Publishing and Prejudice: 5 Female Writers Weigh in on Sexism in the Literary World

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

It all started with Jonathan Franzen. Specifically, the publication of Franzen’s novel Freedom, a book that so hijacked the attention of critics throughout the 2010/2011 book season that Franzen’s face was everywhere—even under a Los Angeles Times headline announcing that author Jennifer Egan had beaten him out for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sick of watching “white male literary darlings,” like Franzen, get all the good press, authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to announce that they were suffering from an acute case of “#Franzenfreud.” The term tapped into a deep well of resentment, and female writers of all persuasions soon joined them online, venting their frustration with the ongoing marginalization of women in the industry and demanding answers. In the intervening years, thanks to the power of social media, what started as an upswell of anger has begun looking more and more like a movement.

This is, of course, not the first time the literary establishment had been charged with sexism. Women have been trying, with little success, to draw attention to these issues since Virginia Woolf’s era and before. The most famous recent example is probably writer and critic Francine Prose’s seminal 1998 Harper’s essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” one of the most lucid and compelling case studies of literary gender bias ever written. Given that Prose was writing at the turn of the twentieth century, you might expect that her efforts met with more success than Woolf’s, but you’d be wrong. Despite the elegant logic of her arguments, Prose’ piece generated little more than ire from the editors of the day. In fact, Harper’s was so concerned about her reputation after the article’s publication that the magazine hosted a special dinner to help her placate offended editors and “salvage what remained of [her] career.”

Today, there are still plenty of people in publishing who rankle at the first mention of sexism—people who dismiss concerns like Weiner and Picoult’s as paranoia and “belly-aching.” But in the social media age, these people are no longer able to drown out the chorus of discontent. And now, unlike in earlier eras, those advocating for change have a growing storehouse of data to back up their claims. Stats charting the disparity between the contributions of men and women in major periodicals are being compiled by a variety of organizations, most famously by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, the group behind the widely lauded VIDA Count. There is reason to believe these numbers are making a real difference, with organizations, like Tin House and The Boston Review, now making verifiable efforts to level the playing field for women in response to VIDA’s findings. That said, we still have a long way to go. According to the 2012 Count, many publications are still falling woefully behind when it comes to reviewing and publishing women, including, sadly, Harper’s itself. (In 2012, the magazine had just three female book reviewers compared to 28 men, and it ran reviews of only 11 works by women as opposed to a whopping 54 by men.) Still we are on our way.

It’s worth noting that not all female authors are eager to join the online fray. After The Rumpus recently ran a diatribe by writer Suzanne Rivecca on male reviewers’ squeamish view of Mary Gaitskill’s unvarnished sexuality, Gaitskill was quick to run to the defense of male critics. “I don’t know why the three guys quoted by Rivecca got so bitched up about my writing, except that they’re critics and that means that sometimes they gotta bitch. But that’s got nothing to do with their being men,” Gaitskill wrote in her response, thereby fortifying herself against potential charges of “belly-aching.” Having reached a stable plateau in her career, her reputation cemented, Gaitskill has no horse in this race. Or perhaps Gaitskill honestly believes that gender doesn’t enter into the equation when it comes to the interpretation of literature (though this is hard to countenance). Either way, these issues are complicated. What looks to one person like discrimination can appear to another to be the natural byproduct of a fully functioning meritocracy. But the data suggests otherwise and, these days, more and more women are freely discussing what they view as the sexist tilt of the industry. Man Booker Prize Winner Eleanor Catton, for instance, went on record during her recent press junket as saying that she thinks her ideas are given short shrift by interviewers because she is a woman. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with her.

The ecosystem of women writers is a diverse and multi-layered, home to an array of species with conflicting beliefs and needs. While many of us want to improve access and opportunities for female writers, our priorities and passion projects can vary wildly. To help dig deeper into some of these complexities, Brooklyn Based invited five female writers—novelists, essayists, and teachers, some of whom have earned major awards, others who are relatively new to the game—to give their take on sexism in publishing.

