Why are all the best bloggers women?
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?