Rooms of Our Own

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about writing communities — and particularly about those which are composed entirely or primarily of women (and, in many cases, transgender individuals and enbies).

As someone who was supposed to debut in 2017 and is now debuting in 2018, I belong to a few different groups of debut authors. None of them have any kind of gender requirement for entry, but all are primarily composed of women. In these groups, a joyous spirit of mutual admiration and celebration dominates. The gender split seems largely true, as well, for the writing community in the Twitter-verse. I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced there — these particular FB groups seem to run about 90-10, whereas the participants on hashtag games, I’d probably put more at 70-30 — but it’s still extant. And, on the whole, in the Twitter writing community, women seem more likely to favorite and RT each other, more likely to turn a single tweet into a discussion. I’d be incredibly interested to see a sort of connection map to visualize that: I suspect that the womenfolk would have more connections and more extensively interconnected networks than the men.

Recently, a new member joined one of the FB groups — a member who happened to be male. Without ever having contributed to group discussion or helping to promote the other members, he began posting several items a day to promote himself. There was an air of assumption — and an obliviousness to how the group operates. Certainly there was no sense of contribution, no indication that he would be lifting others up as he expected to be lifted. It was… jarring. Didn’t he know how we behave? What would make him think that behavior was okay? Didn’t he realize how rude, ham-handed, presumptuous that was?

The thing of it is, though, I’ve just gotten used to the delightful nature of these particular groups. Some other groups I belong to but rarely spend time in are much larger and have a much higher percentage of male participants. These are places where promotion is a self-driven free-for-all, not a cooperative game. There is no expectation of mutual exchange. They tend to be un- or lightly-moderated.

I don’t spend as much time in they because the conversations tend to be unnecessarily combative. Threads get started that can only be described as “shit-stirring”, and a lot of time they’re retreading the same tired topics. (The one that really makes me want to light my hair on fire is “Do you really have to be a reader to be writer?”, which rolls around every few weeks. The answer is yes, and it’s not even a question in the groups that are populated with more pros than amateurs). Blanket assertions get made. A lot of opinions get stated as inviolable fact. Condescension rains down. As a result, these groups aren’t a lot of fun to be in; I confess, I’m really only in them out of a desire to make my name as Seen as possible pre-launch.

Is it always the male members starting trouble in these groups? No. But 9 times out of 10, yeah.

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This is, of course, not to denigrate the guys I know who are lovely and supportive and generous. The smaller, cooperative FB groups have some excellent menfolk who have participated in conversations, organized promotions, and celebrated everyone’s successes. The Twitterverse has dudes who not only engage in conversations sensibly and respectfully, but who will step in when they see some other dude being a jerk and set their bros straight.

But then, they don’t need me to point that out. They know I’m not talking about them (don’t y’all?). Take the Sirens conference, for example. Last year I think there were all of three cis men there. Those guys were totally welcome, and the best part was, not a one of them abused that. They all understood that they place they were in was not for them. It was not designed with them in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. They all understood that they were guests in a non-male-focused space, and they all behaved like polite guests ought to. They didn’t monopolize conversations. They didn’t mansplain. They listened. Sometimes they asked questions. But they never tried to assert themselves over others. And it was awesome. Towards the end of the con, several different women commented something to the effect of “Wow. I just realized I went four days without hearing the words ‘Well, actually’.” The relief was palpable.

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Anyway — This recent incident got me thinking: Why do these female-dominated groups have such a tendency towards compassionate discourse, willing cooperation, and enthusiastic cross-promotion?

The one possible answer of “Women are naturally more sociable/compassionate/cooperative” would take a lot of unpacking, positing theories of evolutionary psychology against the massive weight of cultural norms and societal conditioning. A worthy exploration, perhaps, for someone with a more scientific brain than my own.

But I also think there’s an aspect of: Female authors behave like this because we have to.

What I’m talking about, really, isn’t the behavior of any individual man as much as the gender disparity in these groups. Far fewer men seem to feel the need to congregate in such a tight-knit fashion, where mutual advocacy is either an explicit or unspoken component of the group. Many, many women do, because we have to. Our publishing survival depends on it.

Male authors are still more likely than female authors to get the heavy marketing arm behind them. They’re more likely to land reviews from major publications. Male-heavy genres (“literary” fiction, thrillers, academic nonfiction) are treated, on the whole, as “worthier” than female-heavy genres (romance, historical fiction, creative nonfiction, the bulk of YA). I’ve talked about these pervasive schisms before. In SFF, despite how many women are writing in it — talented women, writing innovative and visionary novels — it’s still largely perceived as a male genre. Male authors are still the ones pointed to as the giants, the gold standard. Men still get the bulk of the attention.

 

Women don’t have the advantages that men — particularly straight white men — benefit from. So we band together. We aggressively affirm each other. We give each other the lift that the industry doesn’t always provide. Helping each other becomes sort of like herd immunity — we all become more visible by connecting with each other, and the more visible we are, the less easily we can be dismissed.

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And we can feel safe with each other. We can vent. We can admit ignorance and ask questions. We can be self-deprecating! A vulnerability it’s straight-up dangerous to expose in most male-dominated writing groups. For this, if nothing else, I’m glad we can carve out these spaces for ourselves, decide which male colleagues get invited in, and decide who plays nice enough to stay.

I love these spaces. They’re cozy. But at the same time, part of me wishes they weren’t so necessary, and another part really hates the feeling of surfacing from them.

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