March 6, 2012

Gender bias in literary criticism: solutions


Last week, the annual VIDA count revealed the continuing gender bias in US journalism and literary criticism. This topic’s attracted significant attention this past year, thanks in large part to bestselling author Jennifer Weiner‘s public commentary, but the results reveal that the situation remains as bleak as ever.

Responding to the study, Roxane Gay (PANK/Bluestem/HTMLGiant) said:

This conversation is stalled. We keep trying to find ways to ‘prove’ there is a problem. Many people want to understand why this disparity exists instead of working to address the disparity itself. I’m not going to do that any more. There is a problem. I am comfortable with that making me a bitch who be trippin’. There is work to be done — let’s get to it.

In a piece in the Guardian on Friday, Jennifer Weiner echoed that sentiment, looking for practical ways to address the state of affairs (though perhaps not so surprisingly she’s critical of Roxane Gay’s apparently condescending attitude to commercial women writers). Weiner concludes that rather than simply imploring the established literary media to change its ways, women writers and journalists must find new vehicles for their own voices, and support each other.

Weiner’s stance — as discussed in this earlier MobyLives report — is that gender bias affects the way that the established literary media perceives and assigns genre. If that’s the case — and, though impossible to test, the argument bears an anecdotal and logical force — she’s absolutely right that it’s necessary to add women’s voices, and younger ones, to the NYRB/NYT etc chorus we’re all so familiar with. Reclaiming and redefining of this sort can’t be expected to originate from the publications guilty of the mis-assignations in the first place. But the effort shouldn’t stop there. Publishers themselves aren’t innocent of skewing a title’s packaging to suggest lighter reading. Here‘s The Scotsman yesterday on author and Glasgow University lecturer Laura Marney‘s experience of publishing:

When author Laura Marney saw the cover of her first book, No Wonder I Take a Drink, a story about an incomer’s experience in a Highland village, she was disappointed. “It had a girl doing a handstand in a park – you could almost see her pants,” she says. It wasn’t until she saw the cover to her second book, Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby, which showed a woman caught up in her own clothing, however, that she realised something was seriously awry. “The idea was this woman was so ditzy she couldn’t get her own top off. I thought it was pretty offensive, the way the woman’s face was covered but her body was exposed, and the book wasn’t about being ditzy.”

Marney complained to her publishers and they agreed to change it, but not before they’d told her she’d be pegged as “difficult”. The final straw came when the cover of her fourth book — My Best Friend Has Issues — was as downmarket and sexualised as the first — a pair of legs in a swimming pool with arm bands round the ankles.

The article doesn’t say how long ago this all took place, but it sounds suspiciously as though these covers belong to the headless woman trend noted around four years ago. Marney now has a new publisher who’s treating the books more appropriately, and perhaps even the initial house has moved with the times and given women their heads back. But if we’re calling for fairer representation of literature by women, the message has got to start in-house.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.