Recently, Jeanette Winterson burnt her books after objecting to how her work had been packaged:
It’s also the end of a fortnight when I was unceremoniously dropped by my French publisher for a book that did not centre a romance, and turned down by a German publisher for being ‘perhaps a bit brainy’.
What’s going on atm within fiction or, rather, to the women who write it? What expectations are being placed on us to meet the market where it wants us to be? To have our work defined in ‘cosy’ terms or conform in ways that would never be required or expected of our male peers?
Irrespective of what you think about Winterson’s actions: publicity stunt? or her put-down of ‘wimmin’s fiction’ as ill-considered or rude, there does seem to be something awry.
In 2014, my first novel, as then unpublished, won the Pen Factor competition. It was a pretty gruelling event where agents quizzed the shortlisted writers about their work. I’ll never forget one agent taking one writer to task when she asked of her book, set in the 19th century, but who is it for? Who is it for? And when the author, bewildered and uncertain, went to reply the agent cut across her: No, no. Is it for women, or for men?
More recently, I’ve noticed expectations emerging within historical fiction as a genre that books written by a woman should centre a woman’s story. That story is inevitably a story of struggle, and often that struggle involves romance. Feisty lass, with all of history against her and yet she will overcome. I have nothing against this narrative arc, these books are a way to recover women’s stories and experience. Nor do I object to fiction that centres romance. That said, are we seriously saying that only men get to write novels outside of this? That men can be ‘brainy’ (I prefer ambitious) and that these stories are their preserve?
Historical fiction for me is a political space. A contested, unsettled place. It interests me and I think I have something to say. It’s why I write. I do not write historical fiction to make history warm and safe.
The rare times I get asked what advice I would give to new writers, setting out, I say: Be ambitious in your work. I always aim this at the women listening. For men do not need to be told, they mostly already know.
Winterson doesn’t need me to defend her. By all means be critical of how she framed her response. But allow her her fury.
I was furious too.
As should any woman being told in effect to accept it, get on with it and not complain.