Thursday, July 31, 2014

Women in Literature | An essay

Over the years I've been involved in literary review, I've said and written many different things about women writers, and particularly in recent months about women writers in translation. I've discussed possible differences in men and women's writing, a young adult literary culture that courts young women so passionately it alienates young men, VIDA statistics about women reviewers, writers espousing clearly sexist beliefs, gendered marketing, and most recently the striking gap between men and women writers when it comes to literary translations into English. There are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation. My thoughts and ideas have evolved with time, often momentarily contradicting each other and occasionally living in an outrightly discordant land. The matter of gender - and gender equality - in literature has fascinated me for years, but never has it been more important to me than now. Nor, I think, more important for the broader literary community.

But numbers alone do not indicate why this is a problem, nor do they reconcile the seeming contradictions between my own arguments against the imbalance, and any reasoning for fighting. Simply put: why does it matter? What difference does it make if - as I claim - there is no tangible distinction between men and women writers?

A brief history of literary suppression

One of the books recommended to me when I began the Women in Translation project was Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in literary gender dynamics, feminism, or literature in general. Russ's premise for the book is that as long as there have been women writers - and she makes a point of emphasizing that as long as there has been literature, there have been women writers - there has been a male-dominated literary culture that has attempted to discredit their works. Her examples are largely Anglo-American and mostly post-18th century, yet they paint a fascinating portrait of a broader culture. Sadly, despite having been written in the 1970s, Russ's academic take-down is still depressingly relevant today. While women writers are now taught in schools and university courses, you will still find that they are taught significantly less, and that the group of women writers who have been accepted into the "canon" is very sharply focused on a handful of Anglo-American women. You'll also still find professors who disparage women's writing, and refuse to teach their works (or works by writers of color).

Russ's arguments hinge on two key points:
  1. Women write.
  2. The initial response by the literary elite will always be an attempt to discredit that woman's writing.
I do Russ a great disservice by whittling her points down to these two generalizations. Russ goes into greater detail about the methods by which academics long attempted to dismiss women writers, whether because of genre, relationships with other men, outright falsehoods (did you all know that Charlotte Brontë wrote only one book? Villette and others clearly don't exist), and a pervasive self-fulfilling prophecy about what qualifies as literature.

Do men and women really write differently?

One of our great claims in the fight against literary sexism is that there is no difference between the writing of a man and the writing of a woman. I have even gone so far as to sarcastically suggest that perhaps "men's upper body strength makes them better suited to describing dew drops on a leaf". On the other hand, we argue that women need to be better represented, because they provide us with dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory claims is surprisingly easy, and apparently critical in this discussion when responding to angry cries about imposed equality.

On the surface, on a purely technical level, when it comes down to letters and words: men and women write the same. There is no difference between when a man writes the sentence "and he slowly lifted his head to behold the sky" versus when a woman writes "and his eyes rose upwards, beholding the sky". Readers cannot actually recognize the gender of an author based on excerpts, and writing as a concept has no gender bias.

But writing as a construct does.

Let me be clear: there are differences between men and women, but these differences are not neatly divided, nor are they explicitly defined. It's much more accurate to look at a spectrum, in which almost everyone crosses the so-called gender lines. This is true of literature as well, in as much as there are certain "traits" that are more commonly interesting and relevant to women, while other fields are more traditionally associated with men, yet neither of these is ever actually exclusive. I'll also point out that while I am writing about gender as something strictly binary, I understand that many do not define themselves in this way.

Today, marketing for traditionally male genres (such as a sci-fi) is occasionally done with an eye for male readers (occasionally), yet it is understood and accepted (and expected) that women will move beyond the marketing to pick up the books. Meanwhile, women writers are ghettoized in their "own" genre ("Women's fiction"). Women are expected to read broadly, by both men and women writers (if they don't, they are haughtily called misandrists), while men can easily read only books by white men (and just be called: sticking to the "canon"). This odd dynamic is important for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later.

These are ultimately marketing choices, but we cannot separate marketing from the larger culture surrounding it. We do not live and do not read within a vacuum. A culture that largely supports men while finding women to be "the exception" will not suddenly embrace books by women. To deny the background sexism that fills our culture and our world is to simply close one's eyes. All of the sexism that we see in literature exists in exactly the same format in film, television, business, science, and just about every other aspect of our society. This means that a great part of the difference between men and women's writing is entirely in how we package our books and ideas. To rephrase the most common and sharply on-point example of this: When a woman writes about the family and home life, she is writing niche. When a man writes about family, it's universal. Another fine example: Women write romances, men write dramas.

