I don’t hate women.
That’s a weight off my chest. I’m glad I got that out there.
Within the tiny little thing that is my real life, the people who know me would not accuse me of hating women. I can say that with some confidence. Most of them, men and women alike, would laugh at you if you tried to suggest otherwise. I like women a lot. They’re ace.
Unfortunately, the people who buy my books don’t know me. They’ve no idea that for my whole life I’ve surrounded myself with smart, independent women. I still do. I’m even raising one. That’s not in my novels. Instead, this is:
Cuckoo: A book about a man who has another man stuck in his head. There are certainly women present in the story, but they’re a problem when they turn up (it’s difficult to say more without spoilers).
Thy Fearful Symmetry: There are several women in this novel. They’re all secondary characters. They die often, and the result is usually that a man is driven further towards either psychosis or heroism.
Craven Place: At last! A women dominating the narrative! Except the whole thing can be read as one long cry for help, which a man ultimately steps in and answers.
I’m being harsh with myself here, and presenting the worst possible close reading of each book. I don’t think I wrote women badly in any of the above stories (at least I hope not), and there’s no overt sexism on display. That makes me the same as a huge number of male genre writers. If somebody accused me of passive sexism though, of quietly reinforcing a deeply out of whack view of the world in which women only exist for certain reasons… well, I don’t have a leg to stand on. On a ‘deeds not words’ basis, my books don’t reflect my worldview.
Over the last couple of years I’ve shown my daughter various superhero movies. We started with Spiderman, roared through the X-Men, and then went through the current crop of Marvel movies leading to the Avengers and beyond. She’s now of an age where she’s started to enjoy a bit of eye candy, and so Wolverine and Thor are current favourites. However, when we began she was constantly disappointed. Where were the women? Why was it always men who were awesome? She didn’t want to snog a superhero. She wanted to be one, and most of those films quietly told her that that wasn’t how the world was. The X-Men movies were her favourite for a long time, because Storm rocks. They were also the only movies where women were more than secondary characters. She was eight, so she wasn’t looking for strong feminist statements. She was just looking for balance, and somebody who she could aspire to be. The movies still haven’t fixed this, although Joss Whedon quietly and admirably tried to address the balance by making The Black Widow the central protagonist in The Avengers.
That’s what my books to date lack. Balance. This isn’t a problem in any individual novel. A single book can be allowed this sort of imbalance. Stories should not be forced to reflect a societal agenda. Now that I have a body of work though, each showing aspects of the same imbalance, it’s time to wake up. At the same time as I’m trying to raise my daughter to accept that she’s the equal of anybody else alive, I’m consistently writing stories that show a different sort of world altogether.
It’s not even a very accurate depiction of my own narrow slice of the world. The jobs I’ve had, from theatre through to the day jobbery that brought me to India, have been packed with women on an equal footing with men. More often than not, there have been women in the most critical roles, be they directors and writers or managers and team leaders. I’m used to being in environments where there is a genuine gender balance.
So if I’m not a sexist, why doesn’t the emphasis of my stories reflect that? I think it’s because I’m lazy. Long stories are hard to write. A lot happens in them. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Any shortcuts I can find to make the job easier are usually welcome. One of those shortcuts is point of view. However much empathy I have for others, I still live my life in my own head – and I’m a man. It’s much simpler to navigate a story from a point of view not too far removed from my own than it is to go further and imagine the same story from a woman’s point of view. My default setting when thinking up characters is me.
The odd thing is, a lot of my readers are female. I can only base this on the proportion of women who get in touch or comment on my writing versus the number of men, but if they’re representative of my readership as a whole then I’d go as far as to say that more girls are reading my books than guys. I suddenly feel like I owe them all an apology.
I intend to fix this, at once. I don’t mean that everything I write will now have a feminist subtext. I don’t relate well to feminism. I understand the need for that proactive and sometimes aggressive agenda to exist – because without it the world won’t change – but it is necessarily an agenda that can only be properly be forwarded by women. What I can relate to is equality, which is the desired end point of feminism. When equality exists, there won’t be any feminists left – feminism is a reaction to discrimination rather than a goal in and of itself. No discrimination = no feminism.
What I can do, I hope, is write as though that end point is reached. It’s a simple thing, really. I’ll make sure there are not only women in the picture, but that they’re front and centre. I don’t promise they’ll be flawless paragons of womanhood who your daughters can aspire to be, because I don’t do that with men either. I do promise to strive for balance though.
That it’s taken me so long to notice what’s missing from my fictional worlds is embarrassing. A quick cycle through some of my writing heroes – George R.R. Martin, Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies – makes it more embarrassing still. All of my favourite shows give equal weight to women and men. What can I say? I’m a bit slow sometimes.
I was aware of all this while I was writing The Flesh Market, the next novel I’ll be releasing. However that’s based on a true story in which women were not the drivers of the action. That’s the Nineteenth Century all over, unfortunately. I did try to push some of the women who do appear to the foreground where I could, but my hands were tied with regard to who the primary characters were. You’ll see what I mean when you read it. The book I’m writing at the moment, a contemporary novel, does address the balance.
If you’re an author reading this, particularly a genre author, do stop and think about the trends in your own fiction. Does the world you’re writing lack that balance? The answer will be ‘yes’ more often than it’s ‘no’. I hope you’ll wake up too, whether you have a daughter or not. While our made up stories still pretend that men are what the world is about and for it feels like there’s little real hope of progress. I intend to change some of those made up stories. I’m not widely enough read for it to make a vast difference, but if it’s a little lean in the right direction I’ll be happy with that.
If you’re a woman who has been reading my novels, enjoying them while quietly waiting for all this to dawn on me, thank you for your patience. You deserve better, and always did. I can’t speak for male writers as a collective, but I can apologise for my own poor efforts, and promise that I will definitely do better next time around.
Watch this space.