Here’s an article from Salon by Laura Miller about the “literature gender gap”, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. The standfirst is pretty blunt: “women are under-represented in literary publishing because men aren’t interested in what they have to say”. Really?
There are some data in the article, and some speculation. Here are the data, which are partly derived from what Ruth Franklin says here in the New Republic:
- In literary publications, the majority of contributions are by men;
- In literary publications, the majority of reviews are by men;
- In literary publications, the majority of books reviewed are by men;
- The majority of books published are by men;
- Women read and buy far more books than men.
Now, (1) and (2) are depressing but familiar findings, mentioned at the beginning but not really addressed in the rest of the Miller article. (4) is her main focus. It is cited as a reasonable explanation of (3), and the question then is, why does (4) happen when (5) is the case? Wouldn’t one expect women to want to read books by women, and thus, wouldn’t one expect the book trade to publish at least as many books by women as by men?
Using a mixture of anecdotal and survey evidence, Miller then says that women in fact tend to read books by men and women more or less equally, while men tend to read far more books by men than by women. Thus, a publisher can be reasonably sure of selling books by men to both men and women, but a book by a woman is more of a gamble, since only half the potential market is at all likely to buy it. So publishers, being risk-averse, mostly publish books by men. Therefore, the problem — the reason why publishers mostly publish books by men — is that men are not interested in what women have to say.
There is something fishy about this argument, I’m sure. But what, exactly? If, for example, women buy far more books than men, why does publishing a book by a woman represent a significantly higher risk? That seems rather weak reasoning.
Most speculatively, I wonder if there’s a difference between two claims: men are not interested in what women say (publish), and men are not interested in what women have to say (would like to publish). Based entirely on my own reading of novels and reviews of them, it would seem that women tend to publish more in the way of realist, domestic novels, in which truths of modern life are revealed indirectly by the study of some set of protagonists. Men do publish some of these, but are far more likely to publish Big Novels with Big Ideas and all sorts of stylistic, formal, technical innovations (I’m talking, by the way, about literary fiction, in some loose sense that contrasts with commercial fiction and genre fiction — and I’m assuming that the points I’m making would apply also to literary non-fiction and poetry).
That’s all very generalised, of course, but bear with me. It may be the case that men are more likely to read big abstract novels, and to not much care for the domestic stuff; and that the audience for the domestic stuff is thus mostly women. Again, pure anecdote seems to support this; women I know read both sorts of novel, men tend to just or mostly read the abstract stuff. There is a lot to be said about why these differences in taste emerge, and I won’t go into that here. The point I was wondering about is this: do women publish more domestic novels because they want to, or because they are encouraged to? That is, are men not interested in what women have to say, or what they do say? Because it seems to me quite unlikely that there are far fewer women than men who are able and keen to write big, abstract, technically clever books. So, in slight contrast with the conclusion that Miller draws, I would be tempted to say that men are uninterested in what women do say, but not in what they have to say.
This is about male readers, obviously. The remaining question is why women are perhaps discouraged from writing the kind of stuff men might like to read. Here, perhaps, we might in fact end up blaming men’s bias. As Franklin mentions in the New Republic, the first step to a book contract is often publication of something short in a journal of some sort; and women write just one third of such publications; and the ‘gatekeepers’ tend to be men. So it could be that the blame should be apportioned, not so much to the curious male reader browsing in the bookshop, but more to the men at journals, and publishing houses, who select which women get to the bookshop, and who perhaps tend to favour more stereotypically feminine subject matter from women writers. Perhaps these places should adopt an anonymous review system? Or do they already do that?
None of this seems quite satisfactory, though. As Miller says, the problem seems to be peculiarly entrenched. I suspect that what we have is a complex pattern of biases and imbalances that reinforce mutually, to the extent that it’s hard to single out one group, or one bias, and say that that is the cause of literary gender gaps. But I’d be interested in what other people think. Can we blame, for example, publishers, or readers? Do men really, actually, ignore books simply on the basis of the author’s name? Is any of the speculation about tastes and so on that I’ve indulged in accurate?
(Thanks, M and S!)