Do women write women’s writing?

Illustration by Sofia Robledo Rower

When I was a teenager, I showed a boy some prose I’d written and he praised me for my style: “You could tell it had been written by a woman,” he said, appreciatively – not in a patronizing way. I still remember this because it made me feel accomplished. It meant I was able to transpose into words a sense of who and what I was (as I understood it at the time). I was able to render my voice specific and particular, while still appealing to others who might not have the same experience. Most of my literary references were male and I wanted, vaguely, to do something different, to tell different stories, and making my gender stand out between the lines seemed like the best way to tell the stories that these authors were unable to.

Fast-forward a few years to working on my Master’s degree dissertation project about a female author. Drowning in a sea of arguments and references about what exactly women’s writing is – a question I don’t find necessary or even pertinent, but which seemed to be to my professors – I’m no less sure of the need for minorities or individuals treated as such to create their own narratives, and for everyone else to make room for them. But I’m more and more skeptical that a category for literature produced by women can ever be anything other than exclusionary and reductive, if it exists at all.

I come from a non-English-speaking countrywhere if asked what constitutes “women’s” writing, most will reply with names that are foreign on our lips. Beyond this, of course, are obvious critiques of cissexism and racism that can be made of any sort of canon of women’s literature that tends towards the white, the English-speaking, and the straight. The very fluidity of who can be considered a“woman writer”, as opposed to writers who, while identifying as women, are not or choose not to be associated with that identity, would seem to indicate that it’s ultimately subjective.

The prospect of having one’s art labeled as art produced by a whichever one, is one that many artists fear. What in one context might be a move towards empowering a community that has less visibility can in another situation lead to pigeonholing. Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan, for instance, notoriously refused a Queer Palm award on the basis that such an award stands for difference. “I’m gay – my films aren’t. …a Queer Palm says, ‘this movie is different. This movie is destined to be watched by communities.’” ( Chinese author I wrote my dissertation on, Mian Mian棉棉, is categorized as belonging to a group of female authors called “beautiful woman writers” or some variation of the term: they wrote openly and explicitly about their sexual lives and their gendered experience of 1990s urban China. The discussion is still going on about whether they were exploiting the market and “selling their bodies,” or whether it was feminist and subversive. Either way, they tend to be ignored in most studies of Chinese women’s literature for reasons that can only be explained by respectability politics, since they clearly identified as women writing stories about other women – not to mention the fact that these books were bestsellers and sought after online even after being censored.

How identity politics shape the literary market seems fundamentally to be a reflection of a much larger and more generalized dynamic. “Genres” that are “traditionally” attributed to authors that identify as women – autobiography, pulp and erotic fiction, romance novels, and even fanfiction – are seen as being lesser than. Writing about or for women is still problem, as well as writing “like” a “woman.” On the other side of the argument, certain feminists on the more radical side of the spectrum argue that, because of their different lived experiences, (cis) women do write differently. By promoting a “women’s” culture, they aim to create something with which to fight patriarchal structures and standards. This can sound appealing and even romantic, if one ignores the fact that no category or label exists in a vacuum – in this case, women writing differently tends to refer to perceived differences between white women’s literature and white men’s literature. Hélène Cixous, notably, coined the expression “écriture feminine” that translates rather unfortunately as “feminine writing,” and writes in her best-known work, The Laugh of the Medusa, that, “When I say “‘woman,’” I’m speaking of woman in her inevitable fight against the classical male.” – one struggle to unite us all (and conveniently ignore our differences).

I still feel it’s important to find a way to write what I needed to have seen when I was younger. I would like for teenage girls writing diaries to believe that what they do has value and that they don’t have to strive to be Hemingway or García Marquéz. Whether you’re militant about it or not, your lived experiences will come out in what you produce, if anything because there are codes and references that we’re wired to pick up on, even if it’s to the detriment of the artist themselves. So I probably always will write like a woman, if there is such a thing.

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