A few weeks ago, an article by Deborah Copaken Kogan came out on The Nation. In it, Kogan, an author and former photojournalist, details her experiences in the dauntingly male-dominated world of book publishing.
But wait, *cue record stop* that’s just the problem – publishing is not a male dominated world at all. There are not more male writers than female writers. There are not more male readers than female readers. There are, as far as one can tell, not more male agents or publishers than woman. In fact, it may be the other way around. But one wouldn’t know this just by searching the winners of fiction contests, or by the reviews in The New York Review of Books or Paris Review or The Atlantic or Harpers or, or, or.
Yes, the list goes on.
This strikingly large disparity between the number of reviews of books with women authors versus books with male authors (including children’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and playwriting) can be best viewed in bright, clear red and blue graph form at vidaweb.org. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts continues to be the strongest voice for women writers, publishing solid facts on this disparity. Please, look and learn, but be prepared to be both shocked and ashamed.
Kogan’s article points out the mistreatment she received throughout her process of book publishing, from wanting to title her book on her experiences as a photojournalist in the war Shutterbabe instead of her requested Newswhore, a title used as an act of reclaiming the insult lobbed at female journalists, (which the publisher ultimately won); to the cover itself, a naked female silhouette with a hot pink background and a camera covering the vagina. (Thankfully, Kogan won on this blatant act of agenda pushing, and the cover remains her face behind the lens of a camera, which she had to shoot herself if she wanted it so much!)
Shutterbabe was reviewed, at least, which is more than Kogan can say of the books she wrote since. (Her 2012 novel, nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a New York Times bestseller is passed over for a review in The New York Review of Books, again.) But those who did review the book, Salon, The Women’s Review of Books, and Brill’s Content, had various levels of disrespect, from slut-shaming to other prodigal female stereotypes. Some implied that the types of serious incidents that occur in the nonfiction book (that of rape, robbery, physical violence, all committed at the hands of men) were brought on by Kogan herself. She’s called anti-feminist for leaving behind her career to write books. She’s referred to as a “soccer mom” and a “Battlefield Barbie.” The entire article is an incredible eye-opening read for anyone, but especially aspiring women writers like myself.
Though I try to avoid digging through the sludge that is Internet comments, I was shocked to see unabashed negativity coming from both males and females in response to Kogan’s article. Some refused to feel sympathy, i.e., one commenter: “[…] the list of her successes: photojournalist showing in a two-person show at 23, having three books published and being nominated for a major prize—Are we supposed to feel bad for her?” Some claimed Kogan was a fraud, just venting her “unnecessary” frustrations. (Thankfully, there were plenty of positive comments in support of Kogan, which trumped the miserable trolls trying to blame her for what? Who knows.)
Kogan makes mention of the Women’s Fiction Prize in the UK – formerly known as the Orange Prize – and how necessary it is to have such a thing in the US. However, after reading an article on this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize contenders on The Guardian (thankfully, my girl Zadie Smith is shortlisted for her incredible book, NW) I was very disappointed to see the amount of comments (again, why do I troll through this?) calling the prize “reverse sexism,” that it is “antiquated” and should be done away with. It seems, to some people, that the prize is somehow unjust against males, (the old, “there isn’t a Male Fiction Prize” comment brings to mind the arguments white people tend to use against the importance of Affirmative Action) and that ridding of it would allow women and men to receive equal treatment in book awards and reviews.
Newsflash: this is the essential problem! Doing away with such a prestigious and important prize would only allow for even fewer talented women to receive the proper acknowledgement for their work.
Elissa Bassist just published a hilarious, satirical take on book publishing’s lady problem on The Rumpus. Quoting Bassist’s indelible humor on writing the next Great American Women’s Novel:
One chapter will be an audio file of Taylor Swift songs.
One chapter will be just emojis.
One chapter will be my grocery list.
One chapter will be a link to my Pinterest page.
One chapter will be manufactured with drops of my blood, sweat, and tears.
One chapter will be me making a sandwich for all the “American Novelists."
