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Why are all the best bloggers women?

Rachel Cusk

To celebrate the 50th anniversary edition of The Second Sex, this weekend’s Guardian has a fascinating piece by Rachel Cusk about what “women’s writing” might mean in 2009.

I’m a long-time admirer of Cusk, in particular her very brave and often painful memoir of motherhood, A Life’s Work, and I think her piece is well worth reading in full. But it also echoed a question I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while now, which is why so many of the best bloggers are women.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear I’m not saying there aren’t good male bloggers. There are, and lots of them. But as I cast my eye down my feeds, I’m aware that the male bloggers I read regularly are outnumbered many times over by the female bloggers I read regularly.

Obviously my feeds aren’t a representative sample of what’s out there in the blogoverse, but what’s interesting to me is the fact that the presence and influence of women online so outstrips their presence and influence in the literary world. Despite the confected outrage that inevitably accompanies events like the Orange Prize (“Why isn’t there a prize for MEN’S writing?”, “Women ask for equality and then demand special treatment!” etc etc (and no, given the viciousness of a lot of this stuff I don’t think it’s accidental The Guardian seems to have disabled comments on the Cusk piece)) it’s always seemed obvious to me not just that the perspectives and sensibilities of women writers are fundamentally different from those of male writers, but that our culture quite systematically privileges the writing of men over that of women. Anyone who thinks otherwise might want to run their eye down the list of writers in contention for the Nobel each year, and ask why the men so outnumber the women, or wonder how it is the Miles Franklin judges managed to “not notice” they’d shortlisted five books by men this year. Because men are better writers? Because men tend to address the big questions while women stick to the domestic? Or because we fail to value women writers, and persist in seeing importance in the subjects men choose to address precisely because men choose to address them? After all, what is it that distinguishes a novel like Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap from a host of other large social novels by “middlebrow” female writers such as Joanna Trollope, Margaret Drabble or Julia Glass? How is it that a man like Tsiolkas or Sebastian Faulks writes a big social novel it’s a cultural event, but when a woman does it’s entertainment?

It’s curious therefore that the reverse seems to hold true in cyberspace. Women, and women’s voices, predominate, at least in those parts of the web I frequent. As I said before, I don’t think my feeds are a particularly representative sample, but I do think it’s fair to assume there’s a pretty serious overlap between the male-dominated literary world and the more female-dominated parts of the blogosphere in which I spend the most time.

Likewise, many of the best bloggers are women. Kerryn Goldsworthy, for instance, who blogs at Still Life with Cat, and who is not just one of the best bloggers working in Australia, but one of the best working anywhere in the world (though I could do without the LOLcats) is one who springs to mind, not least because she manages to use the form so incredibly effectively. I’m also consistently impressed by Meredith Woerner and Annalee Newitz at io9, both of whom bring a quite different and extremely intelligent eye to bear on SF-inflected pop culture. And then there’s Maud Newton, or even Spike’s newbie, Jessica Au. And these are just off the top of my head.

So why does the online space work for women? One answer (and this is going to sound like a putdown, but isn’t) might be that the more personal, digressive nature of the form suits women better than the more rigid forms that dominate the old media. Just as the personal essay, and its remarkable capacity to blend the personal and the political (and perhaps just as importantly, to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in its head at once) is a form women seem to excel at, isn’t it possible that blogging, which can be smart, subversive, dangerous and daggy all at once the kind of thing which is uniquely suited to the sorts of interests often dismissed as “women’s writing”?

Perhaps it’s also got something to do with the ways women communicate. It’s a cliche that women communicate more easily amongst themselves than men, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. And the new media is all about communication and conversation, so it stands to reason women would be better at it. Spend some time in comments strings and it’s difficult not to be struck by the need of men to win arguments, or by the fact that if there are wingnuts being insulting they’re usually men.

