This Monday was International Women’s Day. A day that is dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is a day to highlight and challenge the disparity between the genders. A time to call for equality. As people in the book community, it is also a time to celebrate and champion female writers. As such, those of you on Instagram will no doubt have noticed plenty of amazing female centric content cropping up in your feed. There was one post that really caught my eye and prompted me to write this post. The caption started with the age-old question:
Do you preferentially read books by women or men?
I, obviously, responded in my normal pretentious and, probably, obnoxious way, which I won’t go into yet because it would negate the need to write this post. Instead, I want to focus on most replies. They consisted of a sentiment that went along the lines of “I don’t care about the gender of the writer. It’s all about the story.” There’s nothing wrong with this idea in theory but it’s an attitude that I do think we need to change. And I’ll tell you why.
Remember back in early 2020 when Stephen King complained about people calling for diversity at the Oscars? I wrote about it in article last year and discussed the reason why people were so annoyed by it. You could call this post a rehash because it’s the exact same sentiment. I understand the intentions of the people who replied to the question “do you prefer male or female authors?” by exclaiming that they don’t care about gender. For much of my reading life, I’ve picked up books that sounded interesting to me without even looking at who the author is. I didn’t think about who I was listening to, just what I was listening to. I wasn’t thinking about the wider consequences of my actions and thought I was doing the unbiased thing. I was wrong and so are the people who replied to that question.
To approrpiate the words of my boy, Aragorn:
I see in their response the same desire that once propelled me.
A day may come when the gender of a writer won’t matter. When you can pick up a book for the story or wiring alone. But it is not this day.
An hour of equality and proportional representation when all voices are heard. But it is not this day.
Sorry, if you feel that was a bit melodramatic but it will hopefully highlight the sheer fantasy world that those people are living in. I’m not trying to be mean because, as I said, I used to be that person. Instead, I’m trying to make a point about the futile nature of being gender blind. Or race, sexuality, disability blind. The people who say “I don’t see the gender of the writer” have the same attitude to their book selection as the people who shout “not all men” do towards feminism. Or the people who quote “all lives matter” in the face of anti-racism. They are ignoring the issues that are inherent in the system.
As you can easily tell, I’m a bit of a feminist. I used to work in catering, which is a very male dominated profession. As such, I’ve had to argue about gender politics for many years. I’ve heard a lot of sexist and misogynistic crap over the years but one of the worst takes I’ve ever heard was “I don’t believe in feminism. I’m a humanist.” Great. So, you believe that all human beings should be equal? Well, I’ve got some news for you buddy, you are a feminist. The issue with the humanist argument is that human beings aren’t equal. It’s the equality vs equity debate. If you have 3 people of varying financial stability and a pile of money to hand out, what would the fairest way to do it? Equality would suggest giving everyone the same amount but that means the richest person still has more. Therefore, the idea of equality is a fallacy. Equity, on the other hand, would divide the money based on needs. This is the only way to ensure a fair outcome for everyone.
But how does this relate to publishing? The fact is white men are still the dominant force within the literary world. Yes, there may be more women being published these days, but it’s still not weighted evenly. And don’t get me started on racial diversity. We’ll be here for hours. The fact is white men get way more attention for writing books than any other gender or race combination. It’s arguably easier for white men to get published and they certainly get huge marketing campaigns. Then there are the literary prizes and best seller lists. In certain genres, you’d think that there were no female writers creating content but there are. They’re just not considered as good or literary as the men. The fact is, if you fail to take gender into account, you will easily find yourself lost in a sea of stories written by white men. The gender balance within the literary world is askew and the only way that it has any chance of being corrected is if people buy fewer books by white men.