The Participants: Julia Fierro, Roxane Gay, Adelle Waldman, Lydia MilletAyelet Waldman

Adelle Waldman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, The Wall Street Journal,  and other publications. Her first novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.," was published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2013.” The book was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice” and was described as the “The Best Debut Novel of the Summer” by GQ Magazine.Photo by Lou Rouse

Adelle Waldman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Her first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., was published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2013.” The book was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice” and was described as the “The Best Debut Novel of the Summer” by GQ Magazine. Photo by Lou Rouse

The Questions

1) Man Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton recently remarked that “Male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel.” Has this been your experience as a writer?

Roxane Gay: I’ve been asked both what I think and what I feel and I don’t really mind being asked what I feel. I am human. I have a heart.

Adelle Waldman: When I first read [Catton’s] interview, I instinctively nodded my head in agreement. It sounded right to me. In my experience, I think people are quick to assume I wrote my book to work out issues that are personal to me, a grudge against an ex-boyfriend. I think people generally have an easier time imputing intellectual and aesthetic playfulness to a male author than they do to a female author—they can understand a woman writing from hurt or rage more than from a place of greater dispassion or from sheer aesthetic pleasure.

Lydia Millet: My concerns are more with criticism and reviewing than with author interviews. And there my experience has been that the way men’s books and women’s books get covered in places like, say, The New York Times is hilariously bent. It actually makes me laugh aloud sometimes to see how eager reviewers are to anoint the newest male genius. Almost desperate, really. They desperately want a boy genius every season—sometimes a few times each season. Sometimes they need one every month. They must elevate a foot soldier from the ranks! They must set up this fresh-faced private on a bronze platform with his sword held aloft! And so few of these anointed works are innovative at all, much less genius. Many are perfectly readable middlebrow fare, but genius? Gentlemen! Let’s not cheapen the term. The anointing is like a compulsive disorder of some kind, a form of logorrhea, these critics with their labels of size and grandiosity, their titles conferring monolithic importance on the usually male authors and, not a coincidence, also affirming them, these particular kinds of critics, as kingmakers.

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in "Best American Short Stories 2012," Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal, Salon and many other publications. Gay’s first novel, "An Untamed State," will be published by Grove/Atlantic in 2014 and her essay collection, "Bad Feminist," is set to be published by Harper Perennial, in 2014.Photo by Justine Bursoni.

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, Salon and many other publications. Gay’s first novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in 2014 and her essay collection, Bad Feminist, is set to be published by Harper Perennial, in 2014. Photo by Justine Bursoni.

2) If you have experienced this bias toward “feeling” questions, how much of this strikes you as pure sexism and how much reflects the work itself? (In other words, could it be that women’s work, taken on balance, does privilege the domestic or “feeling” sphere over the more “intellectual” public sphere?)

Lydia Millet: I think there are plenty of domestic realists out there who are men. Plenty. It’s a kind of macho domestic realism, maybe, bitter male characters, say, about womanizers, drinkers, kind of a chest-hair-tearing “I’m so flawed” confessional fiction. I think women specialize in a domestic fiction of weeping/worrying about cellulite, then feeling better after some social bonding, while men specialize in a domestic fiction of roaring/repressed rage, then feeling not that much better after having some sex. But both write the stuff.

Adelle Waldman: I’m not sure I agree with the premise of this question. I don’t think there is an inherent tension between the seriousness of the work and its subject matter—I’m not sure writing that is about private life should generate more “feeling” questions, even if the work itself if concerned with feelings. With The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I took on a subject often regarded as feminine and trivial: dating. And yet I set out to write a book that was serious in its intent and execution. I think seriousness is a function of something other than subject, and I’m not sure that men who write about romantic entanglements—say Phillip Roth—are as likely as women writers to be subject to the assumption that they are writing from a place of working out personal demons. I think they are assumed to have a higher intellectual or literary purpose. But if you are asking whether I think some books by women are unserious and deserve to be treated unseriously, then I’d say the answer is definitely yes—just as there are plenty of books by men that are unserious.

