Have you heard? Women writers are less than. They’re reviewed less often than their male counterparts, and they win fewer awards. Even fictional women are inferior; stories centered on male protagonists rack up more accolades. In fact, over half of Pulitzer Prize-winning books from 2000 to 2015 were by and about men, and nearly another quarter were by women, but about men. The gender breakdown for the Man Booker Prize is even more bleak.
But wait! Sadly, there’s more: according to an informal survey conducted by a publisher, 22 percent of the authors who inspire modern-day authors are women. The rest are men.
The publishing industry may be better off than others in terms of gender parity; film, for example, has a steeper climb ahead, if the Oscars are any indication. And, for what it’s worth, the staffs of publishing houses are disproportionately female -- albeit glaringly white.
But, the book world deserves a close examination, because it’s often the root of the stories we disseminate. Four of this year’s eight Academy Award Best Picture contenders were book adaptations -- five, if you include "Mad Max," an ingenious comic book riff. So, disproportionately male-centric books can contribute to disproportionately male-centric films, and disproportionately few conversations about women’s experiences. All of which is just to say: it’s a problem worth discussing.
And discussion has happened. Blogs dedicated to reading more books by women have been written; I wrote one of those blogs. More blogs, some very eloquent blogs, were written about avoiding misogynist authors, and no longer writing to appease male readers. So, what now? In “On Pandering,” Claire Vaye Watkins makes a few suggestions. The vaguest, and most powerful: “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”
It’s a rally cry people have responded to, whether coyly or in earnest, and with mixed results. One such responder was Amy Collier, who did what any reasonable woman-on-a-mission would do: launch a Kickstarter campaign.
Wryly confronting the sexist chasm separating literary authors who are women and literary authors who are men, she asked that campaigners support her cause, which was that she’d read a novel by Jonathan Franzen, but only if you paid her.
“I am joking and I am not,” she explained. “It takes a lot of time to read a book. You spend a tiny but measurable portion of your life doing it. You sit with the psychology of a book, even when it’s not in your hands and in your eyes. So how much would it be worth it to me to read a book I don’t really want to read, one that is even disempowering to me and other women?”
The semi-jokey campaign raised over $1,000 toward its goal before it was shuttered by Kickstarter. When asked why the campaign didn’t adhere to the company’s rules, a company spokesperson explained in an email shared on Jezebel: “Every project needs a plan for creating something and sharing it with the world. At some point the creator should be able to say, ‘It’s finished. Here’s what we created. Enjoy!’”
Fair enough -- although the same rules didn’t outlaw a campaign devoted to some dude’s hankering for potato salad. Which just goes to show that an issue like pervasive sexism isn’t tangible, therefore it’s easy to dismiss -- at least as far as fundraising goes.
Other intangible responses to the intangible issue of gender inequality in book publishing have spurred warranted pushback. Commenting on the surplus of personal essays devoted to woman-only reading lists, Jia Tolentino wrote on Jezebel, “We know that white male writers take up too much literary attention; the solution is not necessarily jamming everyone else into a bottle of social justice cough syrup, standing on a soap box, and gulping it all down.”
Instead of remarking on our want for change, she suggests buying, reading and discussing a diverse range of voices. Because unlike a personal essay, a good book is a solid agent for change. It can be a home where the voices absent from the chorus can be heard. It’s a primary resource. You can hold it in your hands.