Sunday, March 10, 2013
Women (and men), revisited
There's something about charts. You can list statistics, you can have gut feelings, you can suspect... but nothing hits harder and proves a point more strongly than a good series of graphs and charts. And so I urge readers to look over VIDA's yearly summary of book reviews from major publications. It's illuminating, and not in a good way.
Now that you're back (and possibly as angry as I am), let's have a little chat about this. Because seriously - what. We often talk about "imbalances" and "subtle sexism" and all sorts of other neutral concepts, but VIDA's statistics make it really hard to shy away from the truth. And the truth is that something is seriously skewed with the literary world. Look at those numbers - for the most part they don't even approach 50% in the authors reviewed sections and the reviewer gender polls don't show much better results. What's truly shocking is how consistent this is. There is no example of a review outlet that employs more women reviewers than men, and scant examples of publications that has reviewed an equal number of books by men and by women.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: I don't like to rely too much on statistics. I love numbers, but it's too easy to get caught up in one-sided beliefs when relying entirely on percentages. So though most of these reviewed books may be written by men, that does not necessarily mean that the publications are automatically sexist. That these books are mostly written by men doesn't mean that there aren't strong women within their pages, it doesn't mean that these books are also all about men.
The statistics do, however, mean that books by women are not getting the same attention as books by men. That review publications do not employ many women. And that the problem, despite being one I first heard about three years ago, is still thriving.
We can lay the blame anywhere. We can say it's the fault of publishers for marketing books by and about women as exclusively for women. We can say it's the fault of literary publications, who clearly prefer men in the position of reviewer, despite the fact that women tend to read more than men. We can say it's the fault of reviewers for believing that men writing about family life is timeless while women writing about family life is fluff. We can say readers are at fault for buying into all this nonsense. We can lay the blame anywhere and everywhere, and we should. This is a joint effort. Two years ago I commented that these stats and the general dismissal of women writers for literary awards was not outright sexism. At the time, this was the right thing to say: one outlying year of skewed reading is unfortunate but doesn't say much. Two is a reason for taking note. Three is already a trend. We have a trend of male-preference in literature. Something needs to change, and we have a role to play in that. It's time we take it more seriously.