The Count Is Out.

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...

By Tara Moss

Feb 29, 2012

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.

I have blogged about this issue previously, to some interesting – and heated – responses.

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.

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  1. SeantheBookonaut

    It’s largely a cultural bias and largely subconscious in my opinion. Except for dinosaurs like Naipaul who can be open misogynists and still have people fawn over them.

    I think Male privilege is so deeply embedded and so constantly reinforced that its going to be a hard one to crack.

    Unfortunately or fortunately if you are in the business of selling books book marketing is generally not about changing or challenging peoples reading habits but matching audiences with product.

  2. Kirsten Tranter

    Great post Tara – it’s so depressing to think that so little has changed since the fist Vida count last year. But it’s good to have the stats to hand to prove that it isn’t just a vague hunch, or paranoid hysteria, etc.
    Looking forward to talking on March 8!

  3. Ross H

    Naipaul is a ridiculous outdated misogynist.

    As for the National Year of Reading, that thing is overrated. I was on a selection panel, trying to work within quite narrow guidelines and even then the head committee that we sent them to, changed them around anyway to what they thought we should have selected according to their guidelines. I was disgusted.

    Yes, there are more male than female authors on my bookshelves. But more males are published to begin with in a lot of the stuff I purchase. As for my review books, I am stuck with what I am sent. But I can truthfully say that I do not consider author gender when I select a book to be read or when writing a review. As for addressing gender difference in statistics, it now occurs to me – what sort of gender difference might there be in the total number of books being published?

  4. Lindy Cameron

    Brava Tara
    A measured insight into the ongoing state of affairs.
    My response to the National Year of Reading list is to ignore it and instead choose a year of Australian fiction from both genders in equal measure. Although I suspect if I was to limit myself to Aussie crime for the year my TBR pile of women writers would be way higher than that of by women. Whether the higher publication rate of women crime writers in Australia has been / or will be reflected in a greater number of reviews for women…I’m not holding my breath on that one. To UP my pile of Aussie men writing genre – my fiction of choice – I will have to venture into the sf realm.

  5. Lindy Cameron

    oops, typo: TBR ile of women writers would be way higher than that of by MEN.

  6. Meggie (age 13)

    Though these statistics are terribly low, and the differnce between male and female reviews is to wide, I would like to know the percentage of male to female reviewers of the books. Typically men want to read sport, war, and thriller stories. Women want to read books like your’s (not meant in a bad way I love them), romance, relationships, comedy. It stands to reason if more men are reviewing book they wouldn’t want to read about romance, they want horror, death, killings, war stories etc. Not love, relationships, romance etc.Although I agree with you and how shocking these statistics are, can we really say we’re suprised? I mean really. We live in a man’s world. Think about the word women for example, in that word there’s men. 300 years ago a women’s first duty was to supply her husband with an heir. In my own opinion many men still feel the same way, I’m not saying all me but enough to blame the lot of them. These results are disgusting however this was, is and probably always will be a man’s world. I hate saying it but a women has to work three times as hard to achieve the same as a man even in the 21st century. A man can say "Hi, I’m…" and an entire room full of people will turn and look. A woman to achieve the same goal must scream at the top of the same room have everyone turn and look at her and be called crazy. Women are still lower on the "food chain" than men, even though in the early 1900’s women were said to be equal to men. We’re not. It’s the way our lives are. So, what can we do about it? Succeed! Take the high road, raise your head look beyond the resentment and beat them at thier own game. Thank them in our speeches and smile. Things aren’t equal, the playing field isn’t level yet for there to be a them, there must be a us. Both genders men and women need to be equal not above or below oneanother, equal. Returning to the statistics, I hate that there are far less women being reviewed compared to men even though the amount of books the published is almost equal. It doesn’t take a genius to see there is clearly a litarary bias toward men however it takes a women to be hurt by these statistics and a man to say it’s just "Privilaged Whining…" if my memory serves me well that was posted on this blog, your blog, by a Cameron Woodhead, of whom I haven’t seen anymore comments. I love the saying "Things can always get worse." I like to think the "Privilaged Whining" can always get worse. Thank you Mrs Moss for once again raising this issue, it makes for interesting lunch breakes at school. P.S. Have you recieved your drat of "Assassin" back yet? I can’t wait to read it.

  7. Alvin

    Years ago, I felt there was, broadly speaking, quite a very detectable difference in the way men and women wrote. I definitely don’t believe that is the case today.
    I often wonder if the difference has disappeared because publisher expectations of women writers have changed. Not that I understand why this would be the case in the first place.
    Regardless, I think we are definitely at the point where it’s all about the quality of the copy and nothing else, thank goodness. A good story is a good story – and I love it.



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