Oh, god, it’s so funny. Because it’s so frustratingly sad.
Bassist’s blog came from Wikipedia’s decision to sub-categorize women’s fiction from “American Novelists” to “American Woman Novelists.” I checked today, and it seems the problem has been amended because of the backlash. But this sub-categorizing (ahem, compartmentalizing) doesn’t end with a multi-human-built online encyclopedia. Walk into any bookstore anywhere in the country, and you’re more likely to find Jennifer Egan in “Women’s Fiction” than in just, um, Fiction. Just the way we sub-categorize writers of various ethnic backgrounds. (See the “African American” section at your local chain bookstore).
I sat in on a panel at this year’s Association of Writer’s Programs conference in Boston that discussed this very manner. The question came up of why publishers and booksellers, and to some extent readers and writers themselves, continue to box female authors into the genre of “Women’s Fiction” when the stories should and are intended for a cross-gender audience. The case was made from an audience member in the Q&A to do away with “Women’s Fiction” as a genre, in hopes that we could all just be grouped into, you know, Fiction. With the menz. Panel member Susan Steinberg (writer of one of my favorite pieces of experimental memoir, Spectacle) responded simply, “we need to remind them we exist.” How simple. How poignant. We exist.
But do they need a reminder? Must we separate ourselves in order to be a distinctive presence?
On another panel discussing similar topics, the brilliant Meg Wolitzer (author of nine novels, including The Interestings, which Liesl Shillinger reviewed in the New York Times that as an “inclusive vision and generous sweep place it among the ranks of books like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot.” Yay for women everywhere, an accomplished female writer has the privilege of being placed among the ranks of successful male writers) pointed out that had Eugenides’ Marriage Plot – which features a cover with a solitary, large wedding band – been written by a woman, the cover alone would have cut off half of its readership.
And yet, we exist. And there are kind of a lot of us. And I don’t mean just the women who enjoy writing fiction just for female audiences (yes, the colloquially named “Chick Lit”). There are poets, playwrights, Young Adult writers, Children’s lit writers, literary fiction writers, mystery, commercial, etc. etc. who write because we love to write, who don’t write about dating in our late 20s or balancing work, life, and babies in our early 30s. Or about parenting. Or about having frivolous, immature, girly sex. We write about the same thing men write about. Universal truths. Human nature. Politics. Race. Family. Love. Sex. Being content. Being discontent. And everything else that we as humans live to have conversations about.
Charlotte Bronte, Virgina Woolf, and Sylvia Plath all wrote about the problems of being a female writer. This as well as the stereotypes placed upon them for just being female. And that was 1855, and then 1941, and then 1963. In a medium that has been around for longer than any of us, why, ask yourself, why can’t we, collectively, get past it?
Of course, the idea of gender disparity doesn’t only exist in the book-publishing world. And, yes, sexism is still alive everywhere. (Why, just this week I had to argue back a male co-worker who tried to claim that an inappropriate and unauthorized photo of a female high school student that appeared on her friends’ social media accounts was her fault because “she is too flirtatious” and “she wears tights.”) But still, how unfortunate it is to think that despite how far we as women have come, we can’t overcome the overbearing male presence in the books that we read, and in the way female writers are marketed. That kind of attitude will only lead to more of the same thing. As readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as viewers of plays, movies, and television, as writers, as women, we must realize that we can make the change. We have that power, we really do! It takes a little bit of time, and a little bit of pushing, and a little bit of researching. It takes recognizing the talent of Zadie Smith as well as Don DeLillo. It takes realizing that there is no logical difference in ability between men and women writers, and that women don’t just write for audiences of women. It takes talking to your local booksellers. It takes emailing reviewers. It takes supporting each other, as women, as we should always do in any way we’re being disparaged.
It also takes getting a Women’s Fiction Prize in the US, and then it takes being able to get rid of that prize because just as many women writers are being recognized in our cultural discussions as men.
In the mean time, keep reading, keep writing, and keep supporting VIDA.