It’s also possible, even likely, that the nature of the online world allows women a freedom they don’t tend to enjoy in the wider world. Not just the power of relative (or actual) anonymity, but also the capacity to just set up and get publishing without running the gauntlet of the male-dominated critical structures of the old media. And just as female word of mouth drives sales of books, so too does female linking, and tweeting, allowing sites to find audiences without needing approval from above. In this context it’s difficult not to wonder whether the increasing presence of more conventional media companies in the online space will begin to change the nature of online writing, or to tip the balance back in favour of men.

As I said above, none of the above is intended to be conclusive. What I’m really interested in doing is floating the question and seeing what others think. Does the online environment favour women in a way the offline one doesn’t? Are women using the space more effectively than men? And as the space grows less wild and free, will the balance begin to tip back towards men?

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post and great to hear it from a man for a change. Thanks for the link too 🙂

    December 14, 2009
  2. I think it is that women find socialising in any space easier than men. The fact that most of the online activities – blogging, twitter, facebook etc – are referred to as social networking means that women have moved in and taken advantage of these spaces. Very much a generalistion but perhaps there is some truth.

    December 14, 2009
  3. Thanks James – it is good to hear a man discussing this stuff (though I bet all your comments come from women … )

    This post reminded me of a profile of Alice Munro years ago in The Guardian, in which Louise France said: “If a man writes about domestic life, he’s described as sensitive. If a woman does, she runs the risk of being ignored: merely domestic or, worse, dull.”

    I think this holds true. And women run the risk of getting sour-grapes accusations if they mention it.

    This year’s Miles Franklin winner and even the shortlist didn’t surprise me (does anyone know how many women have won that prize in the last 15 or 20 years, or on average how many women make the shortlist?) but the judges’ remarks that they hadn’t *noticed* this fact depresses me beyond belief.

    I read and loved Jessica Anderson’s The Impersonators a couple of years ago, and was astonished to learn that it won the Miles Franklin in 1980. The book is about a family splitting into fragments as the patriarch lies dying, and inheritance is in the air. I sincerely believe that there is absolutely no way Anderson’s book could win the MF now – it’s far too ‘domestic’.

    Despite the fact of my own deep ambivalence about the whole literary prize culture, here’s to the day when an all-female Miles Franklin shortlist goes unnoticed and unremarked except by a few male bloggers.

    December 14, 2009
  4. Jane #

    Yes, great post James – although I’m sorry to be the fourth proof of Charlotte’s bet that ‘all your comments come from women’, although I’m not in the business of apologising.

    I can’t speak too much about the relative merits of men and women bloggers, although I concur that Kerryn Goldsworthy and Jessica Au are standouts in the field (and I’m not into the LOLcats either but Kerryn’s latest post on federal politics with LOLcats is genius), but I read and found rivetting Rachel Cusk’s piece in the Guardian on the weekend. Such rare, penetrating, lucid writing. And came away from it wondering if – hoping that – we women might have moved beyond the stage (apt word) where we’re writing about a parallel, different world from that of men/the ‘dominant culture’, wondering if our writing is really, still, lived out in the silences and spaces left by the dominant, ‘male’, literary culture. Surely after almost 100 years we’ve moved beyond the realm of Virginia Woolf, occupied a space outside the cloistered passage by the living room of Jane Austen, a room not of our own but of our time and of our culture? I think of Toni Morrison, Alexis Wright.

    I’m not sure where blogging fits into this, but I resent the idea that women fill the cracks, crevices and silences left by male writing, which seemed to be implicit in Cusk’s piece (much as I deeply loved it), and that the bloggosphere might currently be suited to women’s writing – ‘smart, subversive, dangerous and daggy all at once’ – and that as the space ‘grows less wild and free’ it might be more amenable to men, ‘the balance might begin to tip back towards men’. That seems to me reductive, Freudian/Biblical/Classical, regressive kind of thinking. That women embrace the wild, men the cultured.

