Viewpoint: Gender Bias In The Literary World

October 30, 2016 | By | 7 Replies More

e655a267c2c5b8bb787ddfb77cec141bIn a recent interview with the critically acclaimed Irish author John Banville, he was quoted in The Irish Times as saying “I have not been a good father. No writer is.”

Granted, it may be a bit unfair to quote people out of context, but the twitter-storm blew a fury nonetheless. I was heartened to read so many men refuting the outdated stereotype of male writers as feckless, self-absorbed dinosaurs who put art above their personal relationships.

Yet aside from his statement that no writer can be a good parent, there was also the implication that all successful writers are male. This opened up a very important conversation and as one female commenter observed, “Ah yes, there is the unspoken assumption that the true artist is male.”

You see, this author wasn’t saying that there are no female writers; that would be factually incorrect.  But what he is implying is that the REAL writers, the writers who MATTER, are men. It’s not something overtly expressed, but it is made clear nonetheless that the work of male writers is considered as somehow more important than that of their female counterparts. I also grew up believing this myth, as Ireland only seemed to celebrate her literary sons; Yeats, Joyce and Beckett to name a few.

Where were all the women?  And now that I am a writer myself, I wonder how much (if at all) things have changed?

VIDA is a non-profit organization founded to raise awareness of gender equality issues in literary culture, and for the past few years they have released figures on books that have been included in prominent literary magazines and journals for review.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise that the figures are overwhelmingly in favour of male authors, as the majority of critics are, in fact, male.  Despite the fact that women buy two thirds of books sold, (according to novelist Ian McEwan, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”), magazine reviews are centred on male authors and for the most part, written by male critics.

According to VIDA’s research, the London Review of Books featured 527 male authors and critics in 2014, compared with just 151 women (14 fewer than in 2013.)  The New York Review of Books displayed a similar imbalance, featuring an overall figure of 677 men to 242 women, and in other publications it was found that fewer than half the authors reviewed were women.  Why is it that the male voice seems to hold more gravitas?

In 2015, the author Catherine Nichols decided to do a little experiment to see if the publishing world really was as gender biased as the figures suggested.  Firstly, she sent her novel to 50 agents using her own name and received just two manuscript requests. But when she sent the same material to the same agents, using a male pseudonym, the novel was requested 17 times.

“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” wrote Nichols. “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”

Many female authors in the past were forced to use a male pseudonym in order to get published and I think they would be shocked to discover that this practice still happens today. Louisa May Alcott published as A.M. Barnard, Mary Ann Evans under the name of George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters (Ann, Charlotte and Emily) under the names Currer and Ellis Bell.

More recently, J. K. Rowling chose the more ‘gender neutral’ option of using her initials for Harry Potter and later published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.  In genres such as detective fiction and science fiction, it is often assumed that male authors fair better, or worse still, that male readers would not like to be seen reading a female author.

For years, writers such as Marian Keyes and Joanne Harris have spoken out about being pigeon-holed into the ‘Chick Lit’ market.  Female authors (and readers) have taken offence to the term because it devalues and/or dismisses the work of women as something not to be taken seriously.  According to Keyes – who has sold 30 million copies of her books – the chick-lit label is a derogatory term used to make female novelists figures of fun.

Even my own novel, The Heirloom, is constantly referred to as a ‘romance’.  Yes, there is a love story in there, but there are also greater themes like religion, history, identity (the protagonist is adopted), adultery, and there is even a great big war in the middle of it!  Yet as a writer, I feel forced to choose from a very narrow list of genres in order to reach my readers, and so I end up slotting it into the ‘Women’s Fiction’ category.  I may as well stick a sign on it saying ‘Men, Keep Out!’

But it is not surprising that we have ended up where we are, when you consider how women have been, quite literally, written out of history, which has traditionally been recorded by men. Try and think of a famous historical female artist for instance, or a female composer? They don’t exactly roll off the tongue.  Things haven’t improved much in recent times either.

ARTnews Magazine revealed the gender disparity of post-war and contemporary lots up for sale at the New York evening auctions, and the results for 2015 and 2014 were the same: 92 percent of lots were by male artists, while women comprised a mere 8 percent.

#WakingTheFeminists began as a response to The Abbey Theatre’s ‘Waking The Nation’ programme for the 1916 commemorations in Ireland, which featured only one play written by a woman. Female playwrights and actors across the world united in their anger over the blatant gender inequality displayed by the theatre, but this has since spilled over into other spheres where the female voice is continually silenced, overlooked or simply ignored.

So what does this all mean for the future? I feel we have made some progress in regards to gender equality in the arts, but only because women have fought tooth and nail to have their work treated equally. When you are raised in a patriarchal society that minimises the achievements of women, there is a certain amount of acceptance of the status quo.

We earn less pay for equal work and despite the fact that more women read and write fiction; it is the male author who is the most celebrated. The quality of female literature has been no less outstanding, despite the fact that the recognition has not been there, and book sales bear this out. I have even more admiration for women because they have had to work twice as hard for less than half the plaudits.

It’s about time that we were afforded the same consideration and respect as men, both professionally and personally. Awards like the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction are providing a platform for female writers and I think initiatives like this will go some way towards redressing the imbalance.

I think it’s time we laid to rest the traditional and well-pedalled image of a male writer smoking cigars and drowning in bourbon; writers are just regular people, men and women, some with children, some with full time jobs, whose stories are equally valid and need to be heard. Your profession does not determine whether or not you will be a good parent and your gender shouldn’t determine whether or not you will become a good writer.