Yet we are still left wondering - what is the real difference? Is it all constructed, all society-based, all in our heads? The answer is unequivocally no. If it were the case, there really would be no difference if men were writing or women were writing. The fact that we care, the fact that we fight for this, the fact that we demand this equality is a strong indicator that some distinction exists.

That distinction is different experiences.

Men and women experience the world differently, socially and biologically. Our hormones ultimately determine our emotions, our reactions, our behaviors, and our experiences. To take the most glaringly obvious example, childbirth is an entirely different experience for men than it is for women. These are experiences that shape people, and all of that influences writing. Literature is, after all, deeply personal. The differences between men and women are enough to explain why a balance is needed between the two.

What then is literature?

We have concluded that there are certain differences between men and women, and also that there are bigger issues with our culture surrounding those issues. Some of it has to do with dismissing women's experiences as trivial (for example women writing about raising children is pedantic, or women writing about sexual violence is feminist-niche), but much of it has to do with a long, long history of, as Russ puts it, "suppressing" women's writing. A more accurate description would be, I think, "dismissing" women's writing.

As established earlier, women have always written literature. The very first novel was written by a woman - and a Japanese woman at that. Women have always had important roles in history and culture, yet when looking over lists of "classics" - lists which serve as the basis for many peoples' reading choices - you see that women writers have only recently begun making their way onto these lists, and in my experience rarely comprise of more than 25% (and that 25% is only achieved if nearly every single one of Jane Austen's novels are included...). Furthermore, while you'll see plenty of non-Anglo-American men on these lists (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Dumas, Goethe, I can go on...), you will rarely if ever see women in translation (particularly on Anglo-American lists).

These lists reflect what the literary perception of the "canon" is at this time. This is because the concept of the canon is entirely subjective - fluid, changing and terribly defined. Some lists include Emile Zola and George Eliot, others include Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, others have already opened their gates to J. K. Rowling and Halldor Laxness. The lists are eclectic, often entirely dependent on the country of origin and ultimately do little more than shed light on, again, what we perceive is the canon.

And right now, we perceive that canon as almost exclusively male. We perceive literature through the filter of male experiences and through centuries of defining art in the context of men. We can't ignore that, we can't disconnect that, and we can't pretend like it doesn't affect us. As a result, women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history (Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few).

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to read more "classics", to start reading like a grown-up. It didn't seem strange to me that I preferred for people to see that I was reading War and Peace as opposed to Sense and Sensibility, nor did it strike me as odd that I automatically rated those typical canon classics as more "serious" than those few books written by women that had been lucky enough to get published under the moniker of "classic".

It has taken me many years to reach this point where I can recognize how the canon has shaped my reading. It has taught me that certain experiences are worth more than others. It has taught me that there is an "objective" metric of literature, and how to define good books according to it. It has taught me which books are serious and which frivolous (this largely supported by literary journals, reviews, reviewers and publisher attitudes).

So it is no surprise that the year is 2014, and I am only just realizing that I have been letting other people determine for me what is a good book.

Bring on the pitchforks: Philip Roth is not a good author, but Hilary Mantel is. Javier Marías's The Infatuations is a pleasant enough book, but Yoko Ogawa's Revenge is simply stunning. Young-Ha Kim got all the attention at the London Book Fair, but Sun-mi Hwang blows him out of the water without a backwards glance. Everyone has by now heard of Knausgård, but who knows of his talented compatriot Merethe Lindstrøm? We know Roberto Bolaño, but what of Carla Guelfenbein?

Responses, denial, and why it's important

The above will have rankled some of you. Some will argue that the male writers I have listed here are actually some of the very best, and others will argue that the women here are clearly subpar. These are discussions we will always have and should have. Swap out each of the women's names with those of other men, and we'd have the exact same argument. It's one based on literary tastes and styles and personal opinions. This is great; this is what literary criticism is all about.

But I chose women for a reason. That's because as much as many people would like to close their eyes and plug their ears, there is a clear, glaring problem in publishing right now. And that problem is not the lack of women writers in translation (though that is without a doubt a problem). No.

The problem is the flat-out denial from most publishers. Denial, mixed with sexism, and a hefty dose of elitism.

