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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]