Sexism in Books (And My Favorite Female Authors)

Happy International Women’s Day! In accordance with the theme of my blog, I want to talk to you about books. Not just any books, though. Books written by women! Many of my favorite books have been written by women, and I think everyone ought to read and enjoy them.

However, that isn’t the only reason I’m here today. I also want to use this celebration of women to highlight an issue that is often seen as “exaggerated” or “antiquated”—inequality in the book business. Sure, almost everyone knows about the Bronte sisters and other women writers of the past publishing under male pseudonyms, but most people think those days are good and gone.

The days of a female writer being snubbed because of her gender are long behind us.

We are evolved.

We are aware.

We are impenetrable fortresses of fairness and equality.

Not quite.  

VIDA is an organization that releases reports every year documenting the representation of men and women in literary publications. Their report for 2014 shows that at several noteworthy literary magazines, only 29% of books reviewed were written by women. At the London Review of Books, 527 male authors and critics filled the pages of their magazine, while only 151 women were given the same right. That is a pretty stark difference.

Maybe men are more interested in literature, you could say. You could say that, but you’d be wrong. A study done in 2009 found that almost 50% of women described themselves as “avid readers” compared with only 26% of men. Furthermore, in every facet women are more likely to buy, read, and enjoy literature (e.g. bookstore clientele, book club participants, book bloggers). I can attest to this phenomenon! I run an Instagram account connected to my blog. I post photos of the books I’m reading and connect with other people who love to read—we call ourselves “Bookstagrammers.” Of the roughly 400 people I follow on Bookstagram, a vast majority of them are female. That isn’t because of some conscious effort to only follow women, but rather a result of the severe lack of male bookstagrammers.

Need more proof? Just seven months ago, Catherine Nichols wrote an article for Jezebel describing the process she went through to publish her novel. She sent out a cover letter with an excerpt of her novel to agents. Upon seeing a low response rate to her excerpt, she decided to send out the same cover letter and the same excerpt of her novel to agents with one change—her name. She changed the name on her submission from Catherine to George. The results were definitive. For every fifty queries Catherine sent out as Catherine, she received two responses. For every fifty queries Catherine sent out as George, she received 17 responses! Turns out, George was a much better writer than Catherine, despite the fact that they wrote the exact same book.

But J.K. Rowling you say? She is a female author and she is filthy rich! Correct. She was also instructed by her publishing company to change her name from Joanne to her initials, J.K. We will never know for sure if Harry Potter would have been as popular had the books been published under her obviously female name, but we can all admit it would be nice to live in a world where it didn’t occur to anyone to ask that question.

Even more damning is the perception of books written by females. In children’s literature, a majority of parents will refuse to buy a book with a female main character for their son with the rationalization that “he won’t be interested in that.” The same stigma extends into young adult and adult literature.

Ever thought about the term “chick lit” before? “Chick Lit” is a term for commercial women’s fiction, often used derogatorily to mean “fluffy and trivial.” Did you ever wonder why there is no equivalent term for commercial fiction written by men? Men, instead, are categorized under Westerns, Sci-Fi, and Horror. You can’t walk into a bookstore and find the Commercial Male Fiction section, because there isn’t one. Books written by and about men are seen as greater than books written by and about women. That isn’t my opinion, it’s a fact. Even Jane Austen, despite her scathing criticism of the way women in the regency era were treated, is seen as fluffy and light. Men, especially, refuse to see her as a serious and important novelist. Her stories are about women in ball gowns and romance, so surely they can’t be taken seriously.

This blog post is about books, but these stigmas exist because of a far-reaching and ever present sexism that has embedded itself into our everyday lives, often in sneaky ways.

I grew up as a tomboy. I played basketball, soccer, softball, and volleyball. I wore my older brother’s clothes, often tucking my hair into a winter hat to make me look more like a boy. No one, my parents included, was concerned by this behavior. I was “spunky” and “tough”. It is okay for a girl to be more like a boy, but ask yourself this: is it equally okay for a boy to be more like a girl? Is it okay for a young boy to play with a Barbie doll or to enjoy styling his hair? Can a boy wear floral shirts or the color pink without catching any flack? I’ve brought up the idea of men carrying saddle bags or messenger bags to many different people (in the same way women carry purses) and have seen universal and instant aversion. Why does this disparity exist? These are the questions we have to ask and answer before we can even begin to understand sexism in the realm of book publishing.

Now, onto the celebration of female authors! Below are some of my favorite books by female authors, and books by female authors I look forward to reading. Books with as much insight, clarity, and sharp-tongued prose as any man could offer!

 

Books I’ve Loved

1) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

2) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

3) Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

4) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

5) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

6) Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

7) Emma by Jane Austen

8) A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

 

Books I look forward to reading

1) You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

2) Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

3) Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

4) White Teeth by Zadie Smith

5) The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

6) The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

7) The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

8) Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

 

Who are your favorite female authors? What do you think about my thoughts on sexism in publishing? Agree or disagree, let me know in the comments!
 

Happy Reading,

Mallory