When Mary Anne Evans wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, she gave herself a man's name and wrote an essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, lacerating the "feminine fatuity" that she saw cluttering the literary landscape of her day.
Needless to say, George Eliot was never invited into the Oprah Book Club. But 150 years after Evans made her debut under that name, her gender-switching strategy remains all too plausible.
To be taken seriously as a novelist in the 21st century, an era in which the making and reading of fiction is dominated by women, being a man is as important as it ever was. And after suffering centuries of condescension and outright oppression, women are taking notice like never before, boldly claiming ownership of a genre that has long served their sex as a liberating force.
A series of simple pie charts released recently by VIDA, a U.S. women's literary group, illustrates the complaint: Classifying book reviews in the most prestigious American and British periodicals according to the sex of both reviewers and the authors reviewed, the VIDA charts are a rogue's gallery of voracious male Pac men chomping at minority wedges of female participation.
Males outnumbered females almost three-to-one in the 2011 book pages of The New Yorker, according to the VIDA Count, with an equal or greater disparity in Harper's, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and the New Republic. Among major publications, only the New York Times Book Review approached parity. And of all the publications surveyed, only the British magazine Granta showed a slight tip in favour of female authors and reviewers.
Meanwhile, in bookstores, women rule – responsible for as many as four out of every five novels sold – and more than twice as likely as men to read them, according to various surveys in the English-speaking world. With so-called "literary reading" declining sharply among both sexes, women have become even more prominent as supporters of the art – while at the same time the Great Men still presuming to bestride that shrinking world become more nakedly vulnerable.
Women's leadership in reading begins in elementary-school classrooms, where girls continue to exceed boys in reading skills and enthusiasm in virtually every measured jurisdiction. Some observers blame an overly "feminized" early-school curriculum – too much Jane, not enough Dick – for the gap.
But the scruples that might make educators reconsider the Hardy Boys are unknown to publishers, who teeter on parody feeding voracious book clubs such titles as The Time Traveller's Wife, Secret Daughter, The Tiger's Wife, The Memory Keeper's Daughter and The Midwife of Venice. Huffington Post blogger Randy Susan Meyers, a strong advocate of the VIDA Count and its cause, is author of The Murderer's Daughters.
The new literary front in the age-old gender war first appeared in 2010, when "women's fiction" authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner lambasted the mainstream media for its fawning treatment of "serious" novelist Jonathan Franzen – the same author whom Oprah Winfrey had abruptly de-clubbed almost a decade earlier due to his infelicitous remarks about the women's fiction ghetto he hoped to avoid.
Like VIDA, Weiner blamed "a very old and deep-seated double standard" that considers male-written novels like Franzen's The Corrections and Freedom as "literature with a capital L" while treating books by women on the same subjects as "unworthy of a serious critic's attention."
More recently, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul destroyed what's left of his reputation (after foolishly deciding to reveal all to his official biographer) by condemning all women novelists, including Jane Austen, for their "sentimentality" and "narrow view of the world."
"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not," Naipaul said. And all of it, he added, "unequal to me."
Snobbism about women's fiction "goes back a long way," according to Belinda Jack of Oxford University, author of the upcoming The Woman Reader. And before snobbism stretch millennia of active suppression during which women were prohibited from writing almost anything. "Public speech and harlotry were very closely associated," Jack said in an interview, describing the very narrow range and reading and writing permissible to women up until the 19th century.
Some psychologists and neurologists trace the origin of the fiction gap to women's demonstrably superior capacity for empathy, which is thought to enable them to occupy the minds of fictional characters with greater ease than men. And profit: New theories of literature see an evolutionary advantage in the ability to infer the motives of others, a talent that sharpens with reading fiction – and would seem to depend mainly on women to function.
Jack explains women's historical affinity for the novel in terms of its role as a liberating force. Trapped in a domestic space that forbade self-expression, women traditionally turned to novels "to see more of the world," according to her. "The amount of life that could be seen at first-hand was limited, and so seeing it at second-hand through reading was attractive," she said.
Reading novels was in itself an act of subversion, and themes evolved to suit the enterprise. "A lot of the novels that many women would say were the greatest novels do explore unconventional patterns of female behaviour and female life," Jack said, adding that history is repeating itself today among women in Muslim countries who risk severe punishment in order to read imported novels by, for and about liberated women in the West.
Meanwhile, back home, the Internet regularly launches new literary careers without interference from any gender filter that might once have operated in traditional publishing houses. It made 27-year-old Amanda Hocking, a lonely outcast from the U.S. Upper Midwest, a millionaire with her 99-cent tales of paranormal romance. It shocked and appalled British clerics by making former British call girl and blogger Belle de Jour a national sensation.
They still get no respect, but no literary force has done so much to change the world – nor continues to do so – than the historic team of women novelists and their eager, overwhelmingly female readers.