I read John Barber’s recent article on gender bias in the book world with great interest, glad to see the Globe reporting the feminist group VIDA’s findings about the small proportion of women featured in influential literary periodicals.
I know these arguments. I’ve made these arguments, and so have many others. Not only about publications like TLS and The New Yorker, but about book awards and books published, invitations to literary festivals and invitations to sit on juries. It’s a cause I’ve been aware of since the heyday of 1970s feminism: of Ms. magazine and “Herstory,” of Germaine Greer and The Madwoman in the Attic. That was the start just for me, not for the argument. A good book on this subject is How to Suppress Women’s Writing , by Joanna Russ, published in 1983 by the University of Texas Press.
The individuals making these arguments are mostly, though not exclusively, women, and the people looking up in surprise and bewilderment at the very idea of bias are mostly, though not exclusively, men. This is, in short, a feminist issue, one of the quintessentially feminist issues. I’m a woman and a writer, as well as wearing a couple of other hats, and of course I’m glad to see these issues raised again, even if it’s disheartening to recognize the need to raise them again and again. That is one of the points that Russ makes convincingly.
But, but – this is not the whole story, folks. There is another side to this coin. A couple of other sides, at least. I am not interested in the side that dismisses writing by women as “middlebrow fluff,” or as “crazy emotional rollercoasters.” (These are direct quotes from comments on Barber’s article published on the Globe website.)
What I’m interested in something else entirely. I know a lot of literary types who edit magazines and books sections as well as those who publish books and organize literary festivals. I myself have done several of these jobs, at one time or another. And there happen to be, among these literary types, some impressively open-minded individuals, not to mention feminists and fans of everything Russ ever wrote,
I would find these arguments about gender bias more convincing if there were big differences between publications rather than the most minor of variations. Can all those editors really be so closed to work by women? Are they really colluding to suppress women’s writing? I find that hard to believe.
More than one commentator on the VIDA website suggests that the publications selected for the study are already known to be male-dominated. And – for good measure – that we live in a world that systematically discriminates against women. These are publications, in other words, that are already guilty. This whole world is self-evidently guilty. In which case, why bother with a study at all?
When I was running Blue Metropolis, I went out of my way to look for women writers. If I saw there were too many men in the lineup, as could so easily happen, I would invite a few more women writers in an attempt to even things up. There were always marvellous women writers – we gave our literary prize to Marie-Claire Blais, Mavis Gallant, Maryse Condé, Margaret Atwood and A. S. Byatt, and we invited brilliant women poets, essayists, novelists, writers for young people, literary translators, storytellers, performers and hosts every year.
What I learned, in the process of putting the festival program together, is not only that there are more books by men out there, but that most of those books get far better treatment from agents, publishers, publicists, reviewers and juries than books by women. I did what I could to ensure they wouldn’t get better treatment from Blue Metropolis.
I have been involved with a couple of different organizations that award book prizes, and there, too, I have done what I could to make sure the women got a fair shake. Ditto, now that I am a publisher.
My experience in book publishing is admittedly very limited, for my first season has only just begun. This spring I am publishing one man – author and journalist Rick Salutin – and one woman: the Montreal novelist Felicia Mihali. Fair enough. I have been receiving a steady stream of submissions ever since I announced my new venture in June of last year, and I have been sifting through the queries and manuscripts, looking for the books I will be proud to publish this fall and in later seasons.
And – you may have guessed it – the fact is that, so far, the lion’s share of the submissions are from men. The men win, hands down, not only on quantity but also on quality. I have asked a couple of women – and a couple of men – to work on their books a bit more. I would like to publish more women, but the fact is that I will be publishing more books by men than by women. Of the books I have been offered, these are just the better books.
So that’s a shocker. And no, I am not going to turn down a great book by a man just because he’s a man. Nor am I going to publish a book by a woman just because she’s a woman. It is – it has to be – the work that counts.
And why is it that such a high proportion of the submissions are by men? Is this a fluke? If I had waited to write this article five years from now, would I have a different experience to report? Is it some fault of mine? Am I inadvertently looking for a quality that men are more likely than women to produce? Surely not, for my judgment is no different today than it was when I was running a festival.
Do women have lower self-esteem? (This is one of the possible reasons proposed in a comment on the VIDA website.) Are they less likely to believe in their own possible success? Do the schools not teach them right? Or is it that women writers are less determined than men? Are they less likely to stick with it and polish a book? Simply busier than the men, more preoccupied by children and home? Or what?
Are women less aware that I am now looking for books to publish? Are they less willing to take a chance on a fledgling publisher like me? Is this situation temporary, and will I now get a stream of extraordinary submissions from women?
I hope so, but these are not questions I feel able to answer. I don’t even know who might be able to provide answers, for the questions themselves come close to heresy.