by Eva Jurczyk
The last male-authored book that I’ll ever review was about pirates. As a lifelong rule-follower, I didn’t read any other press coverage of the book before submitting my review to Publisher’s Weekly, for fear of being unduly influenced or accidentally plagiarizing. Only after I filed did I Google the book and its author: He was dubbed “a master of historical fiction” by practically every major Canadian paper, with no mention of the fact that the main character uses fine Elizabethan English for his internal monologue, but scarcely intelligible pirate-speak for his speaking voice. “An exciting page-turner!” others claimed, with no notes about the senseless plot construction or the weird aside about a room overflowing with creepy dolls that appears in one scene and then is never mentioned again. In the same batch of review copies as the pirate book, I received an English translation of a work by a moderately successful Quebecois writer, who had recently been featured on the literary-reality television program CanadaReads. Her book was one of the best I read all year; it received a short-form review in one Canadian newspaper and is currently a hundred and fifty thousand places behind the pirate book on the Amazon best-seller rankings.
There is a trick of Pavlovian conditioning that I’ve been using lately on my best girlfriend. She is a person who sends a lot of text messages and a person who does a lot of Crossfit, so that particular Venn diagram means that she is she a person who sends a lot of text messages about Crossfit. As a person disinterested in both Crossfit and long text conversations, this arrangement works poorly for me. So, when she sends a non-Crossfit related text, I make my best effort to respond. A message about the Leon Bridges concert? Here is your treat in the form of a smiley emoticon. A message about deadlifts? Crickets. This strategy has not changed the volume of texts she sends, nor the number to which I reply — about thirty percent — but it has slightly changed the volume of Crossfit-related to non-Crossfit-related texts.
What if male-authored pirate books are the Crossfit texts of the publishing world? And what if I, in my capacity as a book reviewer, have the power to shift the ratio of rubbish pirate books by dudes to meaningful literature by women? The publishing houses will keep putting out books about buccaneers and they’ll keep appearing on my monthly review list but what if I don’t expend any mental energy or spill a drop of ink about them? This wouldn’t change the number of books by women that are published every year, nor the total number of books that Publisher’s Weekly reviews — some eight thousand per year, mostly for librarians, the media, and booksellers — but if someone is reserving all of their mental energy and all of their ink for female-authored books, then perhaps these books will be covered sooner, the gems among them celebrated louder, and the publishing industry will slowly adjust the definition of the type of book that is deemed worthy of attention. It seems like a better strategy than doing nothing, so moving forward, I’m only going to review books written by women.
VIDA, an organization that advocates for women in the literary arts, has compiled data for the last five years about coverage of women writers in major literary journals, publications, and press outlets — which drive not only book sales, but consideration for grants, literary awards, teaching positions, and fellowships. The first VIDA count found that in 2010, the New York Review of Books covered three hundred and six books by male authors and fifty-nine by female authors. Since then, several major publications have been shamed into changing their editorial policies to make coverage more equitable. In the 2014 count, several publications, including Harper’s, Granta and The New York Times Book Review, moved closer to gender parity in their coverage. Some of these changes were small, like Harper’s coverage by and about women writers increasing from 27 to 32 percent between 2010 and 2014, but the New York Times Book Review and Granta, increasing coverage from 36 to 47 percent and 35 to 48 percent (respectively) seem to have responded to the counts with a real effort to diversify coverage. Others, like the Times Literary Supplement and The Nation still have huge gaps in their coverage, with work by and about women writers comprising less than thirty percent of the content of both publications in 2014.
The argument against gender parity in authorship is probably the same argument that is made when, year after year, there are no female filmmakers nominated for film awards: There just aren’t as many films, much less quality ones, made by women. And there are fewer books by female authors published by literary presses, so there are fewer books by female authors that can be covered in literary journals, so there is less female talent covered in literary publications from which publishers, granting organizations, and universities can draw talent. Maybe women are just inherently less literary, their output less worthy of serious critical attention? But male writers don’t receive critical attention because they are good; they get coverage in the New York Review of Books because they are men. And women’s books should be talked about not because they are literary geniuses and men are witless scribes, but because they are creating art from the point of view of fifty percent of the citizens of our planet. My argument, in other words, isn’t that books by women are superior to those by men — they sometimes aren’t! — but that when I’m criticizing the work of a female writer, I’m rarely arguing against anyone. Whether I have something positive or negative to say, I’m usually the only one saying anything at all because literary people just don’t view books by women as being as important as those by men.
Last year, Jezebel ran a story by a young writer, Catherine Nichols, who was frustrated by the lack of attention she was getting from agents for her new novel and thought, “With my name, maybe my novel was taken for ‘Women’s Fiction’ — a dislikable name for a respectable genre.” Using the exact same cover letter and manuscript pages, she sent fifty queries to agents as Catherine and fifty as George Leyer; Catherine received two requests back from agents to view the full manuscript, while George received seventeen. A couple of years ago, the writer and University of Toronto lecturer David Gilmour spoke to Hazlitt about his reading and teaching habits and said that he’s not interested in teaching books by women, that he doesn’t love women writers enough to teach them. You don’t even have to be a self-important, limp-dicked nitwit to feel that way. Tramp Press, an independent Irish publisher founded by two women, requires that authors of unsolicited submissions cite their literary influences in query letters. Sarah Davis-Goff, one of the founders, analyzed the press’s one hundred most recent submissions and discovered that female authors comprised just twenty-two percent of the influences listed.
Often we can’t get this right even when we’re trying. In 2014, the writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh wrote about starting the #readwomen2014 campaign in reaction to the VIDA numbers. Writing in the Guardian, Walsh said that the #readwomen2014 hashtag did plenty for awareness of inequality but little for the practical problem of how to get published, get read, and get praise for good work as a female writer. Her article, enumerating the complaints of vital women writers like Lionel Shriver and quoting the Guardian’s own literary editor, ran on a blog in the women’s section of the Guardian, rather than in that paper’s respected Books vertical. Maybe there is a perfectly boring reason for this, like who the assigning editor was, or maybe the Guardian, even with its favorable coverage of lady-writers, considers advancing readership of female writers to be a women’s, rather than a literary, issue.
In 2014, Amanda Nelson wrote in Book Riot about the year she spent documenting everything she read in a spreadsheet. Looking at her reading data she was pleased to learn that without paying attention she was already reading evenly between men and women, but she also saw that, without paying attention, she’d read almost no people of colour, which is why she now pays attention. To transition from awareness of inequality to outcomes that address that inequality, attention must be paid. To keep us from drowning in pirate books, to make literary publications reflective of all readers and writers, to make a livelihood as a writer accessible based on one’s talent rather than one’s anatomy, attention must be paid: by organizations like VIDA, by publications like the Times Literary Supplement and by individuals like me.
The books written by men will still get covered, just not by me — the female-written books, some of which might otherwise have had to wait months post-publication for a printed review, will be my top priority. I’m still going to read books by male authors — but rather than call dibs on the review copy, I’ll put them on hold at the library. I don’t expect that reviewing fewer pirate books and more female-authored books will change the publishing industry, just like I don’t expect a hashtag or VIDA counts to upend hundreds of years of ingrained inequity, but lots of small decisions made by lots of individuals might add up to something.