In today's internet connected age, I can - in 140 characters - link to a review of a book I read, share it with the publisher, and within minutes have it shared to all of their followers. This happens. Constantly. But in today's internet connected age, I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.

So pay close attention, because these are the publisher responses I've gotten to this project:
  1. Nothing
  2. Sexist rant
  3. Nothing
  4. Nothing
  5. Nothing
I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers, and finally told, and I quote directly (though obviously somewhat out of context): "The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women." And all this in the single email response that a publisher deigned to send me.

At this point, I will praise the wonderful response from And Other Stories. After my tweet to them about the project, they acknowledged their gender imbalance in translation and have made real efforts to improve their catalog. This is the sort of publisher response we deserve.

No more

So this is where we stand. Armed with the understanding that a problem exists and ready (I hope) to do something about it, the inevitable question remains: What can we do?

We do this. We discuss.

We do not boycott these small, independent publishers because of their imbalance, but we make our voices heard. We do not point fingers (even when we'd like to), but we hope that by discussing the problems, they might understand them as well. We do not scream, but we shout. We do not kick, but we fight.

We do not impose, but we ask. We do not demand, but we challenge.

We do not pretend like this issue is black and white, or like it is the only battle. We do not act as though it's the simplest matter in the world, or that the solution we think is obvious will work for everyone. We do not belittle, we do not simplify, we do not dismiss. But we say, "No more."

12 comments:

  1. I'm thinking about joining WIT month, Biblibio, but whether I eventually do or not I look forward to following the discussions. On that note, aIthough I think you provide a lot of food for thought in this essay, I think you oversimplify some of your arguments and assertions. Claiming that "women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history" is probably the biggest objection I have to what you've written but maybe not for the reasons you'd expect. First, whose literary history are you talking about? This varies by country and century and reader. Also, your examples of "Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, [and] Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few" aren't exactly unknown entities to students of French literature, Japanese literature, Italian literature, Mexican or Latin American literature, or comp lit; claiming that they've been weeded out of "our literary history," especially since De Ledda won the Nobel Prize, strikes me as at best a reach and at worst as just inaccurate. Furthermore, there's no reason to accept the alleged canonicity of a writer without skepticism. As far as whether Carla Guelfenbein deserves to be translated as much as or as highly regarded by some as Roberto Bolaño, that may well be; however, you could just as easily make the same point by replacing her name with a yet to be translated into English Chilean male author. Is her lack of literary reputation thus gender driven discrimination or market driven discrimination or something else entirely? Finally, just out of curiosity, who are you claiming is the first (Japanese and female) novelist? Is it The Tale of Genji novelist, an early novelist indeed, or somebody who predates the male authors--sometimes considered to be novelists--Apuleius and Petronius from classical Greece and Rome? Sorry for the long comment--you cover a lot of ground in your essay, but there were parts that were less convincing than others to me.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! This is exactly the sort of discussion I was hoping for. Just by reading and thinking about WITMonth. you're already participating. I've roped you in with my wiley ways. Oh, and I apologize that I'll be writing a mini-essay here. But it's my blog, so...

      I'll start by responding to the comparisons bit: I'm fully aware that you can swap the women's names with those of other men. That's not the point. What I'm pointing to here is the overwhelming inclination to place male writers on these pedestals while women writers are left out. This is true in lit in translation (where almost all of the big hits have been by men), and this is true of Anglo-American literature.

      My argument is that you cannot view the lack of women writers in translation as separate from the lack of women sci-fi writers, or of women on the Man Booker longlist, or of women reviewed in literary journals. These are all the same problem. How can we argue that it's market-driven when these demands are so consistent? How can we separate the market from our society? You don't have to agree right now, but I encourage you to think on it. It's a lot harder to brush this away once you really look at the statistics and once you really look at the big picture.

      As for classics, I'm writing in English for an English audience... yes, the Anglo-American standard often omits a lot. The French canon may be a bit better (even though French literary awards are notoriously given to men), and the Spanish canon will also likely include more women who will never appear in English, but that's partly the point. Male writers cross the canon-border easily... how often do women?

      Look at La Monde's 100 Books of the Century: 12 women. ZEIT's Bibliothek der Bücher: 1. Russian reader-proposed list: 4 (all Anglo). Spanish list: 11.

