A Female Author Talks About Sexism and Self-Promotion
I am going to say “bitch” a lot. I do not like or use the word much, but I’m going to be talking a lot about reaction to female creators, and this is the only way I know how to discuss the experience of getting that word over and over again, until it is expected, until the chorus becomes a dull roar. It’s a word that shows up every day in my inbox and in the inbox of too many female creators. There were “this-bitch’ and ‘this-bitch-again” tags on Goodreads. These tags (and other things, such as one of my friends having “Why Are YA Authors Fat” posted as a “review” that topped her review list for her newest book for months) made it impossible for me to be altogether sorry when some Goodreads reviews were scrubbed. I don’t want reviews censored–but I also do not want to read reviews that are misogynistic and personal. I have had it explained to me countless times that it’s okay for malicious strangers to call me a bitch.
I understood that this response to female creators talking was born of misogyny, but recently I read this article, and felt like my eyes were opened. What people are responding to so badly is professional women trying to do something that is an element of their jobs.
One promotes oneself and one’s work in order to succeed. And yet women are discouraged from promoting. Almost like there’s…some sort of system in place to discourage women from succeeding.
Here is something true: many people act like women have no right to a space in the world.
In book publishing, guys have more chances of self-promotion than women: they’re the ones who get more professional reviews, and they’re the ones who get the opportunity to write more professional reviews. They are the ones who get the most promotional money. They get invited to do more events, and headline at more festivals and conventions, and have more paid speaking gigs. I do not get to do appearances often myself. I would love to do more, I admit to being jealous of those who are more successful and get to do more than I do, but I know the situation is complicated. The women who do go on tour are doing so with joy and the knowledge they’re lucky: but also with the sinking feeling someone will take a photo which will be laughed at on the internet for years, or will find a quote which will be held up to prove they’re awful. You get sick on tour, often, as you’re not allowed enough sleep and sometimes not enough food, and a woman needs to put in far more time into her appearance (even less sleep!) And that is all part of being a public persona–but it is difficult to know that guys aren’t experiencing the same fear: that they can roll out of bed five minutes before an event and not have people go “So sloppy!” and that he can make jokes without people criticising him for being vulgar, or talk seriously without people accusing him of thinking too much of himself. You have to fight for publicity, and you know that means hate. Every woman I know doing a job that requires self-promotion is so tired. A lot of them make themselves life-threateningly sick from not sleeping or pushing themselves when they’re already sick. And when they get attention, what kind of attention is it?
SF writer Ann Aguirre talked about how she was treated by readers and male writers (who were in the majority) at conventions here, and edited it to add the hate mail she received for that post. My lovely and brilliant YA writer friend Jennifer Lynn Barnes wrote up some hard facts on male privilege and how it plays out in publishing here, and in 2010, VIDA introduced The Count, which presented the numbers on how far fewer women get reviewed in major literary outlets than men. Roxane Gay widened the discourse by doing The Count for authors of color, demonstrating that women of color are also reviewed less frequently then men of color.
So, women are often left in a situation where if they want to succeed, they have to promote themselves, via being a person on the internet. And then, people say: “Lady, when you promote yourself, it is bad.”
Having an internet presence as a professional lady whose job involves a certain amount of self-promotion is difficult. I am terrible at promotion. It’s a valuable and important skill, women who have it should feel great about having it. I just don’t feel I have a good handle on what works and what doesn’t. I’m a nerdy lady who had a blog way before I ever got published: I mainly just do what I like, and what I like includes talking about my books. As well as other books. As well as which couple on Revenge should be together. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that a) I don’t want to sell my books and that I don’t do stuff on social media that I hope might lead to people wishing to buy my books and b) I’m not keenly aware that my behaviour on social media could encourage or–more likely, given that I am a lady–discourage people from buying my books.
The less successful and promoted-elsewhere you are, the more important social media is to you. So–it’s more important to try and speak out in your own space if you’re a lady, generally, and yet it’s also much more dangerous. There is a reason J.K. Rowling used a male pseudonym when she decided to use a pseudonym and see what the reaction to her new work was. There is a reason J.K. Rowling is known as J.K. Rowling and not Joanne Rowling.
Even from people who nominally support women’s writing, I see a lot of: “Of course, women must feel free to promote their work and talk about their experiences, but in this specific instance the lady is a terrible bitch/a total idiot who should shut up.”
For one thing, that is pretty classic sexism: that there are some good women (quieter women, more grateful women, right-thinking and right-behaving women) who should be praised and protected, but there is another lot of bad women who it is A-OK to attack.
