On Men Writing Women

CW: sexual assault.

This is a very different flavour to what I usually write and it includes a personal story that I don’t want to discuss, with anyone, no exceptions. But recent conversations around the ways many male writers describe women has had me thinking.

When I was a teenager I was assaulted and stalked by a 46 year old man. He was my boss, he had all the power, he was relentless and dangerously delusional. He rationalised his obsession by telling me the ways in which I made him unable to control himself; my big eyes, the way I didn’t make eye contact, the fact I laughed nervously at his jokes, the fact I listened to people’s problems. In context, all signs that I was a young girl terrified of losing her job who didn’t know how to get out of a scary situation. In his mind? Fear was romanticised, a look of fear morphed in to wide-eyed adoration for this middle aged alcoholic. I try not to acknowledge it anymore, and it took me a long time to accept that nothing about my physical appearance, my desire to be nice to people and do my job well, meant that I was asking to become the obsession of a man older than my mum. Some of what I’ve written above I’ve never said aloud.

How does this relate to the topic of men writing women?

There’s been a viral tweet going round asking women to describe themselves as a male writer would. It doesn’t need a #notallmen disclaimer, it’s a fun take on a trend of men failing to write well rounded female characters without focussing on how fuckable they are. I opened a reply to make my own take, then realised I couldn’t. Because in my head the only way a man would describe me is still the ways in which I’ve been described by men who haven’t seen me as a person.

And for me that’s where the root of the problem lies. In all the excerpts I’ve seen of poorly written women by male writers have been the undercurrents of not seeing us as fully rounded people. We’re breasts, big lips, sashaying hips; or fat, unfuckable, too skinny to be real women, or butch. Even in a first person introduction, I read a narrator talk more about how her jeans were so tight men could read her credit card number through her pocket. Show me a woman whose internal monologue works that way?

This may seem like a petty point to some. But the dehumanisation of women in fiction by ‘classic’ or ‘literary’ writers (the treatment and classification of women, non binary writers and writers of colour by the publishing industry is a whole other kettle of fish) has a social effect. If our media feeds the idea that the male view of women is accurate, by heralding these superficial descriptions and framing women as things to lust over, then how can we begin to undo those dangerous perceptions in real life. In a world where James Bond’s suave misogyny is the pinnacle of manliness, and women are merely moving, suggestible art draped over his arm, then how can our real life abusers possibly be wrong in the way they perceive us? When men write us that way, they tell the portion of men in the real world that want the excuse to see us as things purely for their pleasure that they’re exactly right.

I am not overreacting. I am not making false equivalencies. We need to demand better representation for ourselves, for women who look like us and those who don’t. Male writers have a duty to examine the ways they present their female characters. Do they read like something you want to fuck? Something you want your reader to want to fuck? Is her anger sexy to you? Her fear? Is she there because you need your male characters to angst over? Then you need to rethink your ability as a writer. Women belong in fiction like they belong in the real world; with their own rounded narrative, not for the development of a man but because we exist as complex individuals and we deserve to be portrayed that way in fiction.

I wanted to include some positive examples of male writers writing women and I originally skimmed through some books on my shelf looking for a paragraph that would say to me yes, this guy knows how to describe women. I soon gave up. Not because it’s impossible for men to write women well, but because the ones that do focus so much on making them rounded characters it leaves little room for whole paragraphs where their internal monologue waxes philosophical about their looks. Men don’t get written that way, well written women shouldn’t either.

Take the man who is, in my eyes, the god of good characterisation, Terry Pratchett. In his books about The Witches a picture of their looks builds up gradually, but well before that you’ve got an idea that Nanny Ogg is a genial menace with the double entendres.

In Paul Trembley’s Head Full of Ghosts Merry, the narrator, immediately describes another female character, ‘best-selling author Rachel Neville’, as wearing ‘a perfect fall ensemble: dark blue hat to match her sensible knee length skirt’. It does two things; shows Merry as a narrator who observes in the way women do in real life, without thinking constantly about their own looks, and introduces a second female character by her achievements over her fuckability.

We need more of this. A lot of the books I read nowadays aren’t written by the ‘literary’ stereotype of the allo cishet white man, and in my experience writers approaching their characterisation from an intersectional perspective tend to be better at writing characters in general. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold the established darlings of literary fiction to the same high standards.


Indie Spotlight: Fariha Khayyam and Shards

So this is the first in a series of posts I’m making highlighting independent writers that deserve more recognition! First up is Fariha Khayyam and her collection of poetry, Shards, published through Createspace back in December 2017.

About the book

This girl,
is shattered
and broken.

she fights back
to rise
and reform.