Lydia Millet is the author of eleven books, including eight novels, one story collection and two books for young readers. Her third novel, "My Happy Life," won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction and has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She also works as the staff writer for the wildlife advocacy organization Center for Biological Diversity. Photo by Ivory Orchid Photography

Lydia Millet is the author of eleven books, including eight novels, one story collection and two books for young readers. Her third novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction and Millet has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She also works as the staff writer for the wildlife advocacy organization Center for Biological Diversity. Photo by Ivory Orchid Photography

3) Many people maintain that the type of fiction that Jennifer Weiner publishes has no place in an outlet like The Times. Do you think it’s useful or necessary to separate out more commercial fiction from more literary fiction when discussing the critical reception of men versus women’s work?       

Ayelet Waldman: There is a specific oddness in the way the major literary outlets treat work they consider “chick lit” and work sometimes called “lad lit.” Let’s be clear. I don’t think either of these genres demands consideration, for example, in The New York Review of Books. But lad lit by writers like, for example, Benjamin Kunkel, is taken seriously, reviewed seriously, when it is absolutely analogous to the works of Jennifer Weiner. The privileging of one and dismissal of the other smacks to me of misogyny.

If you review Kunkel in the Times then it makes sense to review [Weiner]. Also, the best of genre work certainly demands critical attention. The best horror fiction is literature. The best SF. Ursuala LeGuin certainly is a literary writer. In that way, I could certainly imagine a critical review of the best of “Chick Lit.” (God, I hate that derisive term, but there isn’t another.)

Julia Fierro: I think this debate and the questions it raises regarding elitism within the literary world should be taken more seriously. The clearest approach I’ve heard in thinking about the literary versus commercial debate, was presented by literary critic Laura Miller, of Salon.com, at a panel of women literary critics at Housingworks last year, organized by another brilliant critic, Michelle Dean. Miller spoke of the two different economies of the literary world, which encompasses publishing, literary awards, periodicals that review literature, etc. There is: A) the economy of selling books, and B) the economy of prestige.

Many writers (me included, and who can blame us) want to accomplish both—we dream of being commercially successful, selling many copies of books, AND winning literary awards, scoring that review in The New York Times, etc. Few writers accomplish both, and when they do, it seems that they are often male writers (see the Jonathans—Franzen, Safran Foer, Lethem—and Jeffrey Eugenides, Chad Harbach). It’s also worth noting that many of these men are writing about so-called “female topics,” like relationships, domestic life, emotions.

I do believe there is definitely a gap between “literary” and “commercial” writing and the coverage it receives in prestigious periodicals of literary criticism. And I often wonder if the divide is widening as a result of the shifts in traditional publishing: the increased difficulty in publishing with a traditional publisher, increased difficulty in selling books, the overall “Amazon effect,” the rise in independent presses, the struggle for independent bookstores to survive. As this gap widens, I wonder if the competition between commercial writers and literary writers also increases.

Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is the author of the forthcoming Love and Treasure (Knopf, April 2014), Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her writing has appeared in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Photo by Stephanie Rausser

4) Do you think women’s work occasionally gets “genre-ghettoized” in a way men’s doesn’t? Slapped with the ubiquitous cover of the woman standing wanly on a dock, for instance? Or dismissed as just another novel about a dysfunctional family?