      Except for Murasaki who occasionally makes the cut, the examples I listed do not appear on any lists. Students of literature will likely have heard of them but I (like many readers) am not a student of literature. I'm a person who wants to read good books. I learned of most of them by directly asking for recommendations of classic women writers in translation. The fact that I didn't know of many of these writers is far more telling than the fact that certain scholars are. The fact that I got only a handful when I can easily name dozens of equivalent male writers is also telling.

      Deledda is a curious example because she's randomly appeared on resurgent lists in the past few years, but as a "forgotten" author (despite her Nobel). Note how few of her books have been translated out of Italian as compared to Solzhenitsyn. Or her contemporaries: both Reymont and Bergson have had significantly more works translated into English, though neither is particularly well-known either. Even among hard-core literary readers, Deledda is not a household name in the way that other Nobel winners are. She's a top-tier writer, highly recognized and mostly unknown - I would argue that she's been largely erased from the literary landscape. Not as much as other women, but still part of the bigger problem.

      Yes, I call this a weeding out of women writers. Even though I'm writing predominantly from an Anglo-American perspective, I see the same issues globally. I see the same issues in Hebrew, in German, in French, in Spanish, and in many other languages. Heck, I even see the same issues in English. I really recommend you read Russ' book - she raises a lot of great examples of what I can only allude to here.

      I'm not going to get pedantic about definitions of first novel. There's room for a scholarly debate on that, but it's really not my point. I'm sticking with the Wikipedia definition of the book as the first novel.

      Oh, and not to be particularly snarky or anything (or maybe just a little...?), I've been keeping an eye on Spanish Lit Month... just how many books by women were reviewed? :-)

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    2. Great blog post.

      One I feel I should point out about Spanish Lit Month, personally I've saved up my books by women for this month alone and will review nothing but women in translation this month - there were a range of Spanish ones that I purposely kept on ice until August. Not making excuses, just letting you know it was a conscious decision to address the imbalance in August and therefore for myself the figures will be skewed since 1 July.

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    3. As excuses go, that's a pretty good one! Now I feel bad that I inadvertently interfered with another blogging event...

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    4. That's why my 31/7 review was a double-dipper ;)

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    5. Biblibio, thanks for your reply to my comment. In the interest of discussion, I hope you'll forgive me if I reply point by point where I still disagree with you. Before I forget, though, I do think that the gender gap in translations that you've documented recently speaks for itself and could/should be improved where possible by publishers; however, I also think that some of the causes of the "problem" aren't always as easily identifiable as you suggest.

      For example, you write above on the question of comparing undertranslated male and female authors that "I'm fully aware that you can swap the women's names with those of other men. That's not the point. What I'm pointing to here is the overwhelming inclination to place male writers on these pedestals while women writers are left out." I'd take issue with you on this for two reasons: 1) I think that male authors just as well as female authors slip through the cracks in terms of getting translated just as much as certain big name authors. For you to say "that's not the point" is fine, but my point is/was that the reason some female writers don't get translated likely has nothing to do with the gender bias you successfully document elsewhere. 2) More importantly, your criticism of male writers being placed on pedestals while women writers are left out strikes me as being based on a emotional rather than an intellectual or factual appeal. Your opinion about who should or shouldn't be placed on a pedestal is just that--a subjective opinion--just as it is for the unspecified people you're mad at for leaving women writers out of the pedestal mix. To use an example mentioned in your post, who cares if a total stranger thinks Javier Marías is a better writer than Yoko Ogawa or vice versa? Do you really think people will or ought to be mad at you if you have the opposite opinion of these writers' worth?

      Perhaps for similar reasons, the canon question and the gender disparity in the best of lists doesn't trouble me the way it seems to trouble you. You can extract useful information from or totally ignore the lists of authors promoted in these venues. If you feel so strongly that the lists have let you down in terms of providing appropriate female author recommendations (i.e. in reference to your comment: "Except for Murasaki who occasionally makes the cut, the examples I listed do not appear on any lists. Students of literature will likely have heard of them but I (like many readers) am not a student of literature), shouldn't you think about using other resources to find the names of the female authors you believe to be underrepresented? You don't have to be a literature student, for example, to peruse online course syllabi or see which authors are recommended or required reading for grad school programs. The gender representation may still not be what you'd like to see, but at least you'll have access to some author leads that may not be appearing in the best of lists published in magazines and newspapers.

