By many measures, the publishing world has a gender problem.
Major magazines, newspapers and literary journals overwhelmingly review more books by men than by women, and more men are writing those reviews, according to the VIDA Count, an annual tally of women’s representation in major publications. For example, just 20 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Review of Books last year — 80 out of 387 — were by women.
And women in the industry report being treated differently than their male counterparts. Lionel Shriver, for example, reports being pressured to use “shy” titles and “gauzy” cover art in an attempt to heighten her often-dark books’ appeal to women.
“An aggregate of women’s voices — and these are the voices of well established, prize-winning writers — is saying that there is something wrong with the way their writing can be perceived, for no reason other than that they are women,” says London-based writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh.
And so Walsh launched the ReadWomen2014 campaign, a growing online effort aimed at rallying readers to explore books by women throughout this year. The project includes a Twitter account, @ReadWomen2014, where Walsh retweets news, links and ideas about female authors, as well as a hashtag, #readwomen2014, that interested readers can use to find recommendations and opinions.
The goal, Walsh says, is not to put a quota on people’s reading lists, but to encourage readers to consciously choose books with diverse perspectives, to think about who they are reading and why.
“I’m not so sure it’s possible, or desirable, to read ‘gender-blind’,” says Walsh, whose short story collection, “Fractals,” was released last fall. “One of the pleasures of writing (and reading) has long been the exploration of culture and identity.”
Thus, in the spirit of the campaign, we have gathered the thoughts and recommendations of a handful of local folks whose work immerses them in the literary world.
Cotuit Library director Jennie Wiley has embraced ReadWomen2014. The library has a display dedicated to the campaign, where a rotating lineup of books by female authors is highlighted. Throughout the library, signs featuring images of women writers explain the campaign, Wiley says.
She doesn’t want the library’s patrons to forsake male authors entirely, she says; she just wants to encourage them to read something they might have overlooked before.
“I would never tell people to only read one thing,” Wiley says. “Any reason to read something new, I am 100 percent behind.”
Wiley is an avid fan of science fiction and horror, genres in which women can have an even harder time getting recognized, she says. Among her top picks is N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,” a fantasy in which a young woman unexpectedly finds herself in a brutal power struggle for the throne. Wiley also recommends author Elizabeth Kostova’s books “The Historian” — about a young woman searching for the true story of Dracula — and “The Swan Thieves” – about a psychiatrist obsessed with solving an historical art mystery.
Matthew Neill Null, the writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a fiction author himself, believes that much of the gender bias in the literary world comes from publishers rather than readers.
“Readers are willing to read all sorts of different things,” he says. “I think it’s kind of an artificial thing from the publishing industry.”
The Fine Arts Work Center, he notes, has long supported the work of female authors; such notable writers as Jhumpa Lahiri (“Interpreter of Maladies”), Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”), and poet Louise Glück have been fellows at the center. Null’s recommendations for must-read books by women are drawn from the works of center alumni. They are all, he says, “powerful, hypnotic works.”
“Quiet Dell,” a fictional account of a real-life serial killer, is a “great new novel” by Jayne Ann Phillips, who was a fellow in 1979 and 1980, Null says. He also suggests poet Lucie Brock-Broido’s newest collection “Stay, Illusion,” a finalist for the National Book Award. Another top pick: “The Orchardist,” by 2008-2009 fellow Amanda Coplin, a novel that follows a makeshift family formed by two orphans and the fruit-grower who takes them in.
Cape Cod’s local literary scene may have fewer problems with the gender divide, says Elizabeth Moisan, organizer of a writing group at the Brooks Public Library in Harwich and founder of A Book in the Hand, a series of monthly readings by area authors. In fact, Moisan says she has far more women than men reading at her events.
“The Cape literary scene is very open,” says Moisan, author of “Master of the Sweet Trade,” a novel, centered on an 18th-century pirate and his love for the woman he left behind.
Moisan recommends “Defiant Brides,” a dual biography of prominent Revolutionary-era woman written by Nancy Rubin Stuart, executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. Also on Moisan’s list are the “Baby Boomer Mystery” books by Susan Santangelo, a series of murder mysteries including the latest installment “Class Reunions Can Be Murder.”
Even if readers decide to go back to male-centric book selections after 2014, Walsh says, spending some time consciously choosing to explore women’s works is worth the effort.
“Read with awareness,” she says. “Explore what’s on offer, then decide.”
- Joanna Walsh, ReadWomen2014 founder: “I’d read anything by Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Lydia Davis, Elfriede Jelinek, Deborah Levy, Anne Carson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Denise Riley, Chris Kraus, Mary Gaitskill and many others.”
- Sarah Shemkus: “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” by Megan Marshall, is a thorough and fascinating biography of an unconventional woman who was Emerson’s friend, Thoreau’s editor, a pioneering feminist, and the country’s first female war correspondent. And anything and everything by Margaret Atwood.
- Melanie Lauwers, Cape Cod Times Books editor: Ditto on Margaret Atwood, plus Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, Geraldine Brooks, Louise Erdrich, Shirley Jackson, Edith Wharton, and hundreds more.
Looking for more names? You can start at Wikipedia for a long list and go from there.
This story first ran in the Cape Cod Times on April 13, 2014.