Julia Fierro: “Genre-ghettoization” occurs often, and that is more likely a product of a publisher’s marketing department trying very hard to market a book toward a certain kind of reader, because, sadly, it is more and more difficult to sell books. I feel so incredibly lucky to be working with an editor–Elizabeth Beier at St. Martin’s Press–who understood my novel and believed in it as a book about relationships, but also as a book that can be taken seriously by literary readers, and I think Cutting Teeth’s book cover (to be unveiled very soon!) reflects that. In my own recent, and virginal, experience in publishing, I think a lot is left to luck. My book could’ve ended up at another publishing house and had a cover with a photo of a woman strolling on the beach, a cover that wouldn’t have accurately promised the dark and funny story within. It is also important to point out the fact that there are women writers who are happy with a book cover that shows the woman standing on a dock (although, the trend of headless women on book covers is mind-boggling). I worry most about this ghettoization in the cases where the cover is promising a reading experience inauthentic to the book, and the reader’s expectations will be vastly different from the reality of their experience and reactions. The strongest example of this discrepancy is the new Sylvia Plath cover that went viral in early 2013 and while it is so wrong, in so many ways, I do understand the argument Faber made in defense of the cover design, stating that they hope it will attract new young women readers to the book.

Adelle Waldman: Yes, certainly in terms of covers. But I also think this argument needs to be explored in an even-handed way. Both The Corrections and Freedom are about dysfunctional families. Some people invoke these books to make the argument that when a man writes about this topic, it is treated as more important simply because of his gender. I think that’s nonsense. It is incumbent on anyone who makes the argument that they are privileged simply on the basis of Franzen’s gender to point to books by women that are of comparable quality that have been ignored. The quality of the book matters. Franzen is more than a man. He’s a terrific novelist—deep, fair-minded, empathetic, socially and psychologically acute, and funny.

Julia Fierro's debut novel, "Cutting Teeth," will be published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2014. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Millions, Poets & Writers Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder and director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, a creative home for over 2000 writers. Photo by Natalie Brasington.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2014. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Millions, Poets & Writers Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder and director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, a creative home for over 2000 writers. Photo by Natalie Brasington.

5) Do you think it’s a female writer’s duty to call out sexism when she sees it? Or is this just a perpetuation of the idea that all women need to serve as representatives or exemplars of the entire gender?    

Roxanne Gay: We all have a responsibility to address inequality of all kinds. If women writers don’t speak up about sexism, how do we hope to have a fighting chance?

Lydia Millet: I think we don’t have a duty any more than men have a duty. Really our duty is not to write schlock, and men also share that burden, but both sexes often choose to set down that burden politely. I have no problem calling myself a feminist, a socialist or an environmentalist—despite the fact that those unpleasantly textured terms suffer constant malignment and erosion due partly to their ongoing failure to embrace a self-negating irony—but I don’t think feminists necessarily have a moral duty to identify each perceived instance of sexism. If we did we’d be busy all day with fulfilling that thankless duty, our heads spinning on our necks like so many Linda Blair Satans in The Exorcist. We have a simple but arduous duty: to do the best work we can, to investigate and recognize the best work we can, and to treat others as we wish to be treated.

Adelle Waldman: I think it’s everybody’s duty to be as fair-minded as possible. I think sexism is a real evil that works in complicated ways in terms of women’s writing, and that it is cowardly not to talk about that, for whatever reason—perhaps because one doesn’t want to sound like one of “those women,” or perhaps because one just doesn’t want to bother. At the same time, I also think we shouldn’t be too quick to call sexism or to reflexively get behind every claim of sexism, no matter what. I think every alleged instance of sexism has to be considered impartially, and the charge should be leveled carefully.

6) In March 2013, Rob Spillman of Tin House spoke to VIDA about the magazine’s submission stats. He told the interviewer:

“Our unsolicited submissions are nearly 50/50 [men vs women] consistently year to year, and our acceptance rate is also 50/50. Agented submissions average closer to 2/3 men versus 1/3 women, with acceptance rates around 60/40. Interestingly, the number of agents who are sending these submissions are 2/3 women versus 1/3 men. We were also surprised to find that although we solicited equal numbers of men and women, men were more than twice as likely to submit after being solicited.”

