Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Numbers Don't Lie

There's been a ruckus in the literary world over recent VIDA statistics, showing the disparity between how many women are published or reviewed in publications versus men. The numbers are quite shocking, and sure enough, do not lie.

I know there are many factors to consider, and it's not all point-blank sexism on the part of the editors. But all the same, it's hard to imagine that these numbers accurately reflect the number of female authors vs male authors that are submitting their work... or just plain exist. Or for that matter, the bias of the publications' readers to read the work of one gender over another.

I was curious to see if I tended to read women authors over men (or vice-versa), so I did a tally of what books I've read 2009 to present. Expecting a fair, 50/50 split, I was not disappointed. Out of 55 books, 26 were by female authors, and 29 by men. So it was a 47/53 split. Not too bad. (Although, since I'm simultaneously reading Bret Easton Ellis, Vonnegut and Palahniuk at the moment, I'm about to butch things up considerably).

The author's gender is just something I never really consider when picking out a book. Although it can have some effect on my interpretation while reading. Ever get all the way through a novel and find out the author isn't the gender you were expecting? For the longest time I thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman. Whoops! For shame. And I'm sure there have been some confused George Eliot readers out there.

But George Eliot's name brings up a good point -- that was her pen name. It still sticks today, even though the Brontes are no longer known as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell. And J.K. Rowling? Her publisher decided to use the gender-neutral pen name for fear boys wouldn't read a female author. And that fear isn't anything new. I remember in middle and high school (granted the schools I went to were shitty), every single piece of literature assigned to us was by a male author. Call of the Wild, Huckleberry Finn, Fahrenheit 451, Oedipus Rex, Othello... All of which, I'm guessing, were part of some last ditch attempt to get boys interested in reading. Which is all well and good, but who is to say they wouldn't have equally loved To Kill a Mockingbird? The Haunting of Hill House? The Earthsea Series? Meanwhile, us girls were just expected to accept and deal with the constant sausage party of Melville, Hemingway, and Twain. Thank god for my library card.

The point is, I don't believe in the age-old notion that men can't/won't/don't read work by women authors. And even if it's partially, or immediately true, not publishing female authors or hiding their gender isn't helping anything. It perpetuates the problem. After all, if there are only male or apparently gender-neutral authors being published, then that's all your readership CAN read. It will be what they're USED to reading. And then that will be all they WILL read.

Help yourselves out, publishers. You're out to make a quick buck now, but it will backfire. Look towards the future and you can make a fortune. (There's a whole other half of the population out there! Who knew!?)


  1. That's an interesting question of which gender a person reads more. If I went back through my lists, they probably would lean more toward male authors. I enjoy mysteries, thrillers, horror, and fantasy the best, although I'll give about anything a try. Particularly thrillers and horror don't have quite as many female authors as do mysteries and fantasy. Romance genre is predominately written by females, although I've heard some males will use a female name when they write romance because they want females to read their books. It goes both ways, but in the end, a well-written book is a well-written book. I don't care what gender you are.

  2. If I remember correctly, the author of "The Outsiders" tried to neutralize her name for the same reasons (Susan Eloise Hinton becomes S.E. Hinton).

    I would not be surprised if 95% of the books I've read have been written by men. I don't think it happened intentionally -- not post-being-a-12-year-old-boy, anyway.

    As I think about the books I had to read in school, though, a few were written by women: "The Outsiders," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Underground to Canada," and (so I just found out) "My Side of the Mountain".

    Focusing on Shakespeare can really hinder what is read. (As one might expect!) And can really make a person not want to read, if you ask me.

  3. Unintentionally leaning towards one gender (or race, nationality, etc.) is bound to happen as a reader. Some genres naturally lean toward one type of author. Well, one could argue with the term "naturally," but either way...yes, it happens.

    The real shame is for the publishers, reviewers, and educators who fail to provide readers and students with a fair representation of all the literature available to them.

    I agree with you on Shakespeare. If the first thing you throw at a reluctant reader is 400 year old prose, of course they're going to throw up their arms and say "fuck it."

    And thanks for following me!

  4. You're welcome! I've been considering throwing-down and following you for a few weeks now, but it just occurred to me that I already had an account... Meaning I didn't have to muster the energy needed in order to care enough to sign up for something!