October 3, 2015
This article was published on Telegraph Wonder Women on 26 July 2015.
I used to think that having a novel published would be the best thing that could ever happen to me; that every time I’d pick up a book in a store with my name emblazoned across the spine, I’d glow with pride; that every time someone asked me about my book, I’d be thrilled to answer their questions.
That, really, everything would be perfect.
Only then it actually happened. Last year my debut novel Virgin was published – a story about a 21-year-old student on a journey to shed her cumbersome cherry so she can fit in with her mates and start having casual sex all over London.
I’ll never forget how happy I was when my agent told me I had a book deal (I cried in the loos). But as soon as my book gathered momentum and hit the stores, everything changed. After about 10 minutes of joy, I realised that all those shiny dreams I’d had about author life proved themselves to be just that – dreams.
The fascinating conservations I’d envisaged about the themes and messages of my novel never really materialised. Instead, I found myself answering the same question over and over again from friends, family, interviewers and strangers on Twitter.
Radhika’s debut novel Virgin
What did they want to know about? My virginity – or lack thereof.
The problem was that I’d dared to become a female author who had written a book with a female protagonist. Worse, the protagonist was roughly my age, shared some basic details with me, and sometimes – shock horror – spoke like me.
So obviously everyone naturally assumed that my leading lady – a Greek, short, chubby girl called Ellie Kolstakis – was me. It didn’t matter that we look nothing alike, and don’t have similar life stories in any way. The fact that I’d written a novel with a female character was enough to seal my fate as a slightly annoying 21-year-old virgin.
I am not the only author to have dealt with this assumption.
Rachel Johnson, the journalist and author, has recently published a novel with a raunchy lesbian scene. She initially joked that it was her way of coming out as gay, but this week told The Times she’d had to insist othereise to loved ones.
“I had to assure my parents that it wasn’t,” she said. “The problem with being a lady novelist is that everyone thinks you’re writing from personal experience.”
Reading that made me want to punch with air with an Ed Miliband-style ‘hell yeah’, because Johnson has summed it up perfectly. If you’re a woman who has written a book with a female character – especially one that has sex or does anything a tiny bit ‘taboo’ – people will think it is you.
It doesn’t matter how hard the lady doth protest because their minds will never change. Trust me, I’ve tried.
My colleague Rebecca Reid – a Telegraph Wonder Women sex writer – has had a similar experience.
This week, she wrote in a piece for this section: “I write about sex. I understand sex and I respect the important role that sex plays in our lives – but it is apparently inconceivable to other people that I could do those things without having a sexual history worthy of Russell Brand.”
Male writers just don’t get this treatment.
When they write about disillusioned young men, critics congratulate them on their insight into a generation (I’m talking to you Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Coe). When a woman does the same, newspaper headlines question just how much of it is based on her life (Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones, E L James of Fifty Shades fame).
It all stems from the general sexism around literature, where a novel featuring any kind of romance is labelled as ‘chick lit’ if the author is female, or ‘contemporary fiction’ if the writer is male. Little wonder that many women hide behind pseudonyms.
Just like George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) and other wonderful female writers of the past, modern women often hesitate in using their own name, like J. K. Rowling adopting the male pen name Robert Galbraith.
Those of us who write as ourselves are subjected to tiresome, patronising scrutiny. It’s essentially like being told that you’re not smart enough to use your imagination – and that you must have mined your own life to create that of your leading female character.
No, we women can only write about romance, sex and Brazilian waxing (another big theme in my book) if it’s all based directly on our personal experiences. Right?
Quite frankly, I find it insulting.
I didn’t always. At first, it was just a slightly annoying situation I had to keep dealing with. But as time went on, it got worse. At one point I actually regretted writing my novel (at least under my own name).
Its juicy subject matter meant that people started to see it as a memoir of me losing my virginity – to the point where my loved ones felt quite upset about it, and people I barely knew would call me up asking if certain characters were based on them.
They weren’t, and even though I’ve always laughed it all off, it is upsetting and totally gratuitous. I didn’t write a non-fiction book about my sex life. I wrote a made-up novel and I did it to help young women, make people laugh, and break pointless social taboos. That’s what I want people to take away from it – not a false assumption that it’s all about me.
As I’m sure Johnson already knows, the more people who refuse to accept your heroine really isn’t you, the worse you feel.
So, just like her, I’m setting the record straight. After all, no one ever asked J. R. R. Tolkein if he was secretly a hairy-legged hobbit.