This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

On breaking the literary glass ceiling

After the VIDA statistics were released (showing a vast literary gender gap), it only took a day or two before people collapsed into their defensive stances. The moral outrage burns itself out pretty quickly, leaving only, well, it’s not like this is my fault — look at that misogyny over there.

Ruth Franklin, a senior editor and critic at The New Republic, added up her own statistics of men reviewed to women reviewed – 33 percent women — and she promptly blamed the publishing industry for publishing more men than women. She added up the stats for America’s various publishing houses and found that The New Republic’s review figures lined up with what the publishing industry was producing. Fewer books published by women meant fewer books to review.

I reached out to two of the independent publishers that she singled out in her article as being particularly guilty of imbalance, Melville House in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Dalkey Archive Press in Champaign, Ill. First, publisher Valerie Merians wanted to point out that the figure (20 percent of titles written by women) given in The New Republic article is unfair: by only counting one unrepresentative season, rather than a full year of publishing, it gave an unfair view of Melville House’s list.

But leaving aside quibbles, Merians was dismayed that the conversation has not embraced the larger societal issues at play here. It’s not just the ambitious drive of men versus the timidity of women writers. And it’s not simply the bias of editors and those in decision-making positions. Merians wrote, “Leaving out intangibles like encouragement and support, what does a writer need to write and publish a book? A writer needs money, time and access. That is why there are fewer professional female writers … Need I go down the well-worn road here? Study after study says women are paid less (money), do most of the childcare/cooking/cleaning/etc (time), and their professional lives are skewed by these prior points (access).”

She continued, “Publishing is only a small part of the extremely complex and interconnected system known as ‘our culture.’ To truly look at the questions raised by Ruth Franklin with any degree of seriousness, we have to be willing to talk about much, much larger issues.”

The problem is that when these issues are raised, “this stuff touches a very live nerve,” as Merians put it. It was evidenced by the comments on the last piece I wrote on the VIDA statistics — men accusing women of being greedy for power, women writers being defensive about their chosen topics … It seemed impossible to have a simple conversation.

Martin Riker at Dalkey Archive Press expressed frustration that he is not always able to find the kind of writing he would like to publish. Dalkey has a really tremendous list of women in its stable, as he was quick to point out: Dubravka Ugresic, Mina Loy, Christine Montalbetti, Anne Carson, Nathalie Sarraute, among others. These are not only some of the world’s greatest women writers, but some of the world’s greatest writers — no qualifier needed.

Riker wrote to me, “It’s a problem for us and it’s a problem for everyone. It’s a problem in terms of the submissions we get (Danielle, my wife, participated in an online roundtable which I think was actually hosted by VIDA, where she pointed out that even though the press she started [The Dorothy Project] advertises itself as being interested in ‘mostly women,’ she’s still gotten more submissions from men) and it’s a problem in the books that find their way onto the list.”

As this discussion continued, I remembered the announcement for the new publishing imprint Red Lemonade. It’s headed by Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull, and the entire debut list was women. One hundred percent. I wanted to know, with everyone complaining of road blocks to publishing women writers, how the hell he managed that.

“Well, it wasn’t intentional as such, though I was mighty pleased when it happened. I mean, I honestly believe that if you’re trying to pick the best stuff, you’ll pick more stuff by women, because good old-fashioned societal sexism simply means that B+ men get published ahead of A- women. Same would go for any minority, really, all other things being equal.”

As we discussed how he found these women — Lynne Tillman he had published before at Soft Skull, others he was introduced to through colleagues — Nash dismissed the idea that a publishing company is somehow driven by its submissions and its slush pile. Part of the job as publisher is to dig up new talent. “It’s your duty to be proactive, your duty to yourself because you’ll publish better books that way. And be less likely to be stuck with overrated stuff …”

Whether or not publishers can reach parity in their figures next year, there are still those tricky cultural issues at play. And if we don’t acknowledge them, we’re not going to get much further into the conversation. Merians writes, “MIT molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins wrote an essay in 1975 entitled, ‘The high price of success in science,’ in which she says, ‘The intellectual processes involved in ‘real’ science are as natural (or unnatural) to women as they are to men. But ‘professional’ science was constructed by and for men (a certain type of man), and a woman who chooses to conquer this world at its higher echelons usually requires a major overhaul of self and world views.’

