Monday, September 13, 2010

Gender-Bias in the Literary World

I love to be individual, to step beyond gender. - Annie Lennox

A few months ago I read an interesting blog about gender-biased reviews at Darcia Helle’s, A Word Please . Darci mentioned reading a Sisters in Crime newsletter which said that approximately 67% of reviews went to male authors while 33% went to female.

According to Darcia:

“Sisters in Crime monitors 42 publications. Of those, only 3 gave more reviews to female mystery authors. These were the San Francisco Bay Area’s Contra Costa Times, the Annapolis Capital, and Romantic Times. Of the remaining 39 that slant toward male writers, some of the statistics are astounding. For instance, 100% of the mystery novels reviewed by Detroit Free Press were written by men. They didn’t review one female mystery author all year! The percentage of male authors reviewed in other leading publications include: Ellery Queen at 76%, Entertainment Weekly at 72%, the New Yorker at 75%, and the Washington Post at 79%.

Looking at these statistics, a person would be forgiven for assuming that there are simply more male mystery authors to review. This, however, is untrue. The split is almost even.”

Two popular female authors, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, recently added more fuel to this debate according to an article in the Huffington Post, “When Is a Literary Feud NOT a Literary Feud?” by Lisa Solod Warren.

The article states:

“The two women say Franzen is getting too much play for his new novel Freedom (which, incidentally hasn't even hit bookstores yet) and that his subject matter is one that women like them write about all the time but for which they never receive the kind of press Franzen is getting (the cover of Time being the breaking point, perhaps). Picoult is quoted as saying that the New York Times favors " white male authors" and Weiner, in the Huffington Post, says that she thinks "it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book -- in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

I don’t agree with the author of the article when she goes on to say things like, “The truth is that authors like Picoult and Weiner can't hold a candle to Franzen.” Or “It seems more about professional jealousy than equal coverage or women's rights.” Or “One benefit of reviews in mainstream, influential publications like Time and the New York Times is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader's radar.”

I tend to agree more with an article by Tina Jordan on titled, “Stop calling it chick lit!” She writes:

“As far as the Times goes, Weiner and Picoult are correct: The newspaper absolutely does have a bias towards white male authors (if you doubt this, go do some counting yourself). Look and see how many men in the last year got both daily and Sunday reviews — and then compare how many women were accorded that honor. Check the number of mentions Gary Shteyngart has gotten in the last month, and then do the same for Mona Simpson, a novelist of equal literary acclaim. (Their most recent works came out at roughly the same time this summer.) Simpson did get a profile, it’s true. Of course, it ran in the Style section, not the Arts section.”

My favorite part of the article was:

“The chick lit issue is equally bothersome. It’s never failed to irritate me that the smart, funny, achingly real Good in Bed should be dismissed as “chick lit,” with all its dismissive, derogatory implications. This isn’t a novel about sex and shopping. Would we demean brash, action-packed adventure novels by calling them “dick lit”? No, we would not. (Although if the “chick lit” tag persists, maybe we should.)

My research team (better known as my sister) sent me the following email, “… after discussion last night I thought I'd count the reviews of male vs female authors this week in the Wall Street Journal. HA! Their current list of book reviews has 12 books by men and 5 by women (I didn't count the two books that were co-authored by a man and a woman, but then it would have been 14 to 7).”

I tried to find statistics on percentage of men to women writers in various genres, but came up empty handed. Regardless of the numbers, I think it’s clear there is a bias. However, I have no idea what can be done about it.

Do you think gender-bias reviews are a problem? Do you have any solutions?


Michelle Stockard Miller said...

I'm not sure what to think about this issue, but I know I don't like it. It seems the boys club syndrome never stops rearing its ugly head.

Jan Morrison said...

This is facinating and I have NO DOUBT it is true that there is a bias against even reviewing women's books. I am interested enough in what you're talking about to send this post to some movers and shakers in Can. Lit. to see if the same thing is in effect up here in the True North. Hmmmm...infuriating. I certainly found it to be true on a personal level in the world of theatre.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I've noticed this and am not pleased. Frankly, it's still a man's world which does not make me happy.

I get really hot when I see a woman's novel being touted as a beach or summer's read. This statement almost dismisses it as a worthwhile read.

Great post!


DazyDayWriter said...

Absolutely, there is bias out there. I went to Stephens College (a college for women in central Missouri) and that was back in the dark ages, but I don't think things have changed significantly since then! "Creatures of Habit" -- your next novel, Jane! Thanks for bringing this "lingering issue" to our attention; we need reminders!

Best, Daisy @ Sunny Room Studio

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think there's a bias, although it didn't affect my YA books, since that market is predominently women writers.
Perhaps if there were more women REVIEWERS we'd start to tip the scales.

