The Gender Divide and Becoming More Aware of What We Read

gender

This is an essay by Joseph Dante.

We all have particular tastes when it comes to our reading habits. I have my own preferences: I tend to go for things that are more “literary” than “genre,” except for maybe when a friend (who knows something about what I like) makes an interesting suggestion. I tend to read the books that are considered classics and often pop up in English classes as required reading. I also like things that tend to be difficult to categorize, are fresh and colorful, and that break or mix elements of disparate genres. Unfortunately, if you read what I read, chances are you probably don’t encounter nearly enough female authors simply because of how often history (and hence, publishers and the literary establishment) has often overlooked them. There have been plenty of women who were forced to take on male pseudonyms just in order to be taken as seriously as their peers.

I remember once coming across a book blog by a male reader who admitted he doesn’t read female authors. He tried to pass it off as just a coincidence. He typically reads the classics—both old and contemporary, the who’s who. It’s not because he’s only interested in men’s writing specifically, just that these books happen to tackle the bigger, more universal themes (according to him) and he doesn’t see that as any kind of problem.

But it is a problem. The year is 2012, and we know there are plenty of women out there writing important books. You would think things may have changed over the years, but just take a glance at these statistics by VIDA. The gender breakdown of some of these respected literary journals is quite alarming. It is even more alarming when you realize that these people are the gatekeepers and curators who still continue to highlight what’s important in literature today, who are often a contributing factor in determining which writers go on to receive all the recognition and awards. There have been several responses from readers and publishers to address this issue. In an excellent essay at The Rumpus, writer and editor Roxane Gay believes one of the easiest and most obvious solutions is to simply read and publish more women writers. She believes readers need to become more consciously aware of this problem and publishers need to try to level out the playing field if their publications appear to be uneven. Ever since I came across these statistics, I’ve tried my best to take her advice. I’ve tried to be more vigilant about my own reading patterns and the patterns of others.

For Ms. Gay, the issue is also a personal one. She falls into the category of “women writer” who writes “women’s fiction,” and she is also a reader who often comes across excellent writing by female authors. Despite not being a female writer myself (whose writing would be affected by this), it’s personal for me on a certain level as well. Ever since I was really young, all the most influential figures in my life have been women: my mother and my sister and Nana, my closest friends, and (perhaps the most relevant) my favorite teachers and literature professors. To continue to see so many talented female writers go overlooked (being simply a writer and reader who appreciates it) makes it doubly personal. It’s an issue I keep coming back to and it’s something I’d really like to see change sooner rather than later.

The other night, I went out to dinner with Nana. We got to talking about books (she and my aunt are starting to become more avid readers, I’m happy to report) and I got to talking about this. “Well, maybe it’s simply because men are just better writers,” she said. I laughed and told her no, that wasn’t the case. There is an abundance of excellent women writers out there—it’s just that they’re being ignored or not taken nearly as seriously. It’s just that society has a special preference for male writers and seeing their problems as more important and universal (while female writing is considered as more trivial, despite being half the population). I have to remind myself that Nana is from a different generation, where someone can make a comment like that and have it go unnoticed.

I do think things are changing in the publishing landscape, but slowly. While dusty, reputable journals like The New Yorker may continue to have this problem for a while, newer journals seem to be much more inclusive, I’ve noticed. I’ve tried to help out with all this in my own little way by actively seeking out books by female authors and talking about them as much as possible.

Here are a few great books I’ve read this year so far:

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, which I reviewed for Paste

The Complete Plays by Sarah Kane

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton

And books I plan on reading in the near future:

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel

NW by Zadie Smith

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Which women writers have you been reading?

———

Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. He runs a blog at josephdante.com, and is currently a reader for online literary magazine Hobart. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo: Some rights reserved by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives.

Comments

  1. says

    I love Adrienne Rich’s poetry and Edith Wharton’s prose. A recent author that does interesting stuff with language (in my opinion) is Norah Labiner. My favorite is “Our Sometime Sister” but “Miniatures” is also quite good. Also, have you read Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”?

  2. says

    Oh, Joseph, you know you’re one of my favorite people and I am so glad to see this post from you. Thoughtful, as always.

    I’ve been reading more ‘modern’ fiction from women writers. Just recently I have read and enjoyed (what I can think of off the top of my head): Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

    So, women are writing and have been writing… I mean, look at Joyce Carol Oates! Every single time I turn around she has written another novel. I just think, as with everything else, women have to fight a bit harder for their place in the world and in the literary canon.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Angela. I haven’t read anything by Cynthia Ozick yet – I should fix that!

      Joyce Carol Oates is so ridiculously prolific…I’m constantly in awe of her.

  3. Kelsey says

    Joseph this is great, the VIDA statistics are ridiculous – I had no idea there was that much disparity. I think it’s so sad that even, as a person who loves reading and wants to discover as many great books as possible, I have to go out of my way to find women authors. There’s still such a stigma about them, I remember when people began to find out that J.K Rowling was a female and being surprised that, even at such a young age, people who had adored the stories were saying they didn’t want to read a girl’s book anymore.

    I’ll definitely be checking out books from your list. Another great female author is Simone de Beauvoir.

    • says

      It is utterly ridiculous and it makes me sad. I suppose it’s up to us, the readers, as well as newer and upcoming literary magazines, to help try to change that.

      I haven’t read Simone de Beauvoir yet, despite actually taking a literary theory class! She’s on my list though.

  4. says

    One of my very favorite female authors is Anita Shreve. Her character development is exemplary. I can’t wait to read her next book because I have read about a dozen that have already been written.

  5. Anjali says

    Great post–it provides much food for thought. I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that more children’s books are written by women than by men. That should give some hope!

    But then even J.K.Rowling had to disguise her name when she started out. Let’s hope that awareness brings change.

  6. Pinar Tarhan says

    I love genre fiction, primarily thrillers and romances (mostly separately). So I tend to read a lot of male thriller writers and female romance writers. This is actually not a conscious choice. Sure, there are some authors I have to read (Grisham, Child, Brown…in thrillers, and too many women to name in the romance genre), but I want to discover more men in the romance/romantic comedy area and more women in thrillers.

    I’d love to hear recommendations:)

    PS I’m a female writer who writes romance and drama, but in my defense, I haven’t found my thriller muse yet.

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