Monday, December 9, 2013

Where in the world are women writers?

A realization: most of the books in translation I've read this year have been written by men. A quick run through my reading list confirmed this suspicion: 21 written by men, 7 written by women.

This is a shockingly disproportionate number (especially since my overall male to female writer ratio is a perfect 50:50). I considered that it might just be my own personal reading tastes or biases, so I decided to run through Three Percent's list of titles in translation for 2013. The list is a bit outdated, but the results are strikingly similar to what I found in my own reading. Based on my rough calculation*, women writers contribute less than 30% of the literature that is translated into English.

The top three languages from which books were translated in 2013 are French, Spanish and German. Out of 59 books translated from French, 17 were written by women. Out of 41 books translated from Spanish, 7 were written by women**. Out of 35 books translated from German, 12 were written by women. Even here we see statistics that heavily favor male writers. Meanwhile, my (very brief) survey of French and German bestseller lists seemed to show a fairly balanced playing field - certainly there wasn't as wide a gap as what I found in the translations.

Closer to home for me, the four books that were translated from Hebrew were all written by men, despite the fact that I can firmly attest that Israeli literature tends to be very balanced in terms of men-women writers. The fact of the matter is that nobody has yet translated one of 2011's most highly regarded Israeli novels Rose of Lebanon, nor any of Gail Hareven's other novels (despite the fact that her one translated title won the Best Translated Book Award!), nor dozens of other highly respected novels and bestsellers written by Israeli women. And this is clearly something that is happening across the board, across the world.

What does this mean? For starters, it doesn't seem as though the source of the problem is in various countries around the world. Rather, it seems that the problem lies in the process of translation. It isn't that women aren't writing books, or that they aren't getting published in their own countries***. The problem is on the English-speaking world's receiving end. With us.

These are only preliminary findings. Without more information about Spanish, French, German and any other language bestsellers and without more understanding about the selection process for translation, there is little more to be said. Only this: readers of literature in translation, take note. If we were looking at a ratio of 40% to 60%, I would be able to accept it as a minor bias. But we're not talking about a small preference for male writers. We're talking about a preference for men that is over 70%... and that is a problem.

So readers: share your own stats. Let's find out where the problem starts - whether I'm missing something in France and Germany and Latin America, or whether something is getting stuck in the publisher's offices in the Anglo publishing world. Let's be aware that this problem even exists. Maybe then we can start to fix it.

* My calculation was generally based on first names (easily recognizable male-female names like Paul or Charlotte didn't get double-checked, names I was uncertain about I attempted to track down)
** One of these happens to be one of my favorite books of the year
*** Though I'm certain that this is the case for certain countries in which women do not have much freedom, it does not appear to be true for the major sources of literature in translation, nor would it make much sense given which countries we're talking about...


  1. It's definitely the case that male writers are much more prevalent in literature translated into English, and it may be that word 'literature' which is a key here. Rightly or not (in most cases not), many publishers tend to translate literary fiction, and there may be a perception here that the heavy stuff comes from the men...

    1. Ah Tony, I accept that as a legitimate argument about as much as the one that says more men go into physics because "men are just better at math" - in other words, I reject that. That is, if there is that kind of perception that men write "real" literature and women don't, we have an even more serious problem, and that problem is exactly the one I want to solve.

      Plus, considering just how much of what we call literature in translation is Nordic thrillers (or whatever), I really am not willing to accept this as a legitimate reason for such a prominent gender imbalance...

  2. I'm not saying that it's true, I'm saying that it's a perception. Just as many lit. prizes in the Anglosphere have been dominated by men long-term (prompting the creation of prizes for female writers), I suspect that a lot of the writers who are successful overseas (in terms of lit prizes) are men, which leads to a higher profile.

    The recent crime influx is something entirely different, a new arm of translated fiction (not sure what percentage of these are male-female). What I've read/heard suggests that men often don't read books by women while women aren't fussed. This leads publishers to hedge their bets and go for the men - or is that too cynical a view? ;)

    1. Your last point is sadly pretty true. But I'd expect that to lead to a slight imbalance, not something as clear-cut as what we see here. Cynical? Very. True? Alas.

      Obviously perception and reality are far apart, but I have a very hard time with arguments that use "perception" because it justifies a faulty system. It's a way of saying that you don't agree with something, but "that's just the way it is". If the perception is that men write better Literature, then it will be true, until we change the perception. That's why I don't buy the argument - it's a looped self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Plus, why does literature have to be heavy? That's a stupid concept that's cropped up in the past years. Some of the best books I've read this past year have definitely been "lighter", but everything about them was 100% superior to many of the more Serious Literary Male works I read alongside them...