For another: sure, there are many women writers who make mistakes, and create problematic art. I am one of them. And people who have a platform of any sort should think about the effect of that platform when talking with those who don’t have one, and the responsibility that comes with it. This is a new age, of a great deal of increased interaction between creators and consumers. People have strong feelings about media, and that means these new lines of communication leads to strained relationships, and creators and consumers both sometimes behaving badly as we negotiate new boundaries. But these lines of communication should not lead to women being attacked so very much more than men.
There are too many repeats of the refrain “lady is terrible and gets lambasted” for us not to acknowledge the problem may lie with something besides the lady. I have seen it with writers. I have seen it with TV showrunners and TV writers–with web serial showrunners and writers–with women in comic books, women in movies. (Anne Hathaway being hated en masse by those describing her as ‘not humble enough’ comes to mind.) In Hollywood, there are more guys, so guys are considered naturally the dominant voice and have the most power. In the New York publishing scene, there are fewer guys, so guys are considered magical special unicorns and have the most power. In both cases the world sends feedback that yes, this is the way things should be.
The lists of authors people hate, or disapprove of, or want to show up: they’re always far more female-dominated than the bestseller lists. I remember one such list that came out in which had women outnumbering men 4 to 1… in a week in which on the actual YA and children’s bestseller list, men outnumbered women 8 to 2, i.e. the exact same percentage, flipped on its head. That’s generally how it goes for ladies: twice the hate, for half the success.
Every day I see conversations that boil down to Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing: “She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about… She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art.”
It is disingenuous to pretend, thirty years after the publication of Russ’ book (a book that happens to be the same age I am) that criticism, both online and offline, professional and amateur–while a valuable and important thing–is not used disproportionately to condemn or dismiss female creators.
Common Responses To Female Authors Promoting Themselves I Have Seen, Over and Over Again.
“Why do you think you are so great? You are not so great.“ (By promoting yourself/talking about yourself or your work, you indicate that you do think you, and/or your work, has some value, and there is so much pushback, conscious and unconscious, to that.)
“Don’t reblog fan graphics/talk about your characters/talk about your MALE characters (what do you think you are, some sort of harlot?)/be so smug about your books as if you think they might be any good. It makes it seem like you think you’re so great!”
“Do you expect PRAISE?” (I don’t! I never do. Most ladies I know don’t, being accustomed to expecting constant negativity. But it would be nice if people didn’t talk about praise as if it is some incredible, celestial prize that a women should never even dare to dream of getting, and the very idea of them getting it is to be scorned.)
“She’s writing romance and that’s girly and it sucks./She’s writing YA and that’s girly and it sucks./She’s writing literature and men write it better and she sucks./She’s writing about a girl and girls are annoying/shallow/not literature.”
“She is so ungrateful.” (I am really and truly grateful for my job: getting paid to write is being incredibly lucky. I’m lucky that my current series with a heroine of colour and queer characters is being published. I’m lucky for the support I have received, and grateful for it. But this is also a very uncertain job, being self-employed, knowing you have no safety net, knowing you will not be kept if your sales slip–or worse than slipping, stay terrible–and nobody can help you but you. And I find it troubling how much gratitude is expected from women in creative positions, how much they are called ungrateful–how having any attention paid to a woman, or having people who like a woman’s work, is seen as something so, so far beyond a woman’s deserts. The rhetoric of “She should be so so grateful” is not one I hear about men. Of course Joss Whedon deserves to be where he is. Man’s a genius! But THIS lady…)
“Explain this terrible decision publishers or other businesses have made and which we blame you for.”(Women are meant to meekly take responsibility for a lot. And of course, if we say “Well, it was my publisher’s call” then we are ungrateful bitches.)
LADY: Let me talk about art. RESPONSE: Ladies, so silly, especially when what they do is not art!
LADY: Let me talk about business. RESPONSE: Ew, a lady talking about business! Soulless counting machine!
LADY: I am up for an award, perhaps you’d like to vote for me? RESPONSE: She thinks her stuff is worthy of an award? Ugh, she should never have asked anyone to vote for her or indicate she ever thought anyone might.
LADY: Let me talk at length on a subject I am passionate about. RESPONSE: Why do you talk so much, you stupid bitch?
LADY: I made a mistake. RESPONSE: You should apologise and explain yourself. PS: no apology could ever be enough.
LADY: I both produce media and talk about how we need more women-driven media. RESPONSE: Ugh, so self-serving! How dare people want things to get better for women–including themselves?
Stephen King said: “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing…) someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.” With women, if you write or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, a lot of people will try to make you feel lousy about yourself.