This is
Her journey…
Her Shards…

SHARDS is a modern-poetry collection.
It is about the journey of a girl as she struggles to come to terms with what she has endured. It is divided into four sections, where each section covers a major aspect of her journey. And how she gains the courage to stand up and give herself second chance at life and people. It explores various topics such as: solitude, abuse, racism, suicide, grief, and negativity.

My review!

Shards is a beautiful book. It’s both hopeful and painful at the same time, covering such deep topics as abuse, suicide and building yourself back up after trauma. It’s always difficult to be objective when reading poetry that taps in to such personal experiences, but for me it’s an incredible thing to be able to get insight in to another’s experience, whilst also being able to relate at times. Personally, it spoke to me.

Modern poetry often gets, unfairly and unjustifiably, a bad reputation. But Shards is proof that the style is meant to portray something deeper than critics assume. It’s raw, it’s heartbreaking and it’s uplifting all at once.

Being an independent writer.

I talked to Fariha about her experience of independent publishing so far, why she took that route and what’s in store for the future.

It’s been a learning curve, really. I had heard mixed things about self-publishing before, but upon doing it myself, I’d want to stick to it. It’s the flexibility I like in it. You are your own boss, no deadlines, no long waiting duration, unlike traditional publishing, where querying can easily take up to three months.

I always wanted to write a book, and I always wanted to self-publish it. (which I did!) but going forward I’d like to take the more traditional approach, however if that doesn’t go too well, I’ll be happy to return to self-publishing.

I am working on two very different genres. I’d like to publish them once (if ever) I finish writing them. I also occasionally write short stories. You can find them all here: http://www.farihakhayyam.com/my-books/

What about advice to aspiring writers looking to go down the independent route?

I’d say go for it. Though you’d have to work extra hard on your marketing skills to get the book out there in the hands of your readers, but other than that, all other steps will be considerably easier, than traditional publishing.

And finally…

If you want the chance to win a paperback copy of this gorgeous collection then you have until 7th April to enter the Goodreads giveaway!

Take Your Medicine by Hannah Carmack (plus author interview!)

I’m incredibly excited to be sharing my first author interview! I recently received an advanced copy of Hannah Carmack’s Alice in Wonderland inspired book, TakeYourMedicine, and we managed to have a quick chat about the book too!

Take Your Medicine is a short, sweet novel about Alice, who lives with vasovagal syncope, a fainting disorder triggered by strong emotions. Her life is complicated when she meets the enigmatic Rabbit at the end of her orchard.

I loved the themes of family bonds in the book, as well as the budding relationship between Alice and Rabbit, whose witch background counterbalances Alice’s mother’s medical one. It’s a real coming of age story about finding your way as you approach adulthood; with a f/f relationship, strong mother-daughter bonds and a healthy sprinkle of flora witchcraft.

Now, on to the interview with Hannah Carmack!

Take Your Medicine is obviously Alice in Wonderland inspired. Other than Alice, who are yourfavouritecharactersfromtheoriginal?

It may be obvious when boiling down screen time in TYM, but I always loved the White Rabbit. I’m a notorious clock watcher, but rather than always saying ‘I’m Late!’ it’s more ‘I’m 20 minutes early and no one is here yet’

Whatkind of research did you do before writing?

I did tons of research! I don’t have vasovagal syncope, so getting the symptoms and treatment methods correct was really important to me. It was a lot of time spent researching on webMD and vasovagal syncope boards. /r/syncope was a HUGE and helpful resource.

There’s also a lot of plant and bug life referenced in the novel, so I had to do some digging to figure out what flora and fauna were native to Alabama.

What made you decide to write a character living with vasovagal syncope? Was there somethingthatinspiredyou?

Although I don’t have vasovagal syncope, I do have ulcerative colitis. Having an illness that isn’t often portrayed in media (and when it is it’s done as a joke) I felt a strong need to feature more illness/disability in my stories. I really want to normalize talking about illness and demystify the medical world. Vasovagal Syncope specifically attracted me because it can be so tied to emotional stressors.

Each of the characters has a very different voice, who was yourfavourite to write and why?

Al all the way. She’s such a fun character to write and she’s a little bit sarcastic! The scenes between her and her mother are some of my favorite scenes I’ve written to date. She also has such a unique way of viewing her landscape. Her voice lends itself to really unique descriptions and that’s something else I really appreciate.

Take Your Medicine is out on 5th March! Preorder a copy here.

Indie-Athon and My Indie Plans

I was very excited to find out that there is a readAthon in March inspired entirely by independent writers and publishers. I subscribe to a lot of independent presses, as well as Ninja Book Box, which supports indie books, so I have a massive backlog of indie published books to read. Many diverse ebooks that I’ve bought are also independently published, which makes my TBR even longer!

