Is There a Gender Gap In Literature?

Syndicated recently published an article from Laura Miller entitled “Literature's Gender Gap.” It followed on a survey by the literary site Vida that showed female voices are underrepresented in literary criticism, both in books by women and lack of women among the reviewers themselves. While that was pretty logical, it was the leap of logic that Miller took in the rest of the piece that did me in.

Certainly, having Vida calculate how many books were reviewed at major literary sites, how many of them were books by women, and how many of those reviews were written by women made a point. So how exactly did we reach the conclusion in the subtitle?

Women are underrepresented in literary publishing because men aren't interested in what they have to say.

Huh? How did we get from “we don’t have enough female book critics” to “men don’t want to read women writers?”

I work in non-fiction publishing, where I can honestly say we rarely discuss the gender or ethnicity of an author before, during or after publication. Unless we have to guess whether they would prefer a seafood joint or steakhouse for dinner, or size them for a t-shirt, it's simply not something that ever comes up.

Rather than ignore the topic in case there was something there, I called some of my friends who work for fiction houses to asked them where they stood on the gender gap question. While no one said out and out that they made it a practice to actively recruit, nurture and support women writers, most of them were hard pressed to recall a time when the author’s gender made it into any discussions during the publishing process. Several pointed to literary agents as the people most likely to take on a niche (female African American voices, for instance) and make it their focus to get them published. But no one said it would be a liability on the sales side to have a book published by a woman.

You cannot deny that there is a history of women using male names to get read – George Elliott anyone? Even in modern days, it happens - the great Jo Rowling was advised by her publisher to adopt a more masculine nom de plume to not put off young male readers. Thus, JK Rowling was born, and with it, a female literary icon for all of us to look up to. Are you going to tell me boys aren’t now going to read Harry Potter because they know the author is missing a Y chromosome? C’mon…

Publishers and authors live in a landscape that is changing by the day, what with the decline of the independent bookstore, dominance of online retailers and the uncertainly hanging over the Borders chain. It doesn’t happen every day, but it’s possible to have more successes with books that fall into “niche” categories than those that are considered general fiction or literature. Sometimes it’s a benefit to have an author who fits into one of these areas – instead of competing against a huge “Fiction and Literature” shelf, you might have better luck getting placed in a niche category such as “Women’s Interest.” These days, it’s better to be in even a small section than not in the store at all.

So, back to how we moved from facts to something less than that. Again, from Miller's Salon piece...

And here’s where we have to get anecdotal. There’s really no hard data on how many books by male authors are read by women readers and vice versa, nor are we likely to ever see any. But try this: Ask six bookish friends – three men and three women – to list their favorite authors or favorite books, without explaining your motivation. Then see how many male authors the women list and whether the men list any female authors at all.

Ah ha. There is no data, so we can’t prove it, but yet it must be so. That’s what really got to me. Why stir the pot when there’s no guarantee there’s anything in the pot to stir?

But, to be fair, I gave her 6 bookish friends challenge a go. On the school run this morning, I polled 6 kids, 4 boys and 2 girls about their favorite authors. Laura Miller might be surprised to know that their answers were all over the map. Roughly ½ of their choices were female with Suzanne Collins, Ally Condie and, of course, good ole Jo Rowling being the first names off their tongues, for both the boys and girls. In fact, if one boy's raves are to be taken as typical, Ms. Condie's publisher should consider greatly increasing the print run on the sequel to Matched.

When asked if they would rather read a book by a man or a woman, all without fail said they want to read great books, and talked about the categories they liked, rather than gender. One boy said it was a stupid question.

Stupid question indeed. GREAT BOOKS. What more can you ask for?

Photo Credit: Emily Carlin.


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