On the coattails of this year’s mayonnaise, all-purpose baking flour white Oscars (which is completely ridiculous, but I can only sanely handle one major equality issue per post without going completely postal), I stumbled across an article written by the author Catherine Nichols’ article, Homme de Plume, in which she discussed an experience she had in submitting one of her manuscripts under a male pseudonym. (inspired by these studies from PNAS and NEBR.) Her experiment had astonishing, disheartening results. After sending out 50 copies of her manuscript & cover letter, two requests were sent back in return. In stark contrast, when she sent 50 copies of the exact manuscript & cover letter pair, it was requested 17 times, a far cry from the 1 in 25 track record it had while under a female author’s name.
Now, I’ve always known that writing and publishing has been a male dominated world, but it wasn’t until i read the article and started doing some extra digging that I found out exactly how skewed it was.
Women, world-wide, have been found to be: 1. more well read than men, and 2. more avid readers than their male counterparts. (See various studies done by The Telegraph, NPR, and Pew Research Center) However, women continue to make up 40% or less of the authors, critics, reviewers, and publishers (See this study done by Vida). Far from a new development, this has, unfortunately, been the case since the beginning. An article that is now almost 20 years old has reached internet fandom over the past several years after the magazine it was originally published in digitized it. “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” written in 1998 by by Francine Prose in Harper’s Weekly, attacked the idea of “gynobibliophobia” or, the illogical dislike of a novel merely because the hand that held the pen was female.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the writers of the past were only too glad to express such ideas. If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:
I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque,maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.
Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a “hyena in petticoats” to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Brontë as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that “this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers. . . . ” More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, “Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,” and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s “bitchiness” and “relentless cattiness,” terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.
Continuing, she provides the reader of anonymous samples of works written by various sexes as a test- can you really tell the gender of a writer by the words on a page? (spoiler: you can’t)
To be up front and honest: I, too, even as recent as a year ago, was quite gendered in my reading, declaring to a group of friends that I just never ended up liking books written by female authors, regardless of if I knew who’d penned it or not. Looking back, I saw my error in judgement: the women I’d been reading were all from the same genre or two, so of course the writing style was semi-comparable.
These are the reasons why my 2016 resolutions is a list of one: each book I pick up must be written by a woman. Not only will this introduce me to amazing writers I’ve yet to discover, but it will also be a way of showing the disparity in the letters. However, this is only putting my small, handheld, and somewhat dim spotlight on just one of the issues in publishing. Disparities between cisgender & transgender, able & disabled, and the cultural divide is still extremely apparent. I’ll site Vida’s 2015 study again, where they conducted studies on WOC, sexuality, trans women, and authors with a disability in publishing as a whole. (For those who’ve never heard of Vida, they are a research driven organization aimed at increasing attention to women’s writing and gender equality in literary culture.)
We grew up with the phrase, “never judge a book by its cover,” so why isn’t that true for the author? You’re opening their book, not their legs. You’re being wooed by their writing, not the author themselves.
Sources- A List:
Books about women don’t win big awards: some data