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 Millet, Ayelet Waldman (more…)