  3. What I wasn't aware of until I published the first Peirene books, is to what extend the Anglo-Saxon reader in general takes stories at face value. Many readers have lost the ability - or perhaps never possessed the ability - to interpret stories in a symbolic fashion, where images, language and structure inform each other. If a piece of literature is a work of art, then each picture, each scene has meaning that goes far beyond - or beneath - deeper then - the image presented. However, readers who don't have developed these skills, only look for and are interested in the plot. Of course, I love plot too and believe, a story needs a plot. But plot is only a part of the whole. If it becomes everything, we often end up with pretty linear narratives. And such narratives tend to be more produced by male authors.
    Few publishers dare to take the risk Peirene takes. From our 12 authors, six are women. And even our male authors don't produce the 'usual stuff'. However, none of our authors has ever come close to winning the IFFP, even though each year we had a book longlisted. Peirene can take the risk because at our events, at our stalls we talk to readers. We give them the courage and tools to read our books. Creative reading is a skill that can be learnt. I don't need to read in order to 'escape'. If I want to 'escape' I watch a Hollywood movie or a box set. I read in order to ask myself questions, in order to find new ways of telling my own story.

  4. Last May, renowed translator Alison Anderson wrote an essay for Words Without Borders about this very issue. She has noted a considerable discrepancy in the number of women authors who make their way into English. It's a lamentable fact - and one I wish I knew how to rectify. Aside from talking about it. And talking about it. And talking about it.

    I'm curious (and heartened) to hear about your perception that publishing in other countries is more balanced, because as far as I know in the English-speaking world, publishing is still very imbalanced. Or perhaps only in the "important literature" category. I have the sense that because much of what gets translated comes from this category, and this category (even in other countries) is still dominated by male authors, this also contributes to what gets translated. And I agree with you that this is all just a false perception. How to change that perception? I wish I knew - because I do not agree with the perception, but I'm not commissioning novels and deciding who gets translated.

    One of the more interesting problems of this question is that very often the publishers who do support translation into English are considered more avant-garde and "less commercially focused" than, say, the big traditional publishing houses. So one would expect there to be a better gender parity - and yet this is still not quite the case. Some publishers are doing better than others, obviously. But on the whole I find this situation doubly frustrating.

    1. What bothers me the most about this subject is not being able to come up with any reasonable explanation for the disparity. In this day and age it's hard to believe that publishers (or readers) are intentionally discriminating against female authors. So I've been reviewing my own reading habits and trying to remember how specific books I read over the last year came to my attention. No consistent pattern is presenting itself. Which makes me wonder that perhaps the focus on male authors is just habit - something that's been programmed into publishers, literary juries and readers at a subconscious level. I know that sounds silly.

      If it is purely a result of habit, the only way to break it would be for publishers, translators and readers to actively seek out works by female authors. That doesn't seem particularly fair either. We'd all like to believe that these things are determined on merit alone. Obviously there's not an easy answer.

    2. I cannot answer for my own reading - since for the last three years I have been specifically focusing on women writers. But in my work as Reviews Editor for Necessary Fiction, I have paid a lot of attention to how we get the books for our Books Available list. In 2012, nearly all of the male authors who were pitched to us for review came from the publishers and/or PR people working for those publishers. Nearly all of the female authors who got reviewed that year came to us because I (or one of my reviewers) had requested a review copy from a publisher. I wanted to have our reviews reflect a kind of gender parity, so I really went looking for excellent books by women. (We only review about 52 books a year - so in that sense it was easy to "manufacture" a gender parity - there are plenty of excellent books to choose from) This is really only anecdotal evidence, but I found it very striking. I haven't yet done the numbers for 2013 - although I will soon - and I'm happy because I feel there has been an increase in the number of books for women sent to us for review. This may also be because I made such a point of it last year, and have continually put out calls for women authors and publishers to submit their books to us. (Michelle Bailat-Jones)

  5. A really interesting discovery and makes me realise this is another reason I love what Peirene Press are doing, because they are able to offer literature to us that has never been available before. And if readers support this kind of endeavour, then there will be more of it, the problem has been that we can't demand what we aren't being offered! I am sure the answers lie within the publishing world and that group of decision makers who choose on behalf of readers.

  6. After seeing this post, I crunched the numbers for my own reading. They weren't as bad as I'd expected: I read 30 books in translation last year; 18 were by men (though three were by the same person, so call it 16 male authors), 12 by women. (I also had three translated books in my top 12 of the year, two of which were by female authors.) But I'm keenly aware that those figures don't reflect the proportions of what is being published in the UK. That makes a publisher like Peirene all the more valuable.

    This issue has been on my mind a lot lately, because I've resolved to put translations at the heart of what I read in 2014. But I've also decided to alternate between reading female and male authors, because I've been working on my improving the gender balance of my reading over the last few years, and didn't want to risk losing that. I don't know how it's all going to work out, but I will be interested to compare my stats again this time next year.


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