I know a few women who had to stop writing because of this: because it exacerbated their depression or anxiety, because they could no longer get out of bed in the morning, because they had crying jags every day, because they were contemplating or attempting suicide, because constantly stressing about how they looked and acted was paralysing them, because they were throwing up every day. I know women paying for assistants, which puts a real financial burden on them, purely in order to make sure hate mail doesn’t reach them and destroy their peace. It’s absurd to pretend that getting letters detailing what a worthless person you are doesn’t exacerbate anxiety and depression. And it’s absurd to pretend this doesn’t come from an environment of internalised, sublimated, or simple overt misogyny. I have seen male authors, people who work in publishing, and readers make fun of women who talk about such feelings (yes, including suicide attempts). These women feel they had to give up creating what they love, in order to make their lives livable. I know many more who are persisting, but whose health and happiness and creative energy is being severely compromised. Neither I nor anyone else will ever know how many female creators will never share what they’ve made with the world, because they have been scared off.
I have heard often that it’s wrong for lady creators to talk about sexism or how sexism negatively affects their lives, and that we’re making it up. I don’t know why this always shocks me so much: this is very familiar stuff at its core. “Those crazy wimmins, complaining about their lady treatment when they actually get treated SO well” is something ladies get a lot from anti-women’s-rights conservatives. I guess that’s why it’s surprising to hear it from other quarters, sometimes from other women, but at least it makes things very clear: people actually concerned about sexism do not go around saying that women should shut their dumb faces about it.
Nor, in a society set up to make sure women have poor opinions of themselves, is anyone taking on the system by characterising professional women as bragging and boasting. Those who use a rhetoric that insists “these women talking in any way positively about themselves or their work are too self-satisfied” are upholding the current system, where women are socialised not to have any confidence, and that is reinforced at every turn by people telling them that the tiny pieces of confidence they’ve managed to scrape together are far too much.
Ladies who are successful get it because there is an assumption ladies don’t deserve to be successful, which is very troubling. But there is another thing: I am not a particularly successful writer (though I know better authors with less success than I have, and I do feel lucky for every reader). Yet I get a very high volume of hate mail and pushback. I remember being at a convention talking about who got what, and reading aloud hate mail, and wondering why certain midlist writers got pushback at the same level as if they were successful. “You talk more,” said another writer.
I am sure many people are now saying “You get hate because you are terrible.” I am not saying I am so great–I am saying that this is a pattern. We canvassed the table, and yes, the ladies who blogged/vlogged more, or tweeted more, got it in the neck more. “They like me,” added one lady. “I stay quiet.” I cannot fault any lady for going “I cannot deal with this, my way of promoting my work and protecting my emotional health is by keeping my head down.” But it is a terrible choice to have to make: they might like you. If you stay quiet. (Your career might also disappear without a trace.)
It is terrible that my conversations with other women creators often focus on safety tips. “Don’t say fans,” one female author counseled me. “Say readers. They’ll hate you if you indicate that you think you have fans. If you’re critical of anyone, be critical of other women. You don’t want to get eviscerated by some guy’s fans!” (The fact that men are praised for praising other men, while women are rewarded for tearing each other down, builds the old boys’ network of reviews and recommendations, and again leaves women out in the cold.) Other women and I also have to talk about how we can present ourselves. “Why are you always putting yourself down?” another lady author asked me once. “It worries me.” “I have to do it,” I said. “They’ll hate me even more if I don’t. I can’t bear any more hate than I get. Think of it as a bargain: I can say more of the things I want to say, if I reassure people that I know I’m not so great.”
Speaking of these conversations with other women authors, I am a white straight lady, and thus my voice is less marginalised than many, and that should be acknowledged. Many of the examples I listed above are taken from the experience of professional colleagues, some of whom are ladies of colour, queer ladies, or both, and none of them are given as many opportunities and platforms to speak as the male authors I know. All of them have had to deal with far, far more bad responses than any of the male authors I know. As a white straight lady, I don’t feel like I can speak to the experience of authors of colour or queer authors, but I wanted to link to some brilliant authors on related topics.