I’m not going to be making an official TBR for the month because I am such a mood reader, but I am going to make sure that every book I read in March is independently published. My current reads are: An Unkindness Of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (Akashic Books), Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (Okay, Swoon Reads is technically an imprint of Macmillan but I’m over halfway through this one so will finish it this month!), The Sorcerer Of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor) and In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (Interlude Press). Which seems like a lot but, like I said, I’m a mood reader!

The IndieAThon got me thinking about ways I could be supporting independent authors and publishers. I sent out a call on twitter for people interested in being featured and got a bunch of responses! So over the next few weeks I’ll be doing book spotlights, interviews and reviews with independent authors and about independently published books!

My first post is up today, an interview with Hannah Carmack and review of her newest novel, Take Your Medicine. I also have a few reviews from my backlist to post so I’ll intersperse those posts with reviews!

For those of you interested, the book featured in the photo for this post is Hummingbird by Sophia Elaine Hanson, published by Calinda Lux Publishing. A beautiful collection of poetry that I would thoroughly recommend!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’ve been sitting on this one since Boxing Day, thinking about how to review it. I was expecting to enjoy it when I first picked it up, I wasn’t expecting to finish it within 24 hours and to immediately add it to my ‘Top Ten Of 2017’. But there we go!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo has a slightly deceptive title. Superficially, the story revolves around the classic actress, Evelyn Hugo, telling her life story- and all the secrets of her seven husbands- to an unknown journalist. Really, the plot goes much deeper and we lean how Evelyn has loved a woman her entire adult life and how, in the cut throat world of classic Hollywood, this was such a dangerous act.

I loved this book partly because the characters are all so beautifully flawed. Evelyn tells a tale of using men and her sexuality to get ahead in the film industry, while also maintaining she feels no regret for her actions. She’s real, and unflinching and unapologetic. But she’s also inherently likeable. We see her through a young journalist’s eyes and follow her journey from fascination to hatred to forgiveness. The men in Evelyn’s life range from abusive but charming, to generous but lecherous, to loyal and lifelong friends. Her relationship with Celia is at times fraught, but raw. Nothing comes easy, like in real life.

There’s also a great deal of diversity within the story. The two narrators are a young biracial journalist and an elderly bisexual Cuban star. We see queer identities hidden from the world in classic Hollywood, but finally given a voice by Evelyn.

This was definitely one of my top reads of 2017 and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves!

Christmas Book Haul!

This is a tad delayed, but here’s a Christmas book haul!

Every Christmas I do the usual bookworm thing of asking almost exclusively for books. This year the vibe I got was that they’d rather get me other things too so I was a little more conservative with my Christmas list (I put four non-book items on it).

So I still did pretty well for books…

It helps that my brother also almost exclusively asks for books, which is how I ended up with The Buddha Of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi after my mum accidentally ordered two copies for him.

I’ve wanted Inua Ellams’ poetry collection, Six of The Fairy Negro Tales after I saw him speak at Bare Lit festival earlier in 2017. I have another anthology of his, #Afterhours, but never got round to buying this one off my wish list!

I also got One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, which has been on my list of planned reads for my Read the World project for Colombia for a while now!

These hardbacks of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, Mirror In The Sky by Aditi Khorana and The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso are gorgeous and I can’t wait to read them! I’ve had my eye on What It Means… for ages and couldn’t find it in any of my local bookshops so I’m so glad I finally own a copy!

Finally, I saw a friend talk about Not A Drop To Drink by Mindy McGinnis on Instagram and you know how I can’t resist a good dystopian!

Did you get any books this Christmas?

One Way by SJ Morden

I received a copy of One Way from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

One Way is an exciting Mars-based thriller about a group of cons sentenced to life in prison who are offered the chance to commute their sentence to a life building and maintaining a colony on Mars. As building progresses, they start dying in mysterious circumstances but who is killing them off?

I’m still on a bit of a sci-fi kick so I was pretty excited to have my request for One Way approved! The book started off a little slow; there was a fair amount of preamble and training for the mission, but it soon picked up pace. The book has all the trappings of a decent sci-fi and murder mystery, which is a combination I’ve recently discovered I enjoy immensely. The narrative isn’t weakened by bringing together too genres; any weaknesses in the science become relevant to the story and, although I could guess at who the murderer was, their motivations and the actual ending really did catch me by surprise.

It was a clever take on a Mars-based sci-fi and if you like a bit of a thriller where you’re never too sure of the character you love it going to be suspiciously killed off then One Way may be for you!