“I think this still applies to our culture as much as ever. The challenge remains for both women and men to create a culture whose structures don’t ask women to make ‘a major overhaul of self and world views.’ We’ll keep trying to do our bit. But this is a big one — everybody has to pitch in!”

Further reading:

The literary gender gap [NTK]

Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub discuss the VIDA statistics: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 [Bookslut]

Ruth Franklin on the literary glass ceiling [TNR]


  • Josue

    “It was evidenced by the comments on the last piece I wrote on the VIDA statistics…women writers being defensive about their chosen topics … It seemed impossible to have a simple conversation.” Impossible because your piece also complicated the discussion by how you broached your opinion on these chosen topics. Why bring it up, really? Is it a problem women are writing about, and getting published for writing about, these topics? Is your fear that women aren’t getting published for writing about other topics? Do you want publishers to provide info about the topics by women they publish, and those they don’t? Do you have any evidence in the first place that most work published by women focuses on these topics? If not, why bring up this point? Is your real agenda a dislike of these topics as women’s subjects?

  • KellyA

    I wrote my Master’s thesis in the mid 1990s to discuss how readers learn to prefer male-centric stories, characters, and male authors through the books we are taught — specifically in American Literature classrooms. Think about it: by reading (admittedly great) books like “The Great Gatsby,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men,” etc., we all learn (male AND female readers) to be more comfortable and more familiar with the male literary experience — “lighting out for the territory” rather than negotiating the perils and restrictions of domestic life. In my classroom, I tried to balance stories like “Huck Finn” with “Little Women” but I don’t know if I had much of an impact. Until we integrate more female protagonists, authors, and female-centered stories in our classsrooms, I fear we will always have this bias. Even though women are the largest consumer of books, they have learned to value the male experience over the female…and so the cycle continues.

  • CK

    Josue…it’s not just about the topics, but also the huge number disparity. I don’t think Jessa or any of the people who have continued this conversation have any “agenda” other than figuring out what is at the root of it. This article seeks to address these root causes and the answer seems to be “a lot of different things.” But since you are so stuck on the topics thing, I will say this: when someone first comes across writers like Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan, one might think wow, such strong voices. How empowering. But when these authors become a subgenre unto themselves, what is initially, if one is to consider the author alone, an act of talent and will becomes, in the context of what is allowed through the gates, a little tainted. Someone has put their fingerprints on it and those fingerprints start looking a lot like what is your relationship with your mother…AS AN ASIAN. How do you view the world…AS AN ASIAN. Describe your coming of age…AS AN ASIAN. (Feel free to sub woman or any other demographic in there.) What is this, an anthropological sideshow? So that’s the issue with the “women’s topics” thing. Women aren’t lesser for writing about traditionally womanly things, but when this makes up for the majority of the topics that women are published for, it’s only responsible to ask if there is some sort of bias going on. If things like cultural expectations, sales expectations, what’s up with the writers themselves, and yes, sexism, are in play. Because women ARE interested in a lot of different things. By a small majority, there are more women in college than men. So it stands to reason that there ought to be more women with something to say in a wider range of topics than memoir and motherhood. Again, this is NOT to disparage women who have something to say within those fields, but the numbers don’t quite add up.
    Why bring it up at all, you ask? Well if most of the people who read books are women, don’t you think it’s a little weird that so few women are published? Some questions are uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked. In fact, that’s probably a good sign that they should be asked.
    Anyway, that’s my take on it. I think this is a very interesting problem with no definable answer. I just think it’s really important for people to keep it on the frontburner and I thank those who have been doing so.

