Wednesday, February 09, 2011

About that gender gap...

Interesting piece on Salon today by Laura Miller, reflecting on the Vida survey on women in literary publications. Bottom line: the most respected journals in the country have far fewer female contributors than male, and review far fewer books by women than by men.

This is an old story, as Miller points out. But Ruth Franklin and her colleagues at The New Republic took a closer look at the numbers, and confirmed what many already suspected: the root problem is that fewer books by women are being published, despite the fact that women continue to buy and read far more books than men do.

However, as Miller explains: "If women were only -- or even primarily -- interested in books by women, the logic of the marketplace would dictate that publishers should release more titles by female authors." But it doesn't, because women are willing to read books by men; whereas the reverse...not so much.

That's certainly true in my case. My own Borrowed Fire series provides a most egregious example--which does bug me, but thus far not enough (and this is most telling) to make much of an effort to be more inclusive. These days, apart from BF, I'm reading popular science books rather than fiction, and I am pleased to report that the one I'm currently reading, Einstein's Telescope, is by a woman, Evalyn Gates. But I'm trying to remember a contemporary novel by a woman that I've really enjoyed recently, and keep coming up with Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances--which I read two years ago.

Since then I have read at least one other contemporary novel by a woman, a major award winner, which I won't name because, well, I didn't really like it that much. I mean, it was fine. It did what it set out to do, which was explore the complex intergenerational dynamics of a family. The characters and situations felt precise and real, impressively so. But. That subject matter in and of itself just doesn't interest me. I'm sure that's partly because my own life doesn't really mesh with that pattern; at any rate, what's currently called "women's fiction" or "book-club fiction" for the most part doesn't grab me. I want a stranger reading experience--odder structures, more far-out themes. Even *if* a family story remains at the center. (See The Brothers Karamazov.)

I remember reading a review of Atmospheric Disturbances that commented on--or marveled--at the fact that women don't often write novels like this, with unreliable narrators and scientific, even science-fictional premises. Actually, I think the reviewer was making the point that women may very well write books like this, but they don't often get published. Women writers are largely funneled into the category of "women's fiction," i.e. domestic, realistic fiction, whereas I suspect men are not at all constrained in this manner. Which means women who have other tastes will end up reading male authors to satisfy them.

On Vida, Percival Everett points out (as others have before him) that had a woman written Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, it would have been received and packaged very differently. I can definitely picture that. Instead of "the Great American Novel," "a sweeping saga of American life," or whatever, it might have been called "a heartbreaking tale of a mother struggling with her wayward child, unsatisfying marriage, and a brutal secret from her past." And I probably would not have wanted to read it. Mind you, I myself have not yet read Freedom, although I dearly loved The Corrections--I think mainly for its intricacy and its complex voice, though I can't be certain that if it had been packaged as "women's fiction" I wouldn't have liked it less. (I also liked the DeLillo-esque drug that was all things to all people. A little sci-fi touch always helps for me.)

So what can be done? Are female readers (and writers) like me just oddballs, outliers of the literary marketplace? As long as that market keeps generating money for those who already have it, change will be more a matter of principle than of economic pressure.

But I, for one, will make more of an effort to seek out non-"women's fiction" by women.

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