This just in: Books by men get reviewed much more often than books by women. Why? Well, one research project suggests that it’s because women read books by both men and women, while men mostly read books by men. And an admittedly less-than-scientific analysis says it could be because publishers put out more books by men than women.
Surprised? Me, neither.
It seems like something comes along on a regular basis to remind us that women get shortchanged. A little over a year ago I wrote about a Publishers Weekly Top Ten books list that didn’t have a single woman author on it, pointing out that it was mathematically improbable, given the number of women writers, that not one of them had written a book worthy of Top Ten status.
And here we are again. No, I’m not surprised. But I am mad.
The review statistics were gathered by the organization Vida, which “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women.” Their report put the issue in perspective:
We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.
I can think of several reasons. For one, there are still far too many people — not just men, but women, too — who really don’t believe women can do anything important as well as men, not to mention doing anything better than men. And, conversely, these same people believe that if women excel in any given field, it’s really not that important.
As a rule these days, people pretend they don’t think that way. Instead they say things like “‘The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,'” which comes from a comment by Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard in the Guardian’s article on the Vida study. And the subtext is, of course, that women don’t write — or even read — the important books.
Now I know that the situation is better than it used to be. Right now I’m going through the first season of Mad Men on DVD, and, just as I feared, the sexism it depicts is painful to watch. But it’s accurate. I may have been a little kid during those years, but I watched my mother put up with all that kind of crap. No wonder she was often angry.
We have come a long way from the world of Mad Men. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop paying attention.
The key problem with women writers is not that they don’t write important books or have big ideas. The problem is they don’t get noticed.
As the psychiatrist Anna Fels pointed out in her brilliant book, Necessary Dreams:
A deep and pervasive cultural prejudice leads to the reflex bestowing of recognition on males and a largely unconscious withholding of recognition from females in all but the sexual sphere—where it is complementary to male needs.
I keep coming back to Fels’s book, which I reviewed here, to understand why we must pay attention to these studies of gender imbalance if we ever hope to have a society that is truly egalitarian.
Those of you who assume this is only a problem in the literary genre might want to peruse the statistics Broad Universe has put together about science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing.
So what do we do? Well, for starters we follow Laura Miller’s advice: We “encourage our friends to try to broaden their horizons.”
And we keep talking about the disparities, even if a lot of people (some of whom may show up in the comments) are tired of hearing about them.
Update: I just saw Percival Everett’s essay on the Vida statistics and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and wanted to make sure everyone else saw it, too. He skewers those who don’t see the problem so deftly and gently that maybe — maybe — they’ll start paying attention. Perhaps the NY Times Book Review and The New Yorker and some other pubs will have the sense to ask for permission to reprint it.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.