Well, ‘The Count’ is out. According to the latest statistics published today by VIDA, in 2011 we again saw a clear gender bias in the literary world – unconscious or otherwise – with some of the worst offenders including major publications like London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic and The Atlantic, among others.
This is not a ‘women VS men’ debate, and no one person, publication, literary prize or gender are to blame for what has been revealed to be an obvious and broad imbalance in representation. As I have stated before, in my view there has never been a better time to be a writer, to be a woman, or to be a woman writer. But that doesn’t mean the issues surrounding gender bias in the literary world, or any other arena, should not be openly discussed, or should be deemed ‘privileged whining’ – to quote one critic. It is clear that although many of us would be quick to claim we don’t care about the gender of the authors we read, we may nonetheless take a glance at our shelves, or book recommendations and find ourselves shocked to see a clear imbalance – an 80/20 split or worse in many cases, which may be about equal to the representation of women’s fiction in the reviews of many of the most important literary publications.
Stats tell us that about equal numbers of men and women are published, women buy more fiction than do men, and much of the publishing industry is dominated by women, yet female authors are consistently less frequently reviewed and awarded, year after year. (Check out the Stella Prize for more details on gender bias as it relates to literary awards.)
Recently, for instance, as part of the National Year of Reading, Australians were asked to choose the best books from a selection of Australian titles shortlisted by librarians across the country. Out of the eight winning titles, only one was written by a woman. (Ros Moriarty for Listening to Country).
What makes us so consistently undervalue women’s writing?
Though women and men are published in roughly equal numbers, is there something substantially different about what novels they publish?
Or perhaps, because male authors win major literary prizes more often and are more frequently reviewed, this affects our perception of the value of certain literary works and ‘voices’ in the fiction we read? Perhaps it is something else that makes us, as a culture, choose the ‘male voice’ as the one we hold in most esteem?
If we didn’t know the gender of the author, would it make a difference? (Some authors like JK Rowling, PD James, Alex Palmer, etc choose gender-neutral names while others, like Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin published under male names.)
Or do you, like literary luminary VS Naipaul, believe that “within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not” and it is “unequal to me.”
As novelist Dr. Kerryn Goldsworthy, a former editor of Australian Book Review and a former member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, has said, ‘Most of the unconscious bias I have seen in the literary world, and I have seen a great deal, has been to do with the male-centered values of a dominant culture whose values most people wrongly think are universal and gender-neutral.’
Have a look at the VIDA count for 2011. What are your thoughts? Why does the bias exist and what can be done to create a better balance?
PS On March 8, International Women’s Day, I will be taking part in a Stella Prize/IWD panel discussion in Katoomba with fellow authors Claire Corbett, founder of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge Elizabeth Lhuede and Stella Prize co-founder and author Kirsten Tranter to discuss this issue: Carrington Hotel, 15-47 Katoomba Rd, Katoomba NSW. The event is free but you must RSVP. All are welcome.