Evie Gaughan is the author of The Heirloom and The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris.

Living on the West Coast of Ireland, which is not renowned for its sunny climate, Evie escapes from the inclement weather into a converted attic to write stories and dream about underfloor heating.

Inspired by her love of historical fiction, gothic mysteries and romantic comedies, Evie has crafted her own unique style of writing that is warm, engaging and full of humour. She is currently working on her third novel, when not hanging around Twitter @evgaughan.


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (7)

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  1. Gloria Allen says:

    Thanks Eve for your posting. It’s true, women are not taken seriously. And yes, many women still sabotage other women either out of jealousy (their own inability to rise to their own creative potential) or to gain credibility (yes! So important to agree with the men so they will like you). It’s sickening and sad.

    I write comedy. Yes it’s brilliant – but have I been given a chance? No. It is virtually impossible in the TV industry to allow a woman who writes comedy compete or even “work with” men – unless you are already a stand-up comic who has”made it”; or have a husband or close connection in Hollywood who can get you in; or you are a producer or director in Hollywood. As far as theatre is concerned, once I read my one and two act comedies to the theatre group I am in and got several compliments – the woman actress in charge of the group cut me and blocked me from reading anymore. And I got no support from anyone. Writing comedy as a woman is a huge threat to men and to other women who have made a career of keeping in their place – drama. No comedy.

    As far as publishing – in a nutshell, if you are a single woman with basically no resources – count on not getting the marketing attention that your book deserves, even when there are over twenty reviews stating the need for your material. Some publishers take huge advantage of older (even younger) single women – for example: The African-American woman scholar who wrote a book on slavery that she submitted to a Hollywood studio that rejected it. Then some time later, she discovered that they totally ripped her work off when she saw it playing out in a movie theatre. She sued them and won a settlement. I am sure that there are more instances.

  2. Katrina Kenyon says:

    In some ways, I think women help do it to themselves. Some genres to it to themselves as well. When women take women seriously, when genres stop kicking books out that don’t suit the gatekeepers, when it’s about the work, then this kind thing will stop.

    Women read and buy books. We control a lot of what happens, but we buy into this stupid nonsense. Women run down women just as fast if not faster than men in an effort to gain credibility. I hear it, I see it, I read it. It needs to stop.

    Instead, cram the artistic and commercial power of female writers and readers into the face of anyone who runs down your fellow female writers, and things will start to change. Write the editors, refuse to cooperate with the papers and gatekeepers- I cancelled my subscription over things like this. I told them why. Commercial pain, cures a lot of bad habits.

    And btw… there’s nothing wrong with Romance. It’s a billion dollar genre. It’s precisely that kind of attitude that runs down women writers. You’ve just basically been dismissive of literally thousands of writers and millions of readers. Great art can be found in the genre. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. I think a ton of the stuff editors read is drawn out, boring, and self-indulgent- it’s a matter of preference. So while you’re complaining that no one takes women writers seriously… how about you not put yourself above an entire genre and millions of people.

    • Evie Gaughan says:

      That’s an interesting point and I agree that our reading habits will hopefully influence the gatekeepers and more importantly, the marketing departments that package women’s writing as ‘less significant’ than men’s. However, you are putting words in my mouth. Just because my novel is historical fiction and not a romance, does not mean that I do not enjoy reading romance novels. I recently wrote a blog about how contemporary romance novels are categorised on Amazon – it turned out that if they were written by men, they were filed under ‘Fiction’ and if they were written by women, they were filed under ‘Women’s Fiction – Romance’. These were essentially the same subject matter, yet were placed in completely different genres. However female authors tend to be grouped together under the genre of ‘Women’s Fiction’, even if the subject matter of the books are completely varied. Similar to the genre ‘Chick Lit’ (of which I am also a fan) it’s not the books that are the problem, it is how they are marketed. I like to believe that female writers do support each other and so far, that has been my experience. I appreciate your comment, as it has given me the opportunity to clarify my intention in this article. It’s not about putting one genre above another, but to highlight the inconsistencies that female authors face every day in publishing.

  3. I write thrillers set in an egalitarian alternative timeline where women lead society and its institutions. All opportunities are open to men and many of them have good careers. 😉
    More seriously, it’s profoundly sad that you have to go to an alternative timeline to have such a society.

    In the indie writing community it’s less of a problem. We are all having to make our own way, whether we write crime or corsets.

    The problem’s root is society’s structure: until women are accepted as truly equal by themselves and by others, this attitude in publishing will persist.

    • Evie Gaughan says:

      Love the sound of your novel Alison! I agree, self-publishing is more of a level playing field because there are no gatekeepers deciding who gets through and who doesn’t. You make a very important point – women themselves need to own their equality. Despite the lip-service paid to gender equality, daily life in our society is constantly telling us something different. Twitter has been a crash course in gender equality for me, with authors like Joanne Harris highlighting the myriad of ways in which she is discriminated against in her career. As women, I think we need to keep having the discussion and teaching our daughters that equality is a right, not a fictional idea. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. I agree with you, everyday sexism is alive and well in the world of literature. I have also been considering whether to change my name or use initials for my second novel, as a social experiment with submissions.

    • Evie Gaughan says:

      It’s an interesting thought isn’t it? Maybe I’ll do that too and see what happens! It is frustrating though, knowing that your work is going to be viewed differently if you are a woman. I just wrote a blog about gendered book covers, which further cements the fact that female authors are ‘handled’ very differently to men. Best of luck with your submissions and thanks for the comment 🙂

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