      Finally, on the question of the "erasure" or the "weeding out of women" from literary history, who exactly is to blame for this? To use your Deledda example, who's to blame for her not being "a household name in the way that other Nobel winners are"? And who's to blame for your claim that Deledda has "been largely erased from the literary landscape. Not as much as other women, but still part of the bigger problem"? Your rhetoric suggests that somebody consciously decided to promote an anti-Deledda agenda because of gender. But who?

      P.S. I'll have to answer your Spanish Lit Month question separately as the preview box is telling me my comment is too long already.

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    6. Richard, thanks for your continued thoughtful comments! I like seeing that it's possible to disagree without resorting to name calling...

      I guess what I was trying to emphasize in this post is that all of the issues with representation of women writers cannot be isolated. I think that women are less likely to be translated in the same way that women are less likely to be on syllabuses and in the same way that women are less likely to make it to award shortlists and the same way that women are less likely to be highly recognized, etc. In my opinion, these are all different facets of the same problem. So coming and trying to find individual reasons for why one of these cases exists seems to me rather... inaccurate.

      In terms of accessing reading lists, you've exactly hit on the point I was trying make re: the canon: when the lists that readers are directed to (like "100 Books to Read Before You Die", "Top 100 Classics of the 20th Century", even a university syllabus...) are so overwhelmingly male, is it particularly surprising that we see so few women writers? There's a lot of looped cause and effect here: more men are deemed canon, hence we deem canon/quality as more male...

      If my rhetoric implies that someone is to blame for the erasure of women, I'm sorry - it's not what I meant. I don't think there's a secret literary Weeder who sits high on a mountain and waves a "canon wand". I think there's a societal tendency to place men in higher regard in women; I see this particularly clearly in the sciences (my chosen field, for the record).

      If there's a conscious level to it, I think it's apparent in comments like the publisher quote I included in the post: there's some perception of "quality" that is clearly heavily gender-based (this publisher has a horrendous track record when it comes to translating women writers). It's not a conscious sexist effort, but there is an awareness/consciousness. Does that make sense?

      I'm really not trying to imply here that everything is sexist and that everything is caused by sexism. Obviously most women aren't translated because most writers aren't translated. However, I do think that the numbers speak for themselves in indicating that there's some problem. I had originally hoped that the reason for the imbalance was an awareness issue. It doesn't quite seem that way now, hence the post.

      As for male writers being placed on pedestals, you're right that it's much more of a gut feeling than a scientific one. But honestly, look at how the IFFP list was reviewed by the Guardian ("Knausgård! Oh, and these other people too"), the Bolaño-mania from a few years back, etc. I can't recall seeing any of that kind of mainstream exaltation for any women writers in translation (I've seen a bit about Ogawa, but on a significantly smaller scale). It may turn out that I'm wrong; in fact I'd be happy to be proven wrong here!

      Re: Spanish Lit Month, I've seen enough references from readers pointing to books they put off for the beginning of August for the overlap and I know of enough books in Spanish that the comment was just meant to be a... reminder, I guess? It's hard to see sometimes how bad the imbalance is, and as much as it makes me a "crank" (apparently) to point it out, I think it's necessary at this point, until we reach a better place.

      Once again, thanks for your comments and feel free to continue expressing your disagreements (or agreements)! I think you're raising a lot of interesting points that are definitely worth discussing.

