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?