April 3, 2012

Are publishers keeping women down?


Are publishers inadvertently reinforcing an imbalance of acceptance given to books written by men compared to those written by women?

Author Meg Wolitzer in a New York Times story, asks depressingly familiar questions about the perception of female writers. When the VIDA survey results were announced last month, there was a great outcry about the under-representation of women in the literary arts, particularly in high brow magazines such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. (MobyLives wrote about that way back when, here.)

Wolitzer notes that on Amazon, she is listed in a category called “Women’s Fiction,” where she sits alongside Louisa May Alcott and Danielle Steel.  But before we all jump on Amazon, it must be asked whether the problem starts with publishers.  Says Wolitzer,

“Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women “Women’s Fiction,” as if men should have nothing to do with them. A writer’s own publisher can be part of a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down. Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach‘s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.” Eugenides‘s gold ring [on The Marriage Plot] may appear to be an exception, though it has a geometric abstraction about it: the Möbius strip ring suggesting that an Escher-like, unsolvable puzzle lies within. The illustration might have been more conventional and included the slender fingers and wrist of a woman, had it not been designated a major literary undertaking.”

The question here isn’t whether women are selling books — they assuredly are — but rather what is the force keeping them out of the hallowed fields of literature, where as Wolitzer writes, “the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation.”

Another interesting facet of this phenomenon was recently raised by Kate Zambreno in her essay “All the Sad Young Pretty Girls” on Thought Catalogue.  Zambreno writes about the reception of her novel Green Girl by the literary press. She says that she was expecting somewhat dismissive reviews, as for the most part, coming-of-age stories by and about girls are not seen as “important philosophical stuff for literature (too frivolous, or too boring).”

This is a subset of the problem Wolitzer addresses. Yes, women writers are seldom sighted in the New York Review of Books, but pity the young woman who wants to write about a young woman. Why is a feminine identity crisis seen as only feminine and not also universal? This is illustrated by the experience of Zelda Fitzgerald depicted in Zambreno’s upcoming book, Heroines.

“In her girl portraits often published in “pulp” (hence not literary) journals like College Humor, Zelda [Fitzgerald] writes of the young girl perennially imagining herself as a character, performance artists of surface and frivolity, although inside is this sense of apartness, of unexpressed sadness…

[F. ScottFitzgerald of course dismissed Zelda’s stories as not saying anything greater about the human condition: “Did she have anything to say? No she has not anything to say.”

It is widely acknowledged that women make-up the greatest numbers in literature-based studies in universities, and that they also dominate the field of publishing.  My concern is that women themselves are to an extent perpetuating this cycle.

Perhaps it is time for those in the book industry and the authors themselves to stop solely blaming the media for keeping women writers out, and widen the strictures of cultural acceptance. A start could be made by rejecting covers that depict a young woman’s back, as she stares soulfully out to sea.

Because really, to be a female writer published in the New Yorker is an achievement, but to be the only female writer in that issue should not be cause for celebration. To quote the late great Adrienne Rich, in a poem she wrote about a fight between female writers, (thanks to Kate Zambreno who writes about it on her blog Frances Farmer is my Sister)

The argument ad feminam, all the old knives
that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours,
ma semblable, ma soeur!”

Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.