I couldn’t find (okay, barely attempted to find) stats about how many men vs women get published these days but I did find this article about The Gender Balance of The New York Times Best Seller list. Looking at the unique books for each year going up to 2016, it found that the list has always been heavily biased towards men. The only time the list was truly equal was in 2001 when women made up 50%. It then dipped back down before heading back to 48% in 2016. As of 2020, the gender ratio around the world was slightly in favour of men. There around 101.7 men to every 100 women. So, I guess, in terms of proportional representation, we’re doing okay. However, in the 1950s, women outnumbered men. The gender ratio was 99.7 males to every 100 women. So, why then, was the New York Times Best Seller list favouring male writers at 72% to 28%? Let’s be honest, it’s the same reason for all gender issues: the patriarchy. Have you ever wondered why the Western canon is full of dull white men? Why so many of the most prolific authors in history are dull white men? It’s because dull white men got to decide which books were read. The literary canon is just another patriarchal tool used to promote the idea that men are superior to women. But how you might be asking?
Think about it for a second. Before women were given the freedom to decide things for themselves, they were constantly under the control of a man. When they were younger, that man was their father or guardian. Once they were married, that man was their husband. This man could easily dictate every aspect of a woman’s life, including what they read. Now, no man wants their daughter or wife getting ideas above their station, so why risk allowing them to read the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft? Not when they can read books about good young women settling down and popping out babies every few years. Certain writers have been forgotten about because they weren’t being read. They weren’t being read because men didn’t want them to be read. The reason that writers like Dickens have survived isn’t because they were the best writers around but because they were allowed to survive. The reason that Jane Austen is one of the most prolific female writers of her time isn’t because she’s the best. It’s because she didn’t rock the boat. (Sorry Austen fans. I’m not saying she wasn’t feminist, but she did end up reinforcing the status quo in her books.)
But, surely, over the years somebody would realise and change things? No. The problem with the literary canon is that it constantly reinforces itself. As we grow up, we’re told that these male writers are the best. So, when we get older, we too will refer to them as the best writers. It’s an endless cycle. If you’re told something enough, it’s going to stick. Something I saw as an A Level student when I dared to question the presence of Charles Dickens on my syllabus. I’m not here for him. He’s not that great a writer. Yet, you try and mention that in a classroom and you’ll be shunned. Though, really, I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t like these writers. It’s just that we shouldn’t be dismissing other writers and other voices in favour of theirs. Let’s go back to the Jane Austen argument again. I’ve already dedicated a blog to female writers from the same period who I believe are better than she is. I know that I’m biased because I don’t care for her books but that’s not to say I’m wrong. How many Austen fans have read anything by Mary Robinson and Helen Maria Williams? How do they really know that Austen is the best female writer of that period? Because she’s the only one anybody talks about. Why? Because the canon is made up of books that weren’t considered dangerous to the patriarchy. Why else would the women of the Romantic period advocating for women’s rights be forgotten about when they were celebrated in their own time?
It’s getting late and I’ve been arguing about this for too long, so I’ll make my final point. On Saturday, I posted a photo of my Folio Society edition of The Last Man by Mary Shelley. It’s a book that I like to bring up as often as I can because, so few people have read it. Yet, I’m positive that many people out there would consider Frankenstein one of their favourite books. Mary Shelley is really only known for writing one book despite having authored several other books. They’re just never spoken about. I admit, this could be down to the fact that those books are now out of fashion. She wrote a few histories that I’ve not dared tackle, so can see why they might be unread. The reason I wanted to mention Shelley is because of how the canon treated her in general. Frankenstein is arguably one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever written but what has been the greatest debate surrounding it? The question of who really wrote it. Yep, there are still people in the world who would happily argue that young Mary didn’t write the masterpiece herself but that her husband Percy did. Or that she stole the idea from someone else. Yep, not only has the literary canon thrown her other works into oblivion but it has tried as hard as it possibly can to take this away from her as well.
So, next time you consider trying a bit of gender blind book shopping, think of all the women who we’ve spent years ignoring. Think of all the women who are being underrepresented or who aren’t being talked about enough. Yes, you might have the idealistic approach, but life is anything but ideal. If you want a truly equal publishing industry, then you’ll need to help us with the equitable part. It’s not a case of preferential treatment for women but a case of showing the world there is a demand for female stories to be heard.
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