As you will have noticed, the OV Blog is up and running again, with a series of guest-editors. Below is Debbie Wesselmann's provocative post about the gender inequity in publishing, and Cris Mazza, author of last month's posting, is now coordinating additional guest-bloggers. If you have some previous connection to OV, likely you would qualify. To contact Cris, email OV at firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate your interest in contributing a post!
In 1998, Francine Prose published "Scent of a Women's Ink" in Harper's. The article dissected the literary establishment and its reluctance to bestow major book prizes on female authors and outlined the difficulties this fact posed for the serious female writer. Prose's first sentence––and question–– was "Are women writers really inferior?" The answer is, of course, no. Since the publication of Prose's essay, three of the eight Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction and four of seven National Book Award winners for fiction have been women, giving them roughly half of these two literary honors. Unless you are a female novelist trying to get a book published, you might guess from these facts that the environment is now favorable for women tackling complex thematic issues in their fiction. You would be wrong. Prose's article may have jabbed prize committees into taking notice of inequities, but publishers seem to have continued, with their heads stubbornly down, with their almost-single-minded quest for the new, light "Chick-Lit."
In addition to books that demand pink or purple covers, publishers also want upbeat stories of middle-age women overcoming obstacles or finding true love, a leftover from Oprah's Book Club days when every publisher dreamed of securing the next featured book and so accepted book-after-book that fit the mold, just to up the company's chance of scoring the coveted gold seal. Men are not expected to write these kind of books, although they sometimes do. Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) and Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) write escapist novels designed to appeal to middle-aged women. Not surprisingly, however, most of these books, both Chick-Lit and Life-Affirming Fiction, come from the computer keyboards of women. I do not begrudge the women who write these novels, just as I would never criticize a writer who chooses to write thrillers or religious fiction; however, I am concerned about the expectations this genre creates for all female writers.
A few years ago, my then-agent submitted a novel manuscript of mine to several large New York publishers. The novel told the story about a primatologist who had, through the circumstances of her life, grown up with the changing animal rights movement. The novel explored the issues of politics within the primatology and animal rights communities as well as the personal crises that my protagonist faced. My agent believed that this would be my "break out" novel. When the rejections came back, one in particular shocked me: the editor wanted a love story at the center of the plot. As I looked over the other letters, I noticed a similarity: the editors wanted a more personal, less "tinged with sadness" novel. Their list of flaws often included a suggestion for a stronger relationship between the protagonist and a specific male character. It didn't seem to matter that the most compelling, most defining relationship was between the protagonist and her wayward brother.
Of course, my novel may have been rejected for other reasons, but the suggestion that I revise the novel with an upbeat love story rankled. How could I write serious literature if I had to limit my plots and themes? Somehow I doubt that E.L. Doctorow, Michael Ondaatje, and Chang-Rae Lee have ever been asked to write more personal, love-driven stories. Would Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer Prize winning, gender-bending novel, Middlesex, been published if it had been written by a woman? What about Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or Steven Wright's Amalgamation Polka? Doctorow's The March? I felt that I was taken back to the days when I had just graduated from an Ivy League school, and I was told during job interviews that I had to begin as a secretary even though discriminatory hiring practices were illegal. Again, I doubt that any of my male classmates, even those who had much lower G.P.A.'s than mine, were asked about their typing skills. Still, I lived with the delusion that the situation had changed for women. I believed that a serious, well-written novel would be published, no matter who had written it.
I am not the only one who has noticed the major publishers' shunning of serious novels written by women. In an online interview, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press noted, "I think it’s somewhat likelier that women are going to fall in this mid-list category because if they’re not writing stuff that’s going to be readily embraced by 500 book clubs around the country… well, yeah, it seems like there are two ways for fiction to get sold in this country - though I’m being very crude here with my description. One way is more 'male' and the other way is more 'female'. The more female way is through book clubs, because they are 85% women, and that is like a really crucial component of how paperback books really are being sold in the United States . . .Then there’s the traditional side, it comes from how a book is perceived, for example, a new book from so-and-so, the kind of book that will be reviewed in the Times and Newsweek, and will appear on Fresh Air. This is the stuff that’s going to be face out and everyone’s going to be talking about it – the new Philip Roth, the new John Updike or in terms of the younger generation, the new Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, and Myla Goldberg. But there are a lot more male writers in that category." (http://www.kgbbar.com/lit/features/soft_skull_pres.html)
Why are there more male writers in that category? Why must female writers who write similar fiction turn to the short list of independent publishers who publish literary fiction? Although Francine Prose's article forced prize committees to consider the inequity of their selections, the pool of eligible novels written by women remains limited by what gets published and promoted. Titles released by independent presses often languish despite their quality simply because such publishers do not have the resources to market their best titles and to bring them to the attention of a large readership, so even if the independent publishers don't care whether women concentrate on romance and domestic issues (and it's not clear that most don't follow the same trends as the major houses, only on a smaller scale), then women literary writers are fated to be largely unknown.
My New Year's wish is for publishers and editors to realize that their manuscript acquisitions may be subconsciously discriminatory. For every Stephen Wright, there should be a female counterpart. I want them to understand that asking a women to put romance in her novel is the literary equivalent of demanding that she enter the workforce as a secretary despite her credentials. I want them to begin to chip away at their own glass ceiling, not within the organization where many top editors are indeed women, but with their products, their books. If men can write intellectually intriguing books, then allow women to do the same–– and let them reap the same rewards.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann