Yes, it came as something of a shock to me too. But I think I know how it happens.
I buy books from op shops. This is for two reasons. First: I am poor. Second: There is nothing I enjoy more than tipping an entire cup of coffee and/or brake fluid into a good book. The three-for-a-dollar shelf at the Salvos is the clumsy reader’s natural habitat.
Op-shopping hones my reading choices in a rather hokey way, unmediated by popular media or breathy reviews on National Radio. It introduces a deliciously wobbly stochastic process oriented by little more than, ‘For fuckssake, just tell me which one of these boxes isn’t going to the tip, Russell’.
What it doesn’t do, however, is weight for gender.
Last Thursday’s three-for-a-dollar selection is typical;
- a peculiar work of ‘experimental literature’ (Habitus, by James Flint)
- a well known but tragically dated work of cleverness (Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express)
- a classic that I should have read as a teenager but chose to modify a set of header pipes instead (Huxley, Brave New World).
You’ll note these books are all written by men. Female authors are under-represented in the publishing industry, and therefore, ultimately, on the op-shop shelves. But this doesn’t entirely explain why I end up taking home only male authors (so to speak).
Last year, Booker prize winner, Marlon James firmly planted himself in a towering pile of shit for claiming the publishing industry deliberately appeals to white, middle class women (WMCW). According to him, writers of colour are tacitly encouraged to write WMCW’s stories. This, according to James, is the key to getting published.
James characterised these books as;
“…pander[ing[ to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”
He’s right, of course, writers of colour are tacitly encouraged to write stories for White Middle Class Women. Mostly however, WMCW write these books for themselves. In other words, most self-involved, white women’s narrative fiction is narrated by self-involved white women.
We’re all familiar with this genre. I like to call it suburban-ennui, it is characterised by suffocating interpersonal relationships, pop-sociologies of motherhood or overly considered evocations of minute moral dilemmas. Frequently, these books do little more than reconcile the small generational differences between the author’s mother’s life (as remembered by the author), and the author’s own. They are unutterably dull and redolent with the scent of score settling. Men are one-dimensional or absent altogether. The storyline is often animated by some kind of contrived family secret *gasp*, a banal horror like alcoholism or sexual abuse of which the white, middle class author knows sweet fuck-all. They are portraits of seething proximity and emotional tourism, a claustrophobic, technicolour yawn.
It’s worth mentioning the type of middle class white women’s literature — something I like to call Gyno Grunge. The apotheosis of the exhausting suburban tomes above, Gyno-grunge is equally formulaic. Unlike their motherly suburban counterparts, these stories typically revolve around a single, hideous alter-femme, women who are overtly, grotesquely physical — comprised of cheesy creases and coarse, unbidden hairs. Venal and lazily violent they are part circus-freak, part modern morality play — women in extremis. Invariably they succumb to the purple excesses of loneliness, masturbation and poor dental hygiene. Their class status and motivations are unpredictable and unknowable. They are foreign and base, a clunky ‘other’. Like its suburban-ennui counterpart, above, Gyno-grunge also makes for dispiriting reading.
‘Suburban Ennui’ and ‘Gyno-Grunge’ comprise an inward-looking women’s lit, as tedious and insulting as it is dominant. And the fear of encountering it amongst the jaunty stacks of paperbacks at the Salvos has me clutching for the Wilbur Smith.
And this is how I end up buying the work of male writers. It’s not that I think all women writers produce the kind of work as described above, but many do, the industry rewards it and I fear I might accidentally read some of it.
I’ve decided, though, that in 2018 I will right the balance. I will only select works by female authors upon which to drop honey and brake fluid. Let’s see how this goes.