March 15, 2013

Is writing by women central yet?


The VIDA numbers don’t look good.

Virago Books was founded forty years ago, and an article by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian asks whether the publishing landscape has changed for women since 1973.

Carmen Callil started the company to make women’s writing central, says The Guardian, inspired by her previous work for Ink Magazine and her friendship with the founders of feminist mag Spare Rib. Virago launched the very successful Modern Classics series in 1978, and is now an imprint of Little, Brown UK. The article lists a handful of UK publishers with a similar aim. Though most of them are out of business, they helped to boost the number of women published in the UK.

So yes, we’ve made some strides in the last 40 years. When women were not published in literary magazines, new literary magazines popped up. When women failed to gain prize attention, new prizes were founded. The Orange Prize — now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction — was formed in 1996, and has just announced its long list.

But the ratio isn’t equal. I’ve been struggling to find the right thing to say about the VIDA results this year, and there isn’t much to say. The numbers haven’t gotten better. Tin House (the journal) and Riverhead Books continue to come close to an equal gender divide among their authors, though few others can say the same. Packaging, the gender divide within the reviewers for each publication, marketing — these play a role in those numbers. It’s possible that men feel alienated by books that feature faceless ladies, with long legs and fancy shoes. But they may just never hear about the book when it’s absent from critical reviews.

Women still do most of the reading (57%) and even more of the book-buying per household (a little less than 70%). Publishing is an industry that predominantly employs women, though perhaps not on the top tier. Is the issue that men don’t read many books by women? And what do we do to make more women of color a part of the conversation in the literary world?

The Guardian article suggests that women are more likely to gain readers and win prizes when they write about men:

There is a way for female writers to be taken more seriously. Taylor points out that of the last 10 books to win the Booker prize, eight had male protagonists, one a female protagonist, and one both male and female protagonists. If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected, and read as universal.

Why is this? Do male readers supposedly relate less to characters of the opposite gender? Are women more critical of characters of their own sex? Writers are especially hesitant to mention their characters’ children, the article says. But The Guardian ends on a positive note:

The influence of the feminist publishing movement can be seen far and wide. It’s there in the enormous power of women in publishing today and in the ongoing insistence that women’s voices should be taken seriously, that if literature is important – if it both shapes and reflects our lives – it should represent something beyond a narrow corner of the world. And it is there in every story where women’s lives are central, in mediums well beyond the book world. For instance, Callil says, she is madly in love with the Danish TV show Borgen, which centres on a female prime minister.

What is the American equivalent of this show? Veronica Mars? Perhaps the literary world needs a charming call to arms from someone like Kristen Bell. In the meantime, the publishing world might be printing more work by women than in 1973, and we can thank Virago for its part in that, but we haven’t found a balance just yet.



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.