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    7. Biblibio, thanks for your kind follow-up reply and for accepting my comments in the spirit with which they were intended. Whatever our agreements or differences thus far, the conversation has been rewarding for me. As for the specifics of your reply, I'll refrain from commenting on them in any detail both because I think I understand your points more clearly now and because I don't want to tie up any more of this particular comment thread more than we already have. Now one of if not the most interesting part of your essay for me is the claim that "there are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation." Why this is so is something I'd like to learn more about over the course of the month. That being said, I do have some insight into why somebody might read many more male authors than female authors in a given time period without it being part of a campaign to suppress women's voices (I concede that the effect might be the same in a way, but let's save that point for later). To start with, I appreciate you asking about Spanish Lit Month earlier and I didn't find your question ("just how many books by women were reviewed?") snarky at all. As you're probably aware, not many books written by women were reviewed during the month. However, people could choose to read/review whatever books they wanted to for the event and I assume that's exactly what the 15 men and 9 women participants did. My questions for you are 1) were you disappointed by the gender disparity here, and 2) if so, what would you have suggested to correct it? Should my co-host Stu and I have asked people not to read whatever they wanted for the event? I'm assuming that you, as somebody who followed but didn't actively participate in the event, might have been disappointed by the number of female authors reviewed but wouldn't expect others to read female authors in your place. Please correct me if I'm wrong. As far as my reading choices for the event, I'm happy to explain in the event it's of interest to the larger discussion of why women are underrepresented in translation. I've read/reviewed 10 works for SLM so far, only two of which were written by women. Of the male-authored works, five were from "favorite authors" I'd read previously and three were works I'd wanted to read for a long time. The two female-authored works were by writers new to me whom I had heard good things about previously but never read before. Two other female-authored works were set aside for later because they just weren't happening for me (one was from a new to me writer and the other was a work I'd wanted to read a long time). Three other books (two M, one F) were set aside on account of a lack of time. As you might know, I read all of my works in Spanish for the event so I read a low percentage of women writers even though I had full access to just about any author I wanted to read for the event. The gender disparity of M/F authors read in Spanish is typical for me, but I can explain why it's so later in the month if you think it's at all germane to what you have in mind for WIT. In the meantime, I think it's fair to assume that the other readers for SLM (only one of whom other than me might have read something in Spanish or Portuguese) might have had less access to female-authored books that they might have wanted to read for the event if your 3-1 M/F translation ratio is accurate. This would of course be even more true for those bloggers who count on review copies for a significant portion of their reading material: if the women authors aren't being published in an equal proportion, they're certainly not going to show up in the form of review copies in a higher percentage.

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    8. Tie up the thread as much as you'd like! These are exactly the discussions I was hoping to have. Maybe not in comments threads (and I might yet write a full response post later in the month), but this was definitely my hope and I'm so glad to see that we're capable of having a grown-up discussion about the topic (as compared to, say, the comment that followed yours...).

      From a practical perspective, your questions are completely legitimate. It seems to me like you're asking, "If not quotas, what then?" Again, contrary to what Matthew Lane thinks, I am not nor have ever been in favor of quotas (indeed, I think this sets me apart from many others involved in the campaign, for example the panelists at the London Book Fair). My approach remains that awareness is the most critical first step.

      For myself, I noticed that the moment I started thinking about the gender disparity, it occurred to me to look. I realized that with so few books published, it takes three times the effort to find books by women. That's why I wanted to create the list of books by women in translation, that's why I'm ultimately thrilled to be hosting a women in translation month, and that's why I'll continue to champion the cause after August.

      More relevant to your specific case with Spanish, the moment I started looking at the bigger picture, I also started looking at my Hebrew-reading stats. It occurred to me that I was prejudging a lot of books by women harshly based on stereotypical marketing or specific keywords in the descriptions. Basically, I was tossing these books aside because of their sexist marketing, and thus ignoring loads of books by women writers. In this case, again without imposing any clear quota, I made a conscious decision to try to ignore my prejudices. It's been a tremendous success so far.

      The fact is, I have no intention of stopping to read books by men. That won't achieve anything, and I'll be missing out on great books. What I'd like is to take a whack at the underlying issues of why women are published less (like I tried in the piece above), and hopefully get publishers to become more aware in a way that will help them overcome the same prejudices that I myself had.

      The reason I do think my comment was a bit snarky is because it seems fairly obvious to me that a translation rate from Spanish of 20% (in a good year...) will lead to a fairly low review rate. Indeed, Spanish-language books baffle me the most, because it's the worst ratio out of the big languages. Here I'd love to hear your thoughts on the native market - are there so few women published? Has this ever been discussed? According to my father, the literature course he took in the 80s (a Spanish for native speakers course at an American university) comprised of a syllabus of only men, which caused one of his classmates to protest. Has this changed?

      Don't not read what you want because of who wrote it. And I definitely don't think people should change what they want to read because of a problem. But I think readers need to be aware of their biases. It becomes so much easier to overcome them once you know they're there, and once you understand where they come from...

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    9. I don't have any idea about the ratio of male to female author Spanish books published in the "native" markets, in part because I live in the U.S. and am only occasionally able to shop abroad. I'll see if I can maybe look into that at some point. I wouldn't suspect that the ratio nowadays is as bad as your translation ratio is (just a guess on my part, though), but I'm pretty sure that up until the 1960s and 1970s male Spanish-language authors far outnumbered female Spanish-language authors. The ratio would be "worse" the further you go back in time (Sor Juana and Santa Teresa were celebrated both now and in their respective days and age, but they were just about the only female Spanish-language authors of note back then). As far as whether Spanish lit course syllabi include more women authors than back in your father's day, I would say yes usually; however, the numbers could vary wildly based on what era the course focused on (I say this from some personal experience as a student).

