will sympathize with a female writer who says she has been dismissed—while others will suspect her work is simply not as good as she thinks it is. The authors Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner have spent nearly a decade locked in combat over exactly this issue. In 2010, Weiner criticized the “Franzenfrenzy” that surrounded the publication of his novel Freedom, saying that women writing similar stories about families were regarded as limited, commercial authors, whereas Franzen “writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America.” Franzen responded that Weiner was “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon” and was “asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits.”

Weiner did not back down, and now says that “real progress” has been made in how women’s work is reviewed. But a double value system is still detectable. The Nobel laureate VS Naipaul once decried women writers for being “sentimental” with a “narrow view of the world.” Literary history is full of such baffling, and gendered, put-downs. One of Naipaul’s targets was Jane Austen, who seems to inspire particular fury—perhaps because critical opinion has been deformed by film and television adaptations of her books. These tend to emphasize the bonnets and frocks, and downplay her scathing appraisal of capitalism in the form of the contemporary marriage market. Many view Austen as a peddler of soapy romances rather than “a superb satirical writer,” the author Mhairi McFarlane told me. “If Jane can’t get a fair hearing, what hope [is there for] the rest of us?”

Of course, the publishing industry does not always help women to be taken seriously. The covers of Austen’s books are often rendered in delicate pastels, like Instagrammable macaroons. Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster Neapolitan series of novels is notorious in this respect, with garish jackets making the original editions look like trashy beach reads, rather than literary fiction. (The cover designer claimed to be going for ironic kitsch.) When the books were printed in Australia, they were redesigned with stark black-and-white photographs, which the publisher there thought better reflected their literary merit.

Even genre classifications are gendered. “I suspect my first book, You Had Me at Hello, would’ve been marketed as a comic novel rather than a romance, if my name was Malcolm,” McFarlane said. She loved the cover, which featured “cascades of tiny hearts,” but thinks it nevertheless suggested a “lack of grown-upness that women accept as their due.” McFarlane now vetoes “feminine silhouettes featuring jaunty ponytails and shopping bags,” as well as the color pink.

Descriptions of Rooney’s lips, Nichols’s rejections, Ferrante’s covers—all are examples of what we might call “the gender seriousness gap.” Female writers face a set of unspoken, and largely subconscious, assumptions about the value of their work, based around the idea that men are serious and women are frivolous.

Women also face a strange dynamic: They’re encouraged to write in a personal tone, and then dismissed for it. “There is a deeply rooted ‘identity politics’ in the publishing industry,” Shafak said. “We don’t expect an Afghan woman writer to write science fiction, for instance. We want her to produce stories—sad stories preferably—that tell the problems of women in Afghanistan.” And when women do write about characters who resemble them, or situations that resemble their own lives, the critical reception can often imply that no artistic mediation is involved. Think of how many reviewers assumed that Hannah Horvath in Girls was merely a projection of Lena Dunham, with no ironic distance between the two.

Why do women’s books tend to get read more through the prism of their own experiences? It’s part of a double standard of scrutiny, where women’s lives and decisions are placed under the microscope—and, yes, it is often other women doing the scrutinizing. In 2011, the British journalist Caitlin Moran published How to Be a Woman, a memoir about her working-class childhood in suburban England, interspersed with reflections on gender. In 2017, the comedian Robert Webb published How Not to Be a Boy, a memoir of his working-class childhood in the same area, interspersed with reflections on gender. Both books alternate between funny and sad, personal and political. Webb’s book topped the Sunday Times best-seller list, but it generated nothing like the sheer, scorching heat that accompanied Moran’s work. Her word choices; her background; her life as a white, well-paid columnist—all this was picked apart. A magazine declined to publish an interview with her because of an offhand comment she made on Twitter; the remark also generated numerous highly personal takedowns. The reaction was intense: I know people who no longer speak to each other because they were on different sides in the Moran Wars.

Robert Webb, by contrast, just published a good book that lots of people enjoyed reading.

What could change the way that female authors are treated? For McFarlane, the only answer is to do good work, and “stand your ground” against detractors. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to change the idea of what ‘chick lit’ is, than try to eradicate it from the lexicon,” she told me. Shafak said that the problem must be confronted “openly, boldly.” Allowing sunlight in is vital. “Sexism does not operate on its own, as an isolated force. It is often intertwined with other forms of power,” she added.

The seriousness gap in literature has existed for as long as novels have been the most popular, and lucrative, literary form. In the 18th century, when cheaper printing first made novels widely available, the majority of novelists were women. Their success upset writers like Alexander Pope, who specialized in the highbrow but less popular form of epic poetry. His Dunciad, an excoriation of the “dullness” then afflicting literature, reserves particular scorn for popular female authors such as Eliza Haywood. In the poem, Haywood is mockingly described as “a Juno of majestic size / With cow-like-udders, and with ox-like eyes.”

Thankfully, we have moved on. There are now dozens of female writers whose canonical status is assured—including Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Hilary Mantel. Perhaps one day they will be joined by Rooney herself: She has received many nonpatronizing reviews, which have noted her skillful characterization, her command of emotion, and the way she captures the idiom of a generation fluent in the grammar of WhatsApp. And let’s take some comfort in the fact that nearly 300 years after Pope attacked Haywood, Rooney was compared only to a startled deer.

Still, for as long as female authors’ bodies define their work, the seriousness gap will remain.