J.K. Rowling was hiding, and I wish she hadn’t. She recently published her first crime thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling, using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Female writers from Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) to Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard) have felt compelled to tuck their gender behind manly noms de plume, but Rowling constructed Galbraith as a near-parody of masculinity: a civilian security expert with a military background – all the credentials to legitimize a gritty page-turner, possibly typed with the author’s large … biceps.
I get it. There must be a planet of pressure on Rowling as she attempts the next stage of her literary career, outrunning that Harry Potter past. She described playing Galbraith as a “liberating experience,” and claimed consternation that The Sunday Times unmasked her so soon (though an explosion in sales and a major publicity hit hint at a convenient reveal).
Rowling can frame her strategy as personal, but it’s also political, an emphatic reminder of the messy gender disparities that still survive in publishing. Wait – I can hear a certain type of reader sighing and turning to the next page, adamant that publishing is a woman’s game, dominated by women writers, editors and readers. But that’s why it’s even more troubling when statistics show that women, as authors and reviewers, are woefully underrepresented in influential publications.
In March, VIDA, an American women’s literary organization, published its annual report showing the usual gendered gap in criticism and coverage. In 2012 in The New York Review of Books, women wrote 22 per cent of the books reviewed and 16 per cent of reviewers were women. In The London Review of Books, women wrote 27 per cent of books reviewed and 24 per cent of reviewers were women (66 out of 276). CWILA, Canadian Women in Literary Arts, noted improvements in Canadian publications since 2011. At The Globe, women authored 42 per cent of books reviewed and 42 per cent of reviews were written by women.
It’s hard to contextualize these stats without knowing how many books are annually published by women. Because those numbers are difficult to assess, Ruth Franklin at The New Republic undertook her own informal survey of several American publishing catalogues in 2010, and discovered that women accounted for about 30 per cent of the kinds of published books that might be deemed reviewable by high-end, agenda-setting publications (this excluded self-help, cooking etc.). The survey was extremely unscientific, but if Franklin’s findings are correct, then the disparity issue gets even more complicated: Women aren’t being reviewed as much as men because they’re not being published as much as men.
This spins us off into questions about canonization, and how we learn to read – questions that end at the less quantifiable issue of authority. The VIDA numbers gesture at a free-floating feeling that the male voice is more worthy of a reader’s attention and trust, a faith that propels their work toward existence in the first place, and then toward many different tables in the bookstore, not just the one marked “Beach Reads.” (And by the way, I love chick lit, genre writing and all things beachy. I just don’t want women writers automatically relegated only to those corridors, regardless of their work.)
For an author as huge as J.K. Rowling to attempt to pass as male makes explicit the unspoken assumption that a male writer somehow matters more. She should know: Her agent advised her to trade the name Joanne for sexless initials when several publishers passed on a story of a boy wizard written by a lady.
Charlotte Bronte explained the Bronte sisters’ decision to publish poetry as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell: “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” A century and a half later, the impression isn’t so vague. Since 1901, only 12 women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, or about 11 per cent. (In Canada, the Rosalind Prize for Women’s Fiction will launch in 2014 to give recognition to women writers.) Of course there are revered women writers whose books are media-blanketing literary events, like Zadie Smith and Alice Munro. But Meg Wolitzer, writing beautifully on this topic in The New York Times last year, quotes Katha Pollitt on the exceptions that prove the rule: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”
In my other life, I write fiction. For me, as for many women writers, this isn’t an abstract debate; our livelihoods are affected when the mechanisms that get writers noticed – categorization, reviews, prizes, book covers – work against us. I’ve had a good run with my second novel, but I’ve also watched it get tagged as Women’s Fiction, even though the story’s perspective is split almost 50-50 between two protagonists, a man and woman. This has an upside – God bless the women readers and bloggers – but it’s also bizarre. On Amazon, the Women’s Fiction category lists over 5,000 titles. There is no category called Men’s Fiction.
When literary writers like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides veer into thematic territory deemed traditionally “female” – relationships, interior lives, the vagaries of contemporary living – it’s called fiction. You can tell from the covers: bold, text-heavy designs that trumpet the presence of A Serious Work. As the writer Maureen Johnson noted in The Huffington Post: “A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.” Earlier this year, Johnson asked her Twitter followers to take a well-known book and reimagine the cover as if the author were the opposite gender. The results were hilarious: “Jane” Franzen’s Freedom features a woman with her arms out, spinning in the wind, and “Denise” Lehane’s creepy Shutter Island now has literal shutters onto a beach scene, with the subtitle: A Novel of Self-Discovery. If, as booksellers claim, women read everything and men read mostly male authors, then feminizing – or “trivializing” – women’s covers represent a loss of readership, not just credibility. There’s nothing worse for a writer than missing an opportunity to loose a story in the world to do its work on as many people as possible.
When Rowling writes as a man, it’s not harmless, like my friend who gives a different name at Starbucks each time, playing with identity for fun. Robert Galbraith’s existence reminds us that the unequal playing field is still beneath the feet of so many women writers. Those of us beginning our careers, and those who have arrived, all stand upon it, uncertainly.