Carol Kilgore said...

From a female writer's viewpoint it's a problem. From a reader's viewpoint, of either sex, I don't think it's a problem. More women than men purchase books, and they will purchase the books they want to read regardless of who writes them.

Someone said:
Women work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

That still hasn't changed.

Hart Johnson said...

I know it's a very real issue, and it had no small part in me going with Hart Johnson, when choosing from among my names as to which I would write under (though Hart has always been my 'identity' name--it was formerly my last). I will probably always however, have a female voice.

I feel compelled to write a novel in response and am thinking maybe to topic merits its own blog, but I guess my main points are this: Weiner DOES write chick lit, but it is important chick lit, and I think our problem may be not calling the same by male authors chick lit ANYWAY.

Men read less than women, but I think the problem is that men read only male voices (some written by women, yes) where women read BOTH, so our problem is in opening the minds of male readers to read more broadly.

and I think the media has a responsibility to help in this process.

Darcia Helle said...

Great post, Jane. I do (obviously) think this is a problem, since I've ranted about it in the past. To me, this bias is equally as bad for readers as it is for female writers. These major publications, by raving about the men and ignoring the women, are sending a message that male authors are better, more engaging, more "literary" and worthy of discussing. We won't shed that horrible "Chick Lit" label until we start earning equal time with those who stand at the gates of professional reviews.

Maybe if we make enough noise on blogs and forums, complain to these publications and refuse to buy them, they will have to pay attention and begin to correct the imbalance.

The Old Silly said...

Hmm ... I'd never thought of this issue, but glad you brought it to my attention. Not surprising, I guess, in spite of several decades of women's lib and females striving for equality, it's still in many ways a "man's world". Still got a ways to go in this society, hmm?

Tamika: said...

This sounds like a feud indeed! I want my writing to stand on the quality alone not my gender. When will we move past this:)

Enough already! I just want to write and read great fiction.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Michelle, I think women have made great strides, but these articles show we still have a way to go.

Jan, I'm interested to hear if Canada has the same problem.

Teresa, thanks – it is interesting and frustrating that books by male authors are seldom if ever dismissed as a beach read.

Daisy, the articles were a good reminder for me that we can’t let our guard down for a minute if we are to continue moving forward.

I agree, Karen, it is disturbing.

Diane, I like your solution!

Good point, Carol, and I like the quote.

Hart, I never thought about selecting a unisex name to write under. I think it’s a smart idea. I think it would help to get rid of the “chick lit” identifier or come up with another title that doesn’t demean the work. It would be nice if we could get the media to work with us.

Darcia, I like your suggestion of complaining to the ‘guilty’ publications.

The Old Silly, until I read about it on Darcia’s blog, I’d never thought about the issue either. I think to change things, as Darcia mentioned in her comment, we have to start making some ‘noise.’

Tamika, I agree – books should be judged by their quality and not by the gender of the writer.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never thought about it, but if there's gender bias everywhere else, makes sense it would be in the literary world, too.

Arlee Bird said...

I never gave this any thought. I very rarely read literary reviews other than some of the ones that appear in the newspaper. And actually I never really pay that much attention to the author's gender.

Ultimately it's the book that counts. Not the gender of the author. How do reviewers decide what to review anyway? The reviews in the L.A. Times are often books that don't sound that interesting to me by authors I've never heard of.

Tossing It Out

Helen Ginger said...

I think there is a bias. It shows in the reviews and, as you said, in the nomenclature. I like your term "dick lit." It's dismissive and demeaning, rather like "chick lit."

Anonymous said...

Gender bias still permeates most fields and the stats are truly astounding. Those people who think that women's lib is dead, really need to look at the reality.

What can be done? Keep spreading the stats and make people aware. Thanks for sharing this great post with us all.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

>> Do you think gender-bias reviews are a problem?


>> Do you have any solutions?

No, because I don't have a problem.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Anonymous said...

Wow neat! This is a really great site! I am wondering if anyone else has come across something
like this in the past? Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please answer to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.


Cruella Collett said...

I can't say I know the authors or articles in question, but the tendency seems clear enough: it's a man's world. While the review rate shocks me, I shouldn't be surprised. It's exactly the same in the bookshop - male customers almost never read female authors. Female customers read both.

What can be done? It's hard to say, but I think that changing the way books by women are marketed (like reviews) is one way. Then again, there is the possibility this isn't an option for the publishers, because they are already making a lot of money from the women who are reading the female authors, a segment of the market they are probably not willing to give up on since women often read more than men.

Two things seem clear to me: one, it's pretty darn unfair for female authors; and two, the men don't know what they are missing out on.

Hart Johnson said...

FYI, I featured this on today's blog. Along with an agism article another friend passed on:

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world