    December 14, 2009
    • I’m interested by your reaction to Cusk’s piece, and would be interested to know what others think about it. But on your last point, about the notion of the balance tipping back to men, my point was less that there’s something inherently wild about women’s writing, and more that as the space becomes more regulated (for want of a better word) the strictures that apply in the old media may well begin to redefine what is “good” writing, and shift the balance back to men (an anxiety that I suspect is implicit in Kerryn’s remarks about conforming to expectations below – in other words once bloggers start getting paid (or perhaps more realistically paid bloggers become more common) won’t those expectations start to constrain the freedom people currently feel). I’m not sure how likely I think that is, it just seemed an interesting question.

      December 15, 2009
      • Jane #

        Yes, good point James. I did write my comment after two martinis and two beers so I suspect I was writing out of unmediated fury (I see I used the word ‘resent’ which is probably not the best indicator of reasoned argument) and I later thought that you were not in fact suggesting what I accused you of – that women are wild, men cultured – but making a point about online culture and its prospective – probably inevitable – regulation and the implications of that for the writing of men and women.

        I love the comments led by Kerryn about the joys and freedoms of writing unfettered in the blog medium, and fact those pleasures are not readily available in paid work. Which ties in with something I was thinking after reading your post and comments this morning: wondering why we would wish that women – if women they are who make up the majority of the unpaid economy whether in online writing or volunteer community work – should ape the dominant culture and find ways to monetise their work and not vice versa, why the sick money economy might not look to this parallel world, learn from it and find ways to support it, value it, acknowledge it as part of our national wealth, incorporate it into national income accounts. Surely fat capitalism cannot groan on another century without radical revision.

        December 15, 2009
  5. The sheer quantity of women’s blogs out there has always bothered me…I’m not sure how to explain it.

    That the web has given women a forum, an outlet beyond traditional media, yes, yes…

    But it seems to me sometimes almost as if male writers write to get paid and are perhaps less generous with their words/work?

    And the women blogging daily – and some of the writing is really very good- putting in an enormous amount of effort with graphics, layout, presentation, networking, almost making themselves into brands- why aren’t they writing for The Guardian, or the local newspaper?

    Some of the blogs are just as good as the Sunday papers editorials (in some cases better) that you pick up at the newsagents’.

    Why aren’t women more present, then, in traditional media, if we can agree that a lot of it is publishable quality?

    I’m reminded of the number of women active in all the associations and clubs and charities out there working for free…and how historically womens’ work has always been undervalued/underpaid…

    I’m tempted even to say that women are blogging too much…that the best of them should maybe think about tackling mainstream media and trying to get paid a little too??

    December 15, 2009
  6. Oh, my. *Blushes* Thank you, James.

    I just wrote a great screed of a comment and then the computer ate it and I don’t have the stamina to write it again (so much for my blogging skills), but one thing in reply to Screamish: the thing about getting paid for writing is that you are providing both a service and a product in exchange for money, and that means conforming to the conventions, restrictions and requirements of that service/product. (Length, deadline, house style, genre conventions etc etc etc.) For me the fun of blogging is precisely that it is not work, and I think this is one of the reasons I write frequent posts for my all-purpose blog but haven’t been able to maintain my Australian Lit blog the way I would have liked to — there’s too much responsibility attached to it. (To provide accurate information, fair and thoughtful readings of books, etc etc etc.) That feels exactly like unpaid work, and it shows in the writing.

    December 15, 2009
  7. I suppose you’ve all seen this already:
    but it’s interesting.

    December 15, 2009
  8. I’ve gone back-and-forth about wanting to comment on this thread, and the reason I haven’t is I still haven’t formalised any theories regarding MY philosophical/ideological position on blogging full-stop, let alone as a woman. Or writing as a woman. Or both.

    One thing I will say is I’m glad Kerryn made the point that she has FUN with her blog. Fun, the element of play and and excitement and the joy of experimenting with form, is one thing I, for one, wish for more of sometimes in the blogosphere.

    December 15, 2009
  9. Kirsty Murray #

    Thank you for this very insightful piece. We need more discussion and debate about gender prejudice and how it operates in the media.

