Sexism Between the Pages

An Ampelmädchen street light at a pedestrian crossing in Dresden, Germany, via WikiCommons

An Ampelmädchen street light at a pedestrian crossing in Dresden, Germany, via WikiCommons

Late last year a US-based organisation advocating for women in the literary arts, VIDA, surveyed major UK and US literary publications such as the London Review of Books, The Atlantic and The New Republic. They counted how many women wrote for the publication, how many women reviewed books, and how many books by women were reviewed relative to books by men. The numbers show what many of us have suspected or known for a while: women are underrepresented on every level in these publications.

The stats are published online in the form of pie charts, and there’s something peculiarly poignant about seeing them broken down in this way: the small blue female slice, often scandalously slim, in a big red pie. The New York Review of Books last year published 79 women and 462 men; The Times Literary Supplement reviewed books by 330 women and 1036 men; The Paris Review interviewed one woman author and seven men. That’s a small slice.

Australian publications don’t fare much better. Books editors from The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed on a recent episode of The Book Show were all surprised to discover that their pages showed a comparable bias. If you picked up the Australian Literary Review last week you would have been faced with an illustration of a cranky John Curtin staring out from the front cover, surrounded by a list of highlights inside the issue: without exception, they take the form “male writer on male writer”. A glance at the contents list inside reveals two women contributors out of fifteen overall, and one review of a book by a woman writer. I wrote an open letter to Luke Slattery, the editor of ALR, last week, asking for his views on the issue.

Editors of the VIDA-canvassed journals have been mostly defensive. Ruth Franklin at The New Republic faulted presses for not publishing enough books by women. TLS editor Peter Stothard articulated an attitude similar to the one critiqued by Jodi Picoult last year, when Picoult complained about the attention lavished on white male literary writers in the pages of The New York Times: “while women are heavy readers,” Stothard admitted to The Guardian, “we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS” which simply publishes, he claims, “the best reviews of the most important books.”

Since the beginning of the novel, women have been closely associated with it as readers and writers of the genre, but attached to the most derogated and supposedly corrupting forms of fiction such as romance (think Emma Bovary). It’s a persistent form of sexist thinking, mixed up with value judgments about what kind of books count as important literature, but it’s still rare to see it so openly and uncritically expressed.

TLS aside, it’s hard to imagine to that editors are sitting around congratulating themselves on successfully excluding women from the literary world. Some of the most sophisticated discussion of the issues raised by the VIDA stats has taken place on the literary site Bookslut, where two of the editors, Jessica Crispin and Michael Schaub, initiated an exchange of ideas on the topic, exploring the complexity of the unconscious biases that shape our gut reactions to books, without recourse to a rhetoric of blame or shame.

Editors like to complain that women writers and reviewers pitch less than men. This may well be true: after all, what woman in her right mind would look at the ALR each month and think “I belong here”? There’s no way around it: if we want a bigger slice of the pie, we need to ask; it will not be handed to us any other way. The ALR is one of the few outlets that actually pays decent money per word; it’s national, with a huge distribution: it should be obvious that women are entitled to be an equal part of the public intellectual conversation to which its editor aspires.

My first novel was published last year (it was widely reviewed) and I started paying a different sort of attention to these questions. In particular, I noticed with dismay how few women are nominated for major literary awards. In the past 20 years the Miles Franklin has been won by only four women. Several state Premier’s literary awards last year included no women writers on their fiction shortlists. The exception is the recent Prime Minister’s awards, where Eva Hornung won the fiction category with her novel Dog Boy. It’s not all gloomy: I like to think the future belongs to the young women starting to shape the literary landscape, such as Angela Meyer’s super-sharp Crikey blog LiteraryMinded and the editors of the new little magazine Kill Your Darlings. And now after all these metaphors I’m seriously hungry for a decent sized piece of pie.

Kirsten Tranter is a Sydney writer. Her first novel, The Legacy, was published internationally in 2010.

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