Why I Cried Last Night

woman writing

(photo: Mike Licht, Creative Commons License)

Earlier this summer, my heart sank. I was reading about yet another manifestation of the gender divide in agenting, publishing, marketing, and reviewing women-written fiction, which, even if unconscious, leads to and promotes a gender divide in the books readers choose, an issue I wrote about in my post, “Will Men Read my Book?” A vicious circle if ever there was one.

Subject Matter Matters

The essay was Nicola Griffith’s “Books about women don’t win big awards.” She compiled data showing that not only have men won most of the major literary awards over the last 15 years, when women have won them, they’ve mostly won them for books about male characters. Think Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won two Man Booker prizes, both for books about Thomas Cromwell, or Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winner The Goldfinch and its protagonist Theo Decker. (Rufi Thorpe has written an amusing, but pointed essay on what it’s like to have her first novel published and the tone-deaf reactions she received. Male at pool: “I mean, yours was just a novel about girls.” Author: “Yeah, I know that.” Male at pool: “I just don’t see how anyone could compare it to actual literature.”)

“Everybody kind of knows it’s true, but they don’t want to see it,” Griffith said in the Seattle Review of Books. Later in that essay, she says, “The way we’re brought up is that stories about men are important and stories about women are fluffy and domestic and kind of boring.” This page from a publisher of predominantly women-written mysteries is a revealing display of that preconception in action. It sends a clear marketing message: These are lightweight books. Not that there isn’t a place for such books and the readers who enjoy them. This publisher is just up-front about what they do and, inadvertently I hope, perpetuating a stereotype.

The Evidence Piles Up

In June, I groaned reading Kamila Shamsie’s essay in The Bookseller on another aspect of the gender divide. She, too, turned to statistics, analyzing The Guardian’s end-of-year book recommendations by some 252 cultural figures, mostly writers. The data showed that more men than women get asked to recommend; of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so; and those men are more likely to recommend yet more men. Says Shamsie:

I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement, while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say, except: go read some Toni Morrison. 

Desperate Responses

I pulled my hair and rolled my eyes as, over the summer, the reaction to this situation became increasingly creative, if quixotic. Shamsie has proposed that in 2018 UK publishers bring out only new titles by women. US writer Amanda Filipacchi tried to “pose like a man” for her book jacket photo when she discovered that in these pictures “The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines.”

And white male writers have been urged to acknowledge that “the white male experience has been overexposed, at the expense of other experiences, for centuries.” Or, as American fiction writer John Scalzi has said, in the massive role-playing game of life, “‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

Submissions (A Too-Apt Word?)

Right now, I’m in the middle of preparing submission packets for small publishers. It took two days to prepare three packets. I’ve been working on the current packet since Sunday, off and mostly on. Each publisher has different requirements, some puzzling. My novel, three years in the works, has been professionally edited by an award-winning mystery writer, professionally proofread, and the police-related parts reviewed by a former NYPD detective and terrorism expert. It’s in its, oh, eighth? draft.

Then yesterday, I read this the story by Catherine Nichols. Discouraged by the lackluster response (usually a one-line rejection or, commonly, no reply at all) to her agent query letters—you need an agent in order to approach most publishers—she began sending her materials out using a male pseudonym. Over a weekend, she sent six agents the same letter and same book synopsis and sample chapters she’d been sending and received five responses, with three requests for a manuscript. Ultimately, under her own name, 50 queries received two manuscript requests, whereas “George’s” 50 queries generated 17 manuscript requests. George is, she says, “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”

The agents’ comments to Catherine (similar to those I have received myself) consistently cited “beautiful writing,” which Nichols points out “is the paint job on top but not the engine of the book,” whereas they said George’s work was “‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’” It received lengthy critiques, not the typical form-letter brush-offs.

She points out that the agents she approached were both men and women, “which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive. It’s not something a few people do to everyone else. It goes through all the ways we think of ourselves and each other.”

I wept.

VIDA, an organization dedicated to Women in Literary Arts
Sisters in Crime, helping women who write, review, buy, or sell crime fiction
The other side of the coin: Male writers who write as women
Historical Underpinnings of Continual Sexism in Publishing
, Emerson College

5 thoughts on “Why I Cried Last Night

    • Much more progress is needed. And, if these problems beset women, think how similar conscious/unconscious/semi-conscious biases affect writers of color! Makes me mad to think of all the great stories I’m missing!!

  1. The stats you cite are depressing and very much in line with those reported by Sisters in Crime’s reporting project (they do a count of award nominations and awards annually ). There has been some improvement in the diversity of writers published and being nominated/winning awards, but it remains grounds for weeping

  2. Yesterday’s reveal was incredibly disheartening. It leaves you in an interesting position. Will you sign your query letters under your full name or only use your first initial, perhaps opening more doors for you and your book? Given your setting, topic, and main character, your book could “pass” as one written by a man. Will you play the game to get your foot in the door? I’m not advocating one way or another. Taking a stand is important, but so is getting published, and if obscuring your gender as you seek to do it is (apparently) almost necessary, no one could fault you for doing so, no matter how abhorrent it is that you may feel compelled to do so.

Comments are closed.