The Tin House findings suggest that women writers and women in the industry may be complicit in devaluing the work of female writers. What would you say we could be doing better ourselves to help balance the scales?

Adelle Waldman: I think that what Rob said was eye-opening and perhaps suggests that women may be more likely to fear rejection and are thus less likely to submit work—we are more likely, I think, to second-guess ourselves. But I’m not sure this is always a bad thing. Being one’s own worst critic does have its advantages. A lot of men behave like asses. They could stand to be less confident, to pick up on more negative hints. They’d be better people and more popular. Perhaps men should aim to be more like women, rather than vice versa. I don’t know if success is the only metric—in other words, just because pushy guys do well does not to me mean we should all emulate pushy guys.

Julia Fierro: I, and so many writers, are grateful for Rob Spillman, one of the few male writers who responded to VIDA’s count results as the shockwave of the reality of gender inequality in literary criticism rolled over the literary community.

I do hope that women writers will feel inspired to call out sexism when they see it, and this is just one of the reasons I am also grateful for Elissa Schappell, author, co-founder and editor (along with Rob Spillman) at Tin House, and columnist at Vanity Fair. Knowing that Elissa is there, constant in her smart, and always charming, “calling out” of sexism in literary culture, makes me feel safer as a woman writer, and helps me feel confident enough to “call out” on my own. And thank the literary gods(esses), for VIDA, and the amazing team there. The VIDA Count was revolutionary in providing tangible proof (numbers don’t lie) of gender inequality.

The sexism women writers have to rally against is not entirely external. Many of us are old enough, or grew up in situations where a woman’s opinions and voice wasn’t taken as seriously as a man’s opinions and voice, to remember what it feels like to doubt your own importance. I’d like to see that “internalized sexism” spoken of more often within the literary gender inequality debate. I am only one generation removed from women who had very little opportunity to recognize the importance of their voices. My grandmothers, my aunts, my mother, would’ve made wonderful novelists, essayists, and memoirists, and I think of them—and the dreams they may not have dared to dream—when I am in doubt of the significance of my own work. The reminders, and the inspiration, that the advocates above, send out into the literary community, are often the fuel which keeps me writing, submitting work after rejection, and bashing on.

7) What would you like to see change in the industry?

Adelle Waldman: I’d like to see individuals—men and women—look inward and second-guess their own implicit assumptions about what male writing or thinking is like and what women’s writing or thinking is like. I tried to write a book that would encourage that: I thought, that if I, as a woman, could accurately depict a male writer’s inner life, it would present a challenge to all of our assumptions about the likely limitations of a woman’s imagination and intellect and humor.

Julia Fierro: In many ways, we are, essentially, at the beginning of the public “literary gender in equality” debate, a topic that is just starting to feature in mainstream literary culture, and a side effect of this is the arguments often feel overly general, or black-and-white. We can only work hard, think hard, both with plenty of empathy, on making these discussions more nuanced, so they include women writers of all style, genre, race (see Roxane Gay’s recent piece in The Rumpus, “Where Things Stand”), and women writing for all kinds of audiences.

Lydia Millet: I’d like to see the means of production owned not by private corporations but by a legion of people whose distinguishing characteristic is that they, almost always, agree completely with me.

8) Roxane, as a black writer, do you feel like the conversation about sexism in publishing overshadows or competes with the conversation about racism in publishing? How do you feel like your perspective on these issues is informed by being a woman of color?

Roxane Gay: Yes, I do. We (in publishing) seem much more willing to address the gender problem than the racial inequities that are rampant. It’s like we must address one issue before getting to the other. I try my best to think about inequality in publishing intersectionally—trying to increase representation and visibility for all underrepresented populations.

Orli Van Mourik is a Portland-based journalist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, Discover Magazine, SEED Magazine, and Brooklyn Based. She blogs at orlivanmourik.com.

17 Comment