Posted by: Allyson | November 5, 2008

Women and Big Ideas

Last week, the Guardian published an article by Alison Flood entitled “Where are the books by women with big ideas?”  It notes that “big think” books such as Freakonomics and (one of my all-time least-favorite books) The World is Flat have all been written by men, while best-selling fiction titles are primarily written by women.  Interesting observation; I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to that observation.  But some of the explanations are pretty horrendous.

I was particularly incensed by this passage, a quote from Julia Cheiffetz:

“It is hard to know whether women are better at telling stories than propagating ideas (I’m thinking of Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, Karen Abbott), or whether the intellectual audacity required to sell our hypotheses about the world simply isn’t in our genetic makeup.”

Right.  Women are genetically better storytellers; our weak female minds don’t have the chemical composition to make us great analytical thinkers, capable of writing compelling nonfiction.  First of all, for many people, it’s more difficult to write good fiction than good non-fiction.  I’m doing National Novel Writing Month this year (hence the drop in posting this month), and let me tell you, it’s more difficult to tell a good fiction story than it is to do any of the academic writing I do for work on a daily basis.  Sure, in academic writing, it can be a struggle to write in a voice or style that won’t bore the reader to tears, but you have all the information right there in front of you before you start writing.  It’s easier to create statistics than it is to come up with an entertaining plot.

But I also note that, while I find writing fiction harder than writing nonfiction, that’s not true of all people.  My partner has a much easier time writing fiction, and truly struggles with academic writing.  When we were both in school, we would joke that he was the artist and I was the critic.  So right here is a couple whose writing abilities don’t fall along the supposed gender lines suggested by this article. 

Second of all, it’s not like these “big think” books are all that academic.  They may have big ideas, but they don’t necessarily have the requisite research to back them up, at least not in a way that is 100% convincing.  When I was in grad school, I was required to teach Friedman’s The World is Flat to my professional communication class.  These students were sophomores, juniors, and seniors in college, all of them were engineers, very few of them interested in writing or being in academia.  But you should have seen them tear Friedman’s arguments apart.  They could easily find sources that contradicted his research, or point out why his research didn’t fully prove his claim.  Most of them could create better-research essays than he could.  I’m not saying Friedman is 100% wrong in his ideas, but his research skills are mediocre.  So I don’t know why we’re privileging these “big think” books when some of the biggest represent shoddy work.  Yeah, they’re interesting, and they definitely can make you think, but if you’re aware of their limitations, they become much less compelling.  I have read historical fiction (authored by both women and men) that is better-researched than Friedman’s books.

To Flood’s credit, she does point out some statistics from the workforce that demonstrate the socialized nature of the gendered disparity in this faced of book publishing:

  1. A 2000 survey showed that found that only a fifth of UK economists are female
  2. This same survey also noted that only 7% have made professor
  3. Furthermore, in the field of academia in general, only 17.5% of professors are women

So Flood deserves some credit for calling attention to the fact that these disparities in publishing have something to do with the gender disparities in both economics specifically and academia in general.  However, she concludes with this awful paragraph:

But I’ve still got the nagging feeling that there’s something to this, that men are more likely than women to want to pin their ideas down, to package them neatly within the confines of a paperback with a catchy title. Or maybe that’s just my feminine intuition.

Men are more likely to want to pin their ideas down?  That just makes no sense whatsoever.  If we both have ideas, why wouldn’t we want to pin them down in equal numbers?  Is my flighty feminine brain going “Oh, I just had a great idea about the economy!  Oh well, I’d better go write a novel instead”?  What in the world is Flood talking about?  Why would I be less likely to want to pin my ideas down than my partner?  (This is especially true because I’m usually the one writing the nonfiction “think” stuff and he’s writing the fiction).  Furthermore . . . how is writing fiction NOT putting one’s ideas down?  The idea for a story is still an idea, even if it has nothing to do with economics or globalization.  Ideas are ideas; you have them or you don’t, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re fictional or non-fictional.  Furthermore, who says you can’t put your non-fiction ideas into a work of fiction.  Ayn Rand did it with The Fountainhead, Anthem, and Atlas Shrugged.  Her philosophy drips from every page.  (Of course, Rand is not a feminist and since my feminist reawakening my passion for her views has become increasingly weak, but that’s the subject of another post).  Fiction and non-fiction are not mutually exclusive!

And don’t even get me started on feminine intuition.  Could somebody please explain that to me and how it differs from masculine intuition?  Seriously, I have yet to understand it.


  1. “And don’t even get me started on feminine intuition. Could somebody please explain that to me and how it differs from masculine intuition? Seriously, I have yet to understand it.”

    Oh heavens, I couldn’t agree more!

    “Intution” is *compiled observation*.
    Which roughly means a residuum of memories stored in the unconscious mind, and ‘drip-fed’ to the conscious mind at a key moment (in the form of a ‘feeling’ or ‘hunch’) when those memories would shed some light upon the situation at hand.

    So, it all comes down to the quality of the initial observation, and not some mystical male or female ‘essence’. . .

  2. […] a blogger at Feminocracy charges in with the best of intentions but fails to grasp this particular nettle, falling into the […]

  3. I agree with what you say, but surely there’s a bigger picture… Flood’s column is just silly, and betrays a sloppy reading of the original blog (not to mention a total ignorance of Gladwell’s book). She isn’t really the problem. Men deciding they get to decide what counts as ‘big’ and ‘important’ in the world is…

  4. Moreover – the author is a writer herself, a journalist. Surely a lot of her work (such as this very article!) is motivated by a desire to ‘pin her ideas down’?
    Books like “Freakonomics” might be quite intelligently written and make you think like you say (I’ve never read it), but as far as books on lofty ideas and complex intellectual theories, she clearly needs to think back to her time at university – didn’t she come across plenty of academic sources written by women? Try reading the work of Judith Butler or Laura Mulvey, see if that doesn’t screw with your mind as you try to comprehend their ‘big ideas’!

  5. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, anyone?

  6. […] right. Have at it, Penners. And for a critique, check out Feminocracy, who credits Flood for her observation that disparities in publishing have something to do with the […]

  7. This is a pretty ridiculous article.

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