Malinda Lo has the statistics about the percentages of authors of colour on the Best Fiction for Young Adults lists here, indicating both how authors of colour are devalued and also how fewer authors of colour are actually published. Ellen Oh wrote on Why Being A PoC Author Sucks Sometimes, and the lack of support PoC authors get, and the lack of opportunities to talk about their work: “Where are the booksellers, the librarians, the teachers on pushing the multicultural books?” Sarah Diemer wrote about the pushback to a “gay book” and adds “To be a GLBT person in a straight world is to see yourself as invisible, relegated to the dusty ‘special interest’ sections, separated, closed off.” N.K. Jemisin talks here about why she felt forced to cancel her SFWA membership, the racist and sexist insults and lack of support she was dealing with, and mentions the death threats she has been receiving since she began to be professionally published. and now the rape threats. Tess Gerritsen, who wrote the Rizzoli and Isles series, talks here about hiding from readers the fact she was Asian-American, and being told by publishers that Asian-American characters didn’t sell. And here is a piece on the difficulties of self-promotion on For Colored Gurls.
Authors are dealing with sexism, racism and homophobia coming from every possible angle,and all of those things should be acknowledged. Malinda Lo was kind enough, when I talked about this piece with her, to write a companion essay in which she describes how writers have to deal with being ignored, relegated to a specific box, and what keeps her going. You can read it later today.
I do not want to say that as long as someone refrains from hurling actual slurs or threats then it’s all OK. Those who send death threats and insults are at the extreme end, but the problem is the pattern of behaviour: of indifference or hostility to professional women’s words on every level–from readers, from publishers, from colleagues both male and female, from professional and amateur critics, of so many more women getting criticised or ignored, of a man having to get far, far more attention than women before people rise up and say he doesn’t deserve it. It’s the way female creators’ looks get focused on so much more. It’s those who are criticising far, far more women than they are men, more harshly than they are criticising men, or praising far, far more men than they are women. It’s all contributing to a toxic environment for women creators and professionals.
I realise some people will read this as “Sarah Rees Brennan has announced you can never criticise a woman! Cowardly lady refuses to ever be criticised again. (Bitch should quit her whining.)”
That is not what I mean. People should criticise art. Art is the better for criticism. My art has been the better for criticism. Female creators should not be exempt. But saying to someone who is experiencing constant online harassment that nobody has a responsibility to “Be Nice” is wilfully not acknowledging the difference between art and creator, the difference between how male and female authors are treated, or the difference between someone saying “Be Nice” (meaning don’t criticise an author’s work), and “Be Aware You Are Dealing With Humans, And Do Not Strongly Imply Death Threats Serve Them Right.” As Malinda says, reading one’s reviews becomes a minefield: you can’t do it, even if you want to learn to do better, because you might stumble on something that will make you feel so bad you end up paralysed.
There is a problem when people seem repelled by the idea of praising a woman: when people are so much more likely to go after and so much less likely to defend a woman–making going after women easier, and making sure when men do get criticised, their defenders mean it’ll hurt them significantly less.
It is ridiculous that I have to hastily say “female creators should not be exempt from criticism!” when the world in which female creators are exempt from criticism is Opposites World. Female creators are always the ones getting the lion’s share of the criticism and getting shut down, while male creators are always the ones getting more chances to speak.
Megan Rose Gedris, Gail Simone and Seanan McGuire all speak about what they as creators get served. Megan Rose Gedris says “I can’t remember a time when I WASN’T told this abuse was the price I paid for being creative.” I can’t, either. I still remember being an eighteen year old kid, told that I should be struck by lightning because the stories I wrote online were popular.
Professional ladies, online and offline, in all kinds of different jobs, are being told not to self-promote, not to talk too much, not to risk making mistakes, not to signify that their work is important to them and never to dare suggest it might be good, via the feedback they get when they behave any differently. They are also told that nobody else will be promoting for them, because they don’t deserve it.
I love writing, but that’s something I could do on my own. I do need to make a living, but I hope I could figure out a different way to do it if I had to. The reason I do this job, which includes all this self-promotion, is that I love sharing my work with readers. I care about readers: they’re why you have fights with publishers, against pushback that argues for defaulting to the white straight male focus, against anything you think might make your work for them poorer. I do want to reach out, reach as many potential readers as I can, and talk with those I already have reached. Last month I had a book published, and I honestly felt too worn down to promote it like I wanted to, and nobody was going to do it for me. Last year, though, I went places, and I met such amazing people, and it felt like such an honour and an achievement. I want the energy to connect with readers more. It would be great if that wasn’t such an uphill battle. As a writer, you really, truly do not want to let people down–readers, but also potential writers, and people who don’t read your books but care what you have to say. And you’re going to, and that’s hard. It would be nice if it could be easier, for everyone: it would be nice to be allowed to speak more, and told to pipe down less. It would be nice to be less frustrated and scared.
After writing this, I’m counting down to being told, once again, to shut up, bitch. One… two… three… (Don’t worry, it won’t take long.)
It would be nice if that wasn’t true.