“One of the great things for our generation of women writers is the freedom we’ve felt to write about whatever subjects we wish to write about. Are we less innovative than the guys? I don’t see that. But if men aren’t much in the habit of reading women, then it doesn’t matter how innovative we are.” —Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
My bookshelf is broken down into multiple shelves and categories: women’s empowerment and feminist studies, classic literature, stupid textbooks I had to purchase in college, and religious texts. (I also have a shelf for my boxed-sets of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.) I am an eclectic reader and will delve into any book by anyone about anything. Because of that, I was deeply saddened to hear the recent results of the annual VIDA Women in Literary Arts survey. And ladies, it isn’t too pretty.
The survey, which compares the number of female and male authors featured in major literary publications, found a strong preference for male authors last year. The New York Review of Books (89 reviews of female authors to 316 of male authors), The London Review of Books (74 female to 203 male), and The Times Literary Supplement (314 female to 924 male) were the biggest offenders.
Alas, another example of our unequal wage gap. Not even when we write do we make more money! What does this say about the arts and culture in this country?
“I really think the problem is that men are in stronger categories generally—thrillers, mystery, political thrillers, horror, suspense, etc.,” says Penny Sansevieri, CEO of Author Marketing Experts and adjunct professor at NYU. “These tend to be higher-paid categories. I mean we have to wonder why Nora Roberts wrote in a male pen name for one of her thriller titles, right?”
If that’s the case, is the problem not the publishers or reviewers, but us? (Or, more specifically, me, as I glance at my Jennifer Weiner and Chelsea Handler chick lit, still crinkled with sand from last year’s beach trip.) As women, are we pigeon-holing female authors and creating subgroups for them, stunting their growth as writers?
“I don’t think we should ask female writers to change what they are writing,” says Julie Robinson, founder of Literary Affairs and The Beverly Hills Literary Escape. “I know that many of the best books of the last few years have been written by women and the top literary prizes—like the Man Booker prize being awarded twice to Hilary Mantel, the 2012 National Book Award to Louise Erdich, and the Pulitzer to Jennifer Egan—going to women is more important to note than reviews.”
In the literary world—as well as everywhere else—women are often held to higher standards than men. Jennifer Weiner, whose new book The Next Best Thing hits bookstores this month, has been outspoken about the male-dominated coverage for years. In a 2010 Huffington Post interview, she said that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L. When a woman does, it’s a beach book.
“In order for this to change, authors have to want this change and may have to push it on their own,” Sansevieri says. “There may not be a lot they can do within the traditional publishing structure, but with the strength of self-publishing, these authors can break out and write what they want. Publishers are doing what they feel consumers want and changing the consumer mindset will take time, but female authors wanting to push this change will have to move this needle using their own platform.”
What can be done about the gender disparity at home, on our Nooks and iPads? How can we better support female authors?
1. Diversify your book club: Even if you can’t directly influence book publishers and reviewers to promote female writers, you can make a statement in your book club. Invite men to join your group and introduce books by both female and male authors with both female and male protagonists. Read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In one week and Donald Trump’s Never Give Up the next, and compare notes about business techniques. You’re bound to stir up conversation!
2. School your sons: Or your nephews or your male students. I know boys are very stubborn, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. If you introduce books to them at a young age by female authors or ones starring female protagonists, they’ll be more likely to support them when they’re older.
3. Support companies that are bridging the gap: Organizations like VIDA and Literary Affairs address the need for female writers in our current culture. Support them and check out their listings. “My company [Literary Affairs] selects books for book clubs and does author events to create buzz on the books we curate,” Robinson says. “We are able to boost a book onto local bestseller lists through experiences and awareness. The book is then noticed by readers that see the list and assume it must be a great book if it is on the list. They [female authors] should just keep writing great books and women publicists, editors, reviewers, and curators should continue to push the cream of female writing to the top of the publishing coffee cup until it can’t be denied by readers and reviewers.”
Which female authors are on your reading list? Tell us in the comments!
Ask Kate White, former Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and best-selling author about the publishing business!