Damned Scribbling Women

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.


Female writers have a hard time winning the respect of male writers and critics. Whereas the dudes pen epic tales of war and destiny and conceive visionary novels about the “larger society,” the gals natter about relationships and feelings. Some of you may have noticed that there are no books of the Bible written by women. Rather than clutter up church doctrine with their sentimental drivel, St. Paul advised the ladies to just keep quiet.

The muses of epic and lyric poetry in ancient Greece were female, but there weren’t many actual women writers. The works of Praxilla garnered some praise in her time, but compared to Plato? Forget about it.

By the middle of the 19th Century, more women had started to take pen in hand, which didn’t sit well with male authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne complained to his publisher that he was being driven from the marketplace by “a damned mob of scribbling women.” The public was buying up their “trash” at an alarming rate and causing the sales of superior male writers to slump. In Hawthorne’s view, women wrote like “emasculated men” and their books were all “feebleness and folly.”

Horace Walpole regarded Mary Wollstonecraft as “a hyena in petticoats” and a pair of contemporary male poets vented about Wollstonecraft and her ilk of “unsex’d female writers who confuse us and themselves.” Not for nothing did Mary Ann Evans re-style herself as GEORGE Eliot. She hoped the nom de plume would ensure that her works would be taken seriously.

Emerson found Jane Austen’s novels “vulgar in tone, sterile in invention – without genius or wit.” Her “pinched and narrow” characters thought only of “marriageableness.” And Mark Twain declared that reading Pride and Prejudice made him want to “dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” The problem with Austen’s writing is the same problem men encounter when reading most other women’s writing– it’s the “sensibility” thing. And that male prejudice has persisted through the 20th Century right up to the present day.

According to T. S. Eliot, there were no women worth printing. William Faulkner lamented the literary decline in “the Kotex Age.” The critic Ted Solotaroff sneered at Katherine Ann Porter’s “bitchiness” and “cattiness.” And V. S. Naipaul claims that he can read a piece of writing and know within a paragraph whether it was written by a woman.

In Naipaul’s opinion, female writers “wallow in sentimentality” and their “feminine tosh” is simply not the equal of his, or any other man’s writing. Perhaps his publisher reminded him that men make up only twenty percent of the fiction market in the U.S., and women purchase the lion’s share of all books. Or maybe he remembered to make nice to the girls like his mama taught him. In the spirit of magnanimity, he said he hadn’t meant his criticism “in an unkind way.”

In response to Naipaul’s contention that you can spot a woman writer within the first paragraph, The Guardian posted an online quiz to test the theory. They included excerpts from ten unidentified writers, five women and five men. I guessed right just three times and received a score of “Awful.” The average score was four out of ten.

Her Boyfriend's BonesNorman Mailer was made of sterner stuff than Naipaul. He made no apology for his assessment of women’s literature. “The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy-Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, out-baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.” Harsh words. But in criticizing the writing of Edith Wharton, Jonathan Franzen went beyond the crippled and creepish quality of her writing, noting that she was physically ugly, obnoxiously rich, and ambitious. One gets the impression from Franzen’s review that literary ambition is unseemly in a woman.

Women today have fewer books published and fewer books reviewed in high places than men. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, refuses to “make a fetish” of reviewing equal numbers of women writers. He gives ink only to “the best” and “most important” books. Guess which gender produces those. Stothard acknowledges that women are heavy readers, but they don’t read the sort of important books reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. The New York Review of Books publishes mostly the dudes, although it protests that the disparity is unconscious and in time, they hope to publish more women writers. The implication is, of course, if only women could learn to write something more, well . . . manly. As Norman Mailer said, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

Whenever I’m in a funk and need something to fire me up, I sniff the ink of Norman’s condescending little screed, hitch up my petticoats, and go back to scribbling like a madwoman. A really mad woman.