  • Josue

    CK, I agree: I am wondering why JC repeatedly brings up the topic issue, here and in her other pieces for NPR and Bookslut, when there are so many other, more pressing concerns in this debate. I only raise it in reaction to how she has phrased it, here and elsewhere.

    I didn’t ask why bring up the gender publishing issue–that’s obvious! Of course we need to discuss the Vida stats, and what they imply. I just posed a series of questions because it doesn’t seem like JC is questioning her own biases or assumptions here. You defend her claim that these topics make up the majority of what women are published for. I’m not sure where she (or you) are getting those stats. If you’re looking at women’s magazines, maybe…. But in literary magazines, that’s not, in my experience, the case, any more than it’s the case that men are published for writing about the same “female” topics (or, for that matter, “traditionally male” topics such as sports etc.). And who am I to know if my “feeling” about those trends is correct? I’m just saying, why make an unsubstantiated claim, here and in her other pieces, as part of her argument? It’s a logical syllogism.

    I worry that women who’ve come of age post-1970s feminism don’t recall the dangers of how easily patriarchal agendas become internalized by women. Sex, marriage, divorce, child care etc–these are the stuff of life, and thousands of hyper-boy writers such as Henry Miller, Raymond Carver, Robert Hass etc. etc. have long made them their mainstay. I don’t think anyone ever then suggested, what about the men who want to write about other, more “serious” topics? Even if JC is suggesting that publishers are the ones forcing this feminized agenda (again, which she has supplied no evidence actually exists), then how is it not absorbing the patriarchal view to call attention to it, and suggest that other (more “male”) topics need to be open to women, as well?

    I absolutely agree that women should be able to write, and publish, on ANY topic–this is the feminism we pushed for in the 1970s. It’s only that JC’s thinking, and statistical backing, on this issue seem muddied, and therefore further muddy the waters.

  • CK

    Now this is an interesting problem because there is a lot – quite a lot – of anecdotal evidence for the topics issue, but how to quantify it? Publishing is so bogglingly huge, how would someone choose a sample? Newspapers would have to be their very own study for the sheer volume there is to sift through. And the researcher would have to make a lot of potentially subjective decisions on which publications to include and exclude and how to judge the work’s topic. There are so many genres and not all of them comparable. I suppose a good starting point would be to look for keywords in the works that were published in these journals to get a tally of who was talking about what. However, and this is the big problem, only analyzing what was published when one of the questions is if publisher/critic biases are affecting what is published and critiqued doesn’t really mean much unless it can be compared against everything that was submitted. I think it is good to demand facts, but I think it is a little dangerous to dismiss an observation – question its existence, even – because there are no percentages. Anecdotally, I could tell you that most sff writers are white and male. No one has crunched the numbers, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree with that observation. Also, it’s not an isolated problem – topic from getting published from being treated seriously from whatever else is at stake. Although I’m glad we agree that women should be able to publish on any topic, I think the question here is ARE they? If you find evidence of bias, you can probably expect it to express itself in more than one way.

    I definitely hear you on the dangers of internalization, but I didn’t see it in any of these pieces. These articles struck me more as worrying that women are getting pigeonholed, if they really are as free to publish on any topic, not accusing them of writing on less serious subjects.
    I don’t know what to say about not examining her own biases…quite a large part of the pieces with Michael Schaub were about the critic’s responsibility to take their own leanings into account.

    (Also, people don’t worry much if men want to write on more “serious” subjects because men can do that without worrying about their gender detracting from their credibility.)

  • josue

    I wasn’t arguing anyone should dismiss observations–they’re a good starting point–but clearly, we should all avoid making rash claims without basis in evidence. That’s bad science, and thinking.

    As for women publishing on multiple topics, it’s fine to ask that question, and to look for reasons *if* evidence is culled and an imbalance found. I’m still concerned, though, that JC brings these ideas front and center, making claims without evidence (which I think indicates personal bias), and doesn’t clarify whether the concern is if women are able to publish on broad topics, or that women are writing more on traditionally female topics. Her syntax in the article she links to suggests the latter, even if that wasn’t her intention.

