Where are the Women Writers?

This blog is now about two months old. Its character is still inchoate, but enough hints of form have emerged that the time seemed ripe for a bit of reflection. The results of that reflection surprised and troubled me: I have reviewed seven books, only one of which was written by a woman. This is an egregious ratio. You’ll have to trust me when I say that for me, it’s also an unusual one. Thus I set out to determine why I’ve been reading so few women writers.

Why, you may ask, does this matter? I’m just an unpaid, barely read blogger. I read for fun, and I review for fun; I suspect that I have less influence on the world’s reading habits than a be-iPhoned fourteen-year-old who thumb-types two-sentence reviews on Amazon. Why should I care about the gender ratio of the writers I review?

I care because of things like this. When the professional literary world pays so little attention to the women of literature, the unprofessional literary world has an ethical duty (yes, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe in things like ethical duty) both to bug the professional world until it improves and to pick up some of the slack in the meantime. I’ve failed in this. I’ll try to do better in the future. All I can do at the present moment is attempt to understand how this happened.

Amazon-Verified Purchases

For weird and depressing reasons that I may or may not detail in a later post, I read only e-books. My .03 regular readers know that I poke a lot of fun at Amazon, but I have to admit that they make life convenient: their record of every book I’ve ever downloaded to my Kindle made analyzing my past reading habits remarkably easy. When I looked over my history, the pivotal moment very quickly became apparent: at the beginning of April, I procured a library card.

Between the time I received my Kindle (a present from my siblings — thanks, siblings!) and April 1st, 2012, a day that will live in infamy, I bought thirteen e-books, eight written by women, six by men.* These statistics are messier than they seem. I know two of those men personally and bought their books to support them; both books turned out to be good, but I probably wouldn’t have learned of their existence much less purchased them had I not known their authors. Furthermore, I bought two of the other books by men (actually two books by one man, Samuel Beckett) for work. Still, I chose to work on a male writer and thus bolster his reputation (assuming I have my dissertation accepted and further assuming that dissertations have any effect on reputations).

Depending on which caveats I’m willing to make, I’m left with three possible tallies: Women: 8, Men: 6; Women: 8, Men: 4; or Women: 8, Men: 2. I’m also left with a greater suspicion of statistics. In any case, I think I’ve established that I don’t hate women or their writing.

To the Library!

My post-library card statistics initially seem more straightforward. I borrowed nine books, six of them by men and three of them by women. I didn’t finish two of them, one by a man and one by a woman. Hence, Women: 2, Men: 5.**

Missing in that statistical tally, however, are all the books that I searched for but couldn’t find in the library’s e-book collection. (I’m assuming for the sake of argument that the library’s e-book collection differs from its print-book collection only in size and period of publication.) I didn’t keep a list of these elusive titles, but I remember that almost all of them were written by women.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the novels I couldn’t find:

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Actually, I couldn’t find anything by Hilary Mantel. You know, the winner of the Man Booker prize.

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History. This is forgivable, as the novel was published in 1992, well before the heyday of e-books. On the other hand, this is unforgivable, as The Secret History is a classic among nerds, the early adopters of e-books.

Anything by Jo Walton. Anything by N. K. Jemisin. Any high-ish-brow, award-winning, woman-authored science fiction and fantasy published in the past decade. That’s right: I couldn’t find any of it.

50% Men, 50% Pectoral Muscles. No Overlap.

I’m not trying to say that my local librarians are sexist. I’m sure that as individuals, they aren’t. In fact, the library appears to carry an equal number of male and female writers. The problem is which male and female writers. If you want the latest novel by the latest male luminary everyone is certain will enter the canon, you’ll find it. If you want the trashiest of trashy thrillers ever to be written by a square-jawed, beef-eating lawyer-salesman-skydiver with a name like Dave Brown, you’ll find it. If you want something pleasantly middle-brow, whether from the more readable strata of literary fiction or the more thoughtful strata of genre fiction, you’ll find it, provided that the author is male.

If you want a book written by a woman, you’d better like pecs.

Here are the only plots women are capable of writing, judging by my library’s holdings:

Who could ever understand this special but misunderstood woman? A vampire, of course!

Lonely woman wears favorite dress to date with werewolf. Werewolf rips bodice.

Tough-but-vulnerable lady-cop seeks parents’ killer, finds love instead. Also, she’s secretly a shape-shifting kraken.

Leather-clad, Harley-riding ghost hunter hunts and/or has sex with ghosts.