    Last week, ‘The Age’ Melbourne Magazine published a list of 100 most influential Melburnians of 2009. 72 were men, 3 were groups and 22 were women. Not a single women was listed amongst the ‘writers’ category and women were very poorly represented in every facet of the arts – except fashion.

    Your comments about the nature of women’s writing and blogging were like fresh rain on a parched landscape.

    December 15, 2009
  10. What an interesting conversation. I’m formulating a response to Cusk, which I will put on my blog … when I have finished some paid work. In response to your piece, James, and to the comments above, I agree that the traditional media structures are gendered beyond repair, and the online environment offers a different model for influence and credibility, over and above the vexed question of compensation.
    When I was President of Sydney PEN I wrote several time-consuming op-ed pieces for the Sydney Morning Herald that the op-ed Eds didn’t run, for whatever reason. One Ed was male, the other female. Instead of my piece (or whatever else was submitted), regular column inches on the op-ed page were devoted to the superficial cultural observations of a ‘young woman’ who, by virtue of being a ‘young woman’, I was somehow supposed to be inherently interested in. This experience confirmed my suspicion of the increasing desperation/irrelevance of (some) newspapers, and the arbitrary nature of publication in those journals. I posted bits and pieces from my op-eds online and ended up with an invitation to speak at a conference.
    I’m glad Arianna Huffington is doing so well online. The web offers great rewards for creativity and community, so perhaps it better suits women to try ideas out using blogs. I follow blogs based on content not the gender of the author, so my bloglist is mixed. I blog intermittently but I do enjoy it and would do it more if I had the time. There’s a heap I want to say about “women’s writing” but will do so on my blog asap.

    December 15, 2009
  11. I’ll look forward to your post, and in particular you response to the Cusk. And you’ll get no arguments about the asininity of newspaper oped pages from me.

    December 15, 2009
  12. I just read the Cusk piece and it seemed to me that what she was saying was that ‘women’s writing’ is diminished somewhat by the belief that the playing field is now level and women can write about all of the things that men write about, if they choose to.

    But if they choose to focus on the ‘domestic’, and the ways in which they do and always will differ from men – they can expect to be rejected by the media, heavily criticised or at best (or perhaps worst?) simply ignored. And it’s not surprising that it’s Cusk saying this, given some of the reactions to her brilliant book, which you mention above, A Life’s Work.

    She seems to end with a challenge – to embrace the difficulties we face now, to acknowledge that we’re different from men and to write honestly about those differences rather than simply denying them, or pretending they don’t exist. It’s inspiring…. glad I finally took the time to read it carefully.

    December 22, 2009
  13. bluerose #

    Many thanks for the link to the Cusk piece, James.

    I have a welter of responses to your question and that piece. To take the easier one first, the (surprisingly) large number of women writing very good blogs –

    Women have always excelled at the diary and the discursive essay, from The Pillow Book to Dancing at the Edge of the World, for example. With that kind of history, perhaps it’s safe to say that women’s writing is like that, at least in part.

    Since blogging is cheap enough to be available to many, and since, over the last 30-40 years,women have had much freer access to the mount of education blogging needs, the number of good women bloggers will be large.

    The crucial fact isn’t that blogging is largely unpaid, but that it is free once you have education, time, and a computer. Near-free access is what lets women in. Which is a dark side of the moon way of saying that monitored access keeps women out, for all the reasons de Beauvoir has named… And so I’m surprised that you’re surprised.

    The Cusk piece was confusing, begging the question at several points, hanging its argument on an overconcretized metaphor – ultimately I’m not sure the piece has either gone far enough or is correct in itself.

    Politically, the essence of women’s writing is the fact of exclusion, 2nd-class citizenship. No account of a woman’s experience can be entirely without it. In terms of subject: writing honestly is hard enough, without some head prefect telling you what you should be writing about.

    But after the writing comes the publishing, and that’s the real matter of Cusk’s essay: the ability to publish and not to be dismissed on the grounds of your name or your subject.

    December 26, 2009

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