Novelists? Women Novelists? (Shrug)

LIKE ALL WOMEN, I’m accustomed to, and have learned to ignore or rise above, the low level hum of misogyny in daily life. But to have some of the most significant writers in the English language considered inferior in some fundamental way is really too puzzling to shrug off. It strikes at the heart of what we all want to believe–that quality work will be appreciated, valued and rewarded.

Want some specifics? Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling are two of the most popular writers in the English language. (While popularity is no guaranteed indicator of quality, Christie isn’t just “popular.” She is more popular than any other writer since the invention of movable type.) They have been translated into dozens of languages where they are just as beloved as in their native tongue. Why? Because the work of these two women speaks to universal conditions of the human heart and experience.

The lack of respect for their work isn’t simply a matter of masculine vs. feminine subject matter: more men than women write about wars, it’s true, but Christie wrote about murder and the triumph of justice. There’s nothing gender-specific about that.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about wizards and elves and he is revered. J.K. Rowling writes about much the same thing and she earns smirks.  (Go ahead; feel whatever you are feeling about that statement and then give me your best arguments for the quality of one over the other, untainted by gender scorn.)

Tastemakers with an intellectual reputation share some of the blame: In 2012, the New York times Review of Books reviewed 316 books.  Only 89 were written by women*.  Being frustrated by this goes far beyond a desire for liberte, egalite, sororite. It should leave any reading, thinking person breathless over the “Aha” moment. The trouble is, knowledge of the Times’ perfidy more often just garners a shrug.

And so a recent occurrence, proving once again that misogyny is casual, pervasive and unremarkable in our culture, earned yet more shrugs.

Wikipedia recently divided their former category of American Novelists into two: American Novelists and American Women Novelists. (Please tell me you see the fallacy there.)

Under this new categorization Wikipedia users searching for  American Novelists reach an exclusively male list. The other novelists can be reached only with an additional, more gender-specific search.

News of this segregation of women writers caused a s**t storm of protest and irritation (mostly from women) and the process is still under review.  But what interests me is not that it happened, because that can be undone, but WHY it happened, which really can’t until our entire culture is picked up by the scruff of its neck, shaken soundly and yelled at until it gives in.

The man (and it was a man) who felt Wikipedia needed to categorize American novelists by gender defended his methodology by explaining he was trying to make the very long list more manageable.

Seriously?

Setting aside for a moment the triumph and glory of having a long, rich “unmanageable” list of American novelists to be proud of, isn’t there an easier way to “manage” it?

A solution so simple and so basic that it should have occurred to anyone?

A solution which goes back almost as far as Gutenberg?

The fact that it wasn’t his solution is sort of dumbfounding, and the lack of awareness behind his solution all the more disheartening. But for the record, and please feel free to use it any time a similar problem presents itself, here’s my gender-free suggestion:

American Novelists A-M    and    American Novelists N-Z

 

* VIDA Women in Literary Arts


• Posted in The Writing Life • Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |  4 Comments

4 thoughts on “Novelists? Women Novelists? (Shrug)

    • I love that you’re a fan! You know it’s mutual, right? BTW, if you sign up (where it says “Follow” on the top right column) you’ll get an automatic e-mail notice when there’s a new post. They’re good at protecting your e-mail address; you don’t need to worry it will escape into the ether ;-).

  1. I can understand frustration about the solution wikipedia has put forth – there was at least shortage of imagination on Wikipedia’s side.

    However, examining only the outputs (e.g. how many of the books reviewed by the the NY Times were from women) without considering or at least highlighting the inputs (e.g. what the gender ratio is for books that are available to be reviewed in this category) makes it hard to support your argument without doing my own research.

    That’s unfortunate, because I consider myself mostly “gender blind”, but I can’t support your cause with what I know.

    That line of inquiry may surface that publishers don’t publish women as much … or maybe it shows that there are fewer women novelists, which I think is unlikely, but I sure don’t know, or highlight how women have less time to write (even more unlikely) … . And that way we may come closer to a solution, and an understanding if there’s a problem with imagination (as in the case of wikipedia), or the establishing that women still face a lot of obstacles that men face, and maybe even what those are.

    But then again, I am male, and we have a propensity trying to solve things, and that may simply not have been the intent of the blog post 🙂

    • Since posting this blog I’ve learned that the figures for the NYT are not quite as dire as I thought: In 2012 the number of books reviewed is 316 male vs. 89 female. The figure I originally quoted was for the number of male vs. female reviewers (215 male vs. 40 female). I’ve corrected the data in the blog entry and I’m also sending you a link for some in-depth data from the Women in Literary Arts website. Thanks for the comment!

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