Okay, so I don’t like paranormal romance. I don’t even like normal romance. But I don’t object to its existence, or I wouldn’t if it didn’t engulf everything else, like some sort of sexy slime monster who’s a total player until he meets his one true love, who makes him think twice before enveloping entire cities in his slimy maw and teaches him to express his intense, all-consuming sex drive through occasional light bondage.

“Women’s Writing” versus Women Writers

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a paranormal romance novel is unlikely to receive prestigious awards or admiration from the literary establishment. Nor do I think that this is a problem. Paranormal romance has its own goals, which I assume are to entertain and titillate the reader and to sell a lot of copies.*** Those are perfectly fine goals. Not every book can or should aim for the Booker.

Some feminist critics would disagree with me. One line of criticism holds that the literary establishment’s inherent sexism leads to the devaluation of genres more strongly associated with women. There’s a degree of truth to that. Many more dissertations are written about Herman Melville than Harriet Beecher Stowe, though the latter changed the course of history and the former was barely read in his time. (Still, have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? It’s a novel about a bunch of stereotypes who have a contest to see who can be the most stereotypical. Or, if you’d like, it’s about an angelic blonde who uses the power of Christ to redeem a self-effacing, simple-minded black man.)

However, arguments about the devaluation of women’s fiction have a way of establishing a ditch of Women’s Writing into which women inevitably stumble, whether they’re tripped by biology, society, or really jerky men. Those who make these arguments too often slip toward the suggestion that we need to value the types of fiction with which women are associated because women can’t write fiction that meets the literary establishment’s standards. Anyone who sincerely believes women can’t meet these standards is poorly read, an unsalvageable sexist, or a moron. A few inexplicably influential dinosaurs notwithstanding, no intelligent person would argue that, say, Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison doesn’t deserve her place in the canon. It’s harder to prove that women are just as capable as men at achieving literary greatness, because we’ll never know about the novels that were lost or never written. What we do know is that history made it more difficult for women to write, as Woolf herself explains. And as I’ve been trying to argue, novels by women that can’t be shoved into the ditch of Women’s Writing are, for one reason or another, harder for readers to come across.

I’m not convinced that our criteria for literary quality — deft word choice, fresh imagery, depth or uniqueness of character, innovative form — are inherently sexist. Most writers of “masculine” genres such as thrillers and military science fiction also fail to meet these criteria. The argument that the emphasis on originality is sexist because men are inherently more original than women makes me roll my eyes just as hard as certain 1980s French theorists’ claim that logic is sexist because women aren’t inherently logical. The problem isn’t that there aren’t many more Virginia Woolfs and Toni Morrisons out there. The problem is that for various reasons, they don’t get noticed as often as the budding James Joyces or Cormac McCarthies. They don’t get nominated for awards as often as they should, and when they do get nominated, and perhaps even go on to win, they don’t get purchased by libraries, which have already filled their woman-writer quotas with paranormal romances, and they don’t get reviewed, whether by the New York Review of Books or by peons like me.

Some solutions to this problem are obvious. Libraries, don’t pay attention just to the number of books by women that you purchase, but to the breadth of your collection: aim for the whole human brow, not just the eyebrow ridge, however much you may like Fabio’s. At the very least, buy every novel by every female Booker winner.

As for me? I’ll try to make a point of reading and reviewing more women, and if the library doesn’t carry their books, I’ll just have to — perish the thought! — start putting my money where my mouth is.

*Three two-word phrases explain why that number is so low: medical emergency, temporary poverty, and public domain.

**This doesn’t match the gender ratio of my reviews because I read one of the woman-authored library books before I started the blog, and I purchased one of the man-authored books I reviewed.

***I’m not saying that no paranormal romance is capable of meeting accepted standards for literary quality, just that most of the genre’s writers have more pressing goals. Yes, pun intended. Pun always intended.

3 thoughts on “Where are the Women Writers?

  1. That’s an interesting insight about the genres in which women writers are represented. I just did a count for the books in my blog- 6 of the 15 books are by women. Which isn’t *too* imbalanced, but somehow I had thought that I had been reading more books by women than that.

  2. It’s interesting how vigilant you have to be to maintain some semblance of equality if you don’t read particular genres. I wonder how the specifics of your project affect your ratio — there are so many additional layers (e.g., what determines the amount of attention a book receives in its native country, what makes foreign publishers deem it worthy of translation, and what influences its success in the Anglophone world).

    • It’s definitely hard to guess how those layers interact. I have been noticing that there’s a pretty large availability of books with women authors who write about about oppression of women in various (especially Middle Eastern) countries. Not that those aren’t important books, but I wonder whether they might be particularly successful in the U.S. because we enjoy the feeling of righteous indignation they produce.

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