Marking the 40th anniversary of the launch of a publisher for writing by women largely ignored by the publishing industry, this article surveys the state of the industry today, and finds that women writers are still under-represented in terms of books reviewed. Here's a sample from the article:
Gay's survey followed the work of the group Vida: Women in Literary Arts, which has been publishing an annual count of women's representation in literary journals for three years. Its most recent count came out last week – not one of the literary publications it analysed reviewed more books by female authors than male authors.Shocking you may be thinking, but perhaps this media bias has influenced your own way of thinking? Do the following stats about male/female preferences on the gender of authors sound alien to you?
The Boston Review came very close to equality, with 52% by male authors, 48% by female authors, but in most other cases there was a gaping disparity. In Harper's Magazine, 83% of the books reviewed were by male authors, 17% by female authors; in the London Review of Books, 73% by men, 27% by women; in The New York Review of Books 78% by men, 22% by women; and in the TLS, 75% by men and 25% by women.
It has been suggested this disparity might be because women publish fewer works of serious fiction and nonfiction than men. The numbers regarding authorship are difficult to pin down, because publishing includes such a mix of genres and styles, commercial and literary. But a small US survey by the writer Ruth Franklin, who looked at 13 publishers – focusing on the books that might plausibly be reviewed – did find female authors represented far less often. Only the Penguin imprint Riverhead approached parity, with 55% of its books by men and 45% by women. For Verso and Dalkey Archive Press, only 11% and 10% of their books were by women, respectively.
This shortfall seems relatively baffling when you consider women's interest in literature. When Debbie Taylor was setting up the women's writing magazine Mslexia in the late 90s, she uncovered figures that showed women were much more highly represented on writing courses than men, more likely to rate reading as important, and both bought and read double the number of books than men did each year.Can we speak of a 'male gaze' in writing?
There's no reason to suspect those figures have changed considerably, but male disinterest in women's writing could provide one clue to low representation of women, both on literary shelves and review pages. In 2005-6, UK academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins asked men and women about the books they had found formative; the women's top 20 included six male authors. The men's top 20 included one female author, Harper Lee, leading Jardine and Watkins to remark: "Is it churlish of us to suspect that some men did not realise that Harper was a woman?" They also asked men and women about the last novel they had read; four out of five men said it had been by a male author, whereas women were nearly as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female one. If women are interested in literary fiction by men and women, and men only in literary fiction by men, then perhaps it's not surprising that more male authors might be reviewed and published.
Taylor has written about the idea that a masculine aesthetic, developed over centuries, continues to define excellence in literature. "Historically men have been in charge of publishing and reviewing," she says, "and so that gets into people's psyche. If it's good it has to be emotionally distant, technically sophisticated and factually informative. But also, crucially, with a male gaze, a male point of view."
The trouble is, even when female authors adopt a male perspective, along with subject matter that strictly accords to the masculine aesthetic, there is a fair chance they will be packaged frothily, the content of their work undermined by its cover. Alderman writes about this in her essay in Fifty Shades of Feminism. "Not having decided early on to call myself NA Alderman," she writes, "I have to have girly jackets featuring women gazing wistfully at summer meadows. Even when the novel in question is mostly concerned with a relationship between two gay men."
This was illustrated by the recent furore over the cover of a new edition of The Bell Jar, which illustrates Sylvia Plath's fictional study of depression with a woman re-touching her makeup. In her essay, Alderman writes powerfully about how it is easier for her, in some ways, to operate in the world of video games, where she also works as a writer and where women are in such a minority that once they have muscled their way in, they are treated as honorary men. In publishing, where women have gained a certain amount of power, they are now in the "special girls' holding pen", she writes, easily marginalised as a group, while waiting for full equality.