Sex in publishing

Women account for most of the fiction purchases in the United States, as much as 70-80% according to this New York Times article. But despite this, women still seem to get the shaft when seeking literary attention. Book reviewers all over the country are overwhelmingly male, as are the majority of books that they review. The numbers, or in this case, the pie charts, seem blatantly sexist. And late last year, Ruth Franklin reporting for The Atlantic blasted the New York Times for its “shameful treatment of women writers.” (If you go back and read the NY Times article above, you’ll believe that men are somehow getting the shaft as publishers look for books that appeal to women, but the reverse actually seems to be true when it comes to which books get lauded.) Franklin argues that women’s books get treated like trash, saddled with the title “chic lit” and tossed into the “beach reading” pile, while men’s books are pushed into the literary category and given critical acclaim. Are males in publishing just pushing back? Or is it something more benign? And if it is, that may actually be worse, because that goes to an ingrained assumption about the value of women vs. men as writers.

I tried to figure out if more men were being published and could find no solid numbers other than a Cornell study that showed that graduate students who were published both during school and in the three years after leaving school, were mostly male. I can’t assume that the trend translates to trade publishing, but I suspect it’s not very different, especially since according to this article, men submit their work more frequently. Then I looked at a recent post by  journalist Porter Anderson who says that he notices far more women at writing conferences than men. He remembers one where he was the only man in the crowd. I’ve noticed this disparity in children’s publishing especially, where Harold Underdown notes that in kids’ publishing a lot of the writers are parents, “typically moms.”

A 2005 NPR study tried to figure out why women read more than men. And if we do, and there are so many of us aspiring to be writers, and so many of us buying books, how come women don’t rule the publishing world? A few years ago, a Guardian survey revealed that women’s reading tastes are far more varied than men’s. So that may have something to do with it, and the fact that the majority of men’s reading happened in their angst-riddled teens. But though men/boys seem to pigeonhole their tastes, it doesn’t mean they have to.  I’ve gone to plenty of book readings where boys told me that ANGEL’S GRACE wasn’t usually the kind of book they’d pick up, but once they did, they really enjoyed it. Sure, it has a girl on the cover, but a boy on the cover of HARRY POTTER hasn’t stopped any girl from reading it. Though interestingly, Joanne Rowling decided she’d better change her pen name to J.K. Rowling, believing that not being identified as a female author would give her traction with U.S. readers. She was right.

But separating out boys vs. girls’ reading tastes is something we set up. In my daughter’s school, the 5th grade reading club splits along gender lines with each group reading books written by and featuring their own gender. Though when I come in to talk about my arguably girl-centered book, the boys are just as interested.

So I have to ask, are women getting the shaft because publishing is unfair, or are we teaching kids inequality so that as adults, they’re just continuing the trend we established?


4 thoughts on “Sex in publishing

  1. Mutterschwester says:

    I think it has to do with a lot of things. The submission % difference is significant, I think. Are women not submitting as often because they are perfectionists? Or is it because they write less often because of (fill in the blank with family obligations, other interests, jobs, whatever)?

    In this area of NJ, so many parents (the vast majority women) in formerly high-end and powerful positions are now either part-time or full-time at home. The same might be said of female writers as they bring up families. Do they put writing on the back-burner while concentrating on other life issues? Are they doing more writing in brief (blogs, magazines, poetry) rather than full-length works?

    I really don’t think it’s an easy answer. But I do know that there is still a prejudice about reading women rather than men. It doesn’t go both ways equally, and women are just as likely to have the “fluff” prejudice as men, I think.

  2. Tracey says:

    Thanks for commenting, M. I think the submission difference is significant, but more importantly is the number of books by men and reviewed by men. Of course we’re not looking at total number of books published along gender lines to determine exactly what the breakdown is, but regardless, there should be more equity there.

    And I’ll cop to the prejudice about chick lit, too. Even though I read a good chunk of it, I don’t think of it as literary, but that may have more to do with front-end marketing, than what I actually think of the writing quality, which I think is Ruth Franklin’s point.

    But the submission thing… do you think that goes to men being more willing to take a chance, and women’s need for perfection? It might be that too.

  3. Mutterschwester says:

    Regarding that last question: I think that men might “finish” novels more often because they are more willing to submit earlier in the process than women might. It could be tied directly to the “I have to prove I’m just as good or better” idea that forces extra revisions on any group less represented.

    Obviously, this is all wild speculation and gut feeling.

    The power in publishing is definitely moving towards equality. At my husband’s publisher, more than half of the editors (including assts) and marketers are women now. And that’s within the last ten years.

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