On The Criticism of Women Writers

By Aroosa

Collage by Sarah Kennedy
Collage by Sarah Kennedy

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” the late Maya Angelou once said. This one quote came as a comfort to me during a time when I was faced with great frustration and discontentment in relation to my writing. I’ve spent the last few years of my life writing, the majority of my work lays unread, and I’ve come to realise that the heart of what I avoided in my writing was reflecting myself in it – the fear of deprecation, the fear of rejection, and the fear of inadequacy lingered in my mind.  I avoided the opportunity to shape myself in my work, expose my fears and weaknesses and criticisms.  In a way, I avoided myself.

I tried to get to the core of what inspired my work – the muses and mistresses of praised male writers of the past is not a driving force behind my own words – and I struggled to come up with an acceptable response. Of course, music and people had an effect on how I wrote, but the uncertainty of the reception affected what I wrote. The exhausted sentiments of wanting to not face embarrassment rang hollow, though, as I sat thinking of all my past creative ventures: the chapters I had deleted which had detailed my protagonist’s body issues too much, the words of wanting yet not receiving love, the depression which life brings. All the voices inside my head which I wanted to let scream out their doubts had been silenced and forgotten, my anxiety at having to share my personal experiences had made my work a failure even in my own eyes. Over time, I’d come to restrain my creative urges, I myself countered this desire to write for other girls from my own life and experiences.

I was unsure if my words would be deemed as being unnecessary, just as the emotions of women is viewed by some as being over the top and unneeded, I dreaded the thought of my work being labelled the same. I had taken the horror in society of women sharing too much and being critiqued for this behaviour into my own writing, the idea of a postmodern world judging harshly had allowed their voice to be the central in my work and constrain it: there had to be a division between me and what I wrote. It was as if I had to safeguard my thoughts and feelings to prevent being mocked, it was a form of writing recognised for so long as being too girly to be seen as a piece of substantial literary contribution. If my work was rejected then it would be me, the stripped back version which no-one else had seen, which would have been told that wasn’t good enough. There seems to a worry for female writers more than male on their words being regarded as not being sufficiently liberating or observed as stemming from a place pretention – Sylvia Plath, Mary Shelley and Christina Rossetti had been subjected to this as do so many brilliant current writers like Eleanor Catton and Emily Gould, the latter was recently branded in a scathing 11,000 word piece as being a ‘”young ambitious type”, a “dim bulb” and young writers labelled in the same post as being “middling millennials”.

Many male writers, such as John Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald, provided social commentary through their work whilst making the heart of their experiences the real star. It was a hybrid of fiction and taking liberty of non-fiction, but often women writers are faced with having to balance the emotional aspect with the rational part, not out of choice since being viewed as idiosyncratic with a supposed lack of intellect is looked down upon. You cannot be too invested; you cannot go against what are unofficial literary rules. So many female writers have wonderfully created stories about girls who are full of emotion, mess up on a regular basis while wearing cute clothes and wanting, craving, love yet aren’t viewed as being ‘literary’ enough by some. However, the characters of John Green or Fitzgerald or Steinbeck are the ones which are the ones up for inspection, the writers are not viewed according to the work they present. Just look at how Stephanie Meyer is attacked for how Bella is portrayed, I’m no fan of the books, but it’s a clear example of how you can’t separate women from what they write. The women are written off as catering to the whim of a silly and emotional audience, the authors just like their characters are placed inside a box.

There is a floating perception of what it means to be ‘writing like a girl’, being emotionally invested, which I feel is a pleasing one since we really need to stop letting others influence our writing. We need to not care what others think, we’re in charge of how we want our work to be perceived by accepting what we do ourselves. Why does writing like a ‘girl’ have to be a bad thing? There is a real capacity to create a market for yourself, to own what others view as your weakness. When you write, you open yourself to receiving and dealing with criticism. The thought of having your life through your written work to be found lacking a sense can make you shut out all those voices which your heart is willing you to scribble down. But not everyone’s work shall fit into what the literary world deems as being serious, creative stuff. Some of the best writers in the world, such as Louisa May Alcott, started out by writing for not highly regarded magazines; they were unconcerned about pleasing the masses or the critics. They wrote what and where they wanted to.

It’s as if often the life of the woman is up for analysis instead of her words. Her life is scrutinised as well as her choices and emotions. Women, as well as people of colour, face many different kinds of obstacles in getting their work published and getting the literary establishment to take their work seriously. Yet those who have gotten their work on a bigger platform are criticised for being different in a very personal way which includes a whole group of people are judged: this cultural superiority complex extends beyond the internet where people have this assumption that girls, especially younger ones, are incapable of being regarded as well-read if their choices don’t align with what the often male critics regard as being ‘literary’. Once, I was discussing the brilliance of Mr Darcy, and this older man felt the need to dismiss my opinion as he found it ironic that as a feminist I would “swoon over rich British turn-of-the-century men”. He found my liking Darcy “weird” considering he wouldn’t have given Elizabeth the vote which was interesting because I’m sure all the male characters in his favourite classic authors’ books, which were all written by men, treated the women like they were equals. Because Gatsby is cool, his complexity understandable, but as a woman I fail to understand why Darcy sucks.

I’m aware I have an interest in this because I’m an aspiring writer and a young woman, but I think that we should stop trying to speculate what part of the work is the author’s own emotions and thus proceeding to judge her choices instead of what she’s presented. Of course, every writer operates differently and a lot will invest a bit of their own lives into what they write yet we have to remember that it’s not the writer up for whatever inspection you’re doing. There’s nothing wrong in criticising writing, interpretation is subjective. What is wrong is when we forget that women have much more stories than you’re giving them credit for; there are many different versions and forms of femininity which should be welcome when shared.

The truth is that the moment you, as a writer, put emphasis on how others feel then you become riddled with insecurity and your creativity can’t flow with ease. Maya Angelou was right:  people will forget your words, but no-one can dictate how your work can make people feel. It can provide hope, laughter, solace or even companionship. And because of that I write for girls like myself, awkward and ambitious, and for confused girls as well as ones who tweet poetically tragic words, and the ones who come from any walk of life. I write for girls and that’s something I say proudly.

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