    I’ve published writing on “hard” news and science in women’s and general magazines and newspapers. I’ve also published essays on both “feminized” topics and “everything else,” (to use JC’s binary) in small-press venues and literary magazines. I’ve reviewed books by women and men in all of the above. I’ve many female friends in the field, and we regularly discuss our work. I’ve never been discouraged from writing on any subject I pitched, been encouraged to write on women’s issues, nor found it more difficult to place my “serious” pieces in any venue. If anything, it’s been much harder to place pieces about traditionally feminine issues and from a female perspective.

    I’ve been a writer in this business for 25 years. Based solely on my personal experience, I’d suspect Nancy Hopkins’ idea, quoted here, is still true all these years later: that the danger STILL is women being expected (by publishers) to write more from a male world view, on “serious” topics, and not being taken as seriously for “feminized” topics written from a female perspective, than the reverse that JC implies is the issue. I do think male perspectives on “serious” topics may carry more clout, in some circles. But again, these are only my own myopic observations.

    Were I, however, to speculate on why I think the VIDA Count is as it is, I would consider my first observations, and the ideas they engender, hypotheses, and run them through the rigor of acquiring evidence, before rushing to claim and innuendo. It’s potentially damaging to speculate without evidence; unsubstantiated claims made on an NPR blog run the risk of becoming authoritative without cause.

    It’s also worrisome that JC has several times placed “feminized” topics in a binary against “serious” topics. This kind of thinking is dangerous, and not a path to greater respect for women’s topics or perspectives. She seems rather defensive about that point, linking to comments from a previous article, and even pairs men’s reactions (women are power-hungry) with women’s reactions(feminized topics ARE serious, and should be considered equally) in her notation as “the problem” with this kind of discussion! I hardly think that raising concerns traditionally female topics are getting the short end in her argument is problematic, in the way it is when anyone–male or female–asserts women who want equal recognition and opportunity are “power-hungry.” Honestly, JC’s own defensiveness does not seem so different than those of publishers elsewhere who claim *they’re* not the problem and pose women–and other sexist men–as the problem blocking this discussion and progress. “Look–the misogyny’s over there….”

    I read JC’s comments on critic’s responsibilities to take their own leanings into account. She admits she leans away from, among other things, science fiction and writing by minorities, but does hire others at Bookslut to fill those gaps. That’s admirable; but it also seems strange to hear someone advocating for women’s writing to say their own leanings are away from work by minorities…who as a group now comprise a hefty chunk (1/3? I’d need a stat on that to make this argument, and were I getting paid as JC does for this comment, I’d sure as hell get it before writing) of our American population–and half of whom are women (and who perhaps deal with many similar concerns and roadblocks). I appreciate her honesty and self-examination, but perhaps she should start reading more minority writers (and women science fiction writers, of whom I know three personally, two quite successful) and asking why she isn’t as interested in what they have to say, especially if she is blogging on topics that affect them intimately.

  • Ngramce131522

    This article was extremely diappointing. Nothing more to be said. Except tell us something we don’t know about the publishing commodity culture and women authors. We’re not stupid.

  • Richard Nash

    Nope, JC is correct. In book publishing women are supposed to write about relationships, loss, divorce. Josue, that’s simply not something than can be expressed in data. A book’s topic is not part of its metadata except in the broadest sense. So the research by its very nature is anecdotal. But you will not find an experienced professional in this industry who would deny Jessa’s point. Women writers who buck that suffer—two articularly established one’s Pulitzer finalist Lydia Millet and NBCC finalist Lynne Tillman both exemplify this phenomenon, which I saw from close up because I published them both.

  • CK

    Whoah, way late! I was looking for another old link and wondered if you’d replied and you did! I probably shouldn’t post since this page is dead, but since it will be available to read until it’s taken down, I might as well. Anyway, I don’t think this post has said anything that hasn’t been replied to, and your insistence that JC is being sexist is starting to look a lot like the “No you!” reply that people who point out inequalities so often run into.

    RE the last paragraph: I see what you did there.