      Could you say a bit more about your experience with "sexist marketing" of books at some point? I'm not entirely sure what you mean about that unless you're referring to the bodice-ripping covers of supermarket romance paperbacks, and I'm not sure I ever really thought about that as "sexist" either. Silly, maybe. I do get turned off of many books (by male and female authors) by horrid covers of some sort, but for me that's usually not a reason to turn away from a book I'd already decided to read. Do you think one is more likely to ignore one gender than another over "sexist marketing" or bad cover art for other reasons? If so, I'd be interested in hearing why.

      By the way, while agreeing with you that a 3-1 male to female translation ratio seems unfair, I think serious readers who are unhappy with their lack of gender balanced choices could do themselves a great favor by learning to read a foreign language or two (like you with Hebrew and others among my blogger friends with different languages). I realize that this isn't possible for everybody for any number of reasons, but once you're able to read well enough in a foreign language, you're no longer at the mercy of publishers to translate the books from that language or those languages that you'd like to read. It's a very liberating feeling and--to my pessimistic way of thinking--perhaps a quicker way of gaining access to books in one language without waiting on publishers to address gender disparity among their author ranks in the near future.

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  2. “I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.”

    That’s because you are acting the crank, an as a publisher I also would not credit your rantings with a reply if the above article is an example of what you wrote to them.

    However there is no “lack” of women in writing, there is simply less women INTERESTED in writing, both in fiction & non-fiction, as evidenced by the disparity in both manuscripts received, but also by the disparity in self-published works.

    In fact the overly liberal heavily feminist science fiction publishers Tor released their publishing stats last year in which Julie Crisp Editorial Director at Tor UK revealed that despite the company's switch to an "open-submission policy," "out of 503 submissions — only 32% have been from female writers."

    An this is in an industry that is now roughly 85% functionally female, so please don’t try to claim gender bias.

    “I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers,”

    I’m sure you have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, and if the above blog entry is a sample of your writing style & subject matter I have no doubt you’ve been dismissed for ranting about your own perceived lack of women authors and your presumption that its root is in sexism.

    I can also quite easily see how publishers would consider that you are pushing for quotas, because let’s be honest here that is EXACTLY what you are pushing for.

    However I’m going to take a second to quote Julie Crisp (Editorial Director at Tor UK) when she said:

    “As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it. While I understand why people get so impassioned about wanting more female writers in genre, especially when it comes to science fiction, the picture just isn’t as clear cut as it seems. Accusing the publishers of being sexist, or lax in their attitude towards women writers is an easy out but it’s just not the case.”

    So lets move on to your next point”

    “and finally told, and I quote directly […]: The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women’

    An that statement too is a true one: Particular topics and genres appeal to one gender over another. An once again going back to the Tor article, they released a breakdown of received manuscripts by genre. In the science fiction genre only 22% of received manuscripts were by women, but you flip the coin & both YA fiction, an Urban Fantasy had statistically higher amount of women than men sending in manuscripts.

    So yes if the publisher has a specific “particular aesthetic” it will determine what gets published & that will inform the likelihood of male in comparison to female authorship. If you publish science fiction than one can expect there to be many more male authors than female authors, because more manuscripts are going to come from male authors due to the being more men than women interested in writing & submitting such fiction, where as a publisher that publishes only YA fiction or Urban Fantasy or Romance, or Family Saga genre fiction is more likely to have an overwhelmingly female authorship.

    So yes, you deserved the answer you got back from a single publishing house because it EXACTLY answered your statement, even if you don’t like the answers given, they are still the 100% accurate answer…. Regardless of the fact they don’t fit into your social narrative of gendered oppression you are trying to build.

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  3. One of the things that I've been thinking about,I'm sure I saw it mentioned somewhere, is the amount of books written by women that I read for Spanish Lit Month. That would be none. I love Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende. Those are the Spanish authors I've read and whole-heartedly enjoyed. Yet I returned to them not at all for Juky's event. Why? I suspect that deep down I didn't think they were profound enough, somehow. That they write of "women's issues" (marriage, love babies, fitting in, family) and somehow this isn't as important as war, violence, power. I don't really believe that, of course. I've simply been intimidated by what I might naturally turn to read as if it isn't good enough,

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