Gender, books, and publishing

March 25, 2015 Musings 15

art by Dave Cutler

“Far more books are published by men than by women, perhaps because publishers feel that books by men are a safer bet. We can affect this by making a choice when it comes to the books we buy, since how we chose to spend our money is the most effective weapon we have.”

     Johann Thorsson, from Lessons From a Month of Reading Only Books By Women (via bookriot)

A few years back, Salon published a piece that cited a 2010 survey of publishers’ catalogs showing that on average, only 30% of most publishers’ books were written by women. Similarly, the 2013 VIDA count shows a significant gender gap in major literary publications and book reviews. So apparently Thorrson is right: male authors dominate the publishing world.

Frankly, that surprises me. I buy a lot of books, and my bookshelves are dominated by female writers. For example, my hardcover mystery shelves include books by Catherine Aird, Margery Allingham, Nancy Atherton, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Gilman, Charles Finch, Dick Francis, Laurie R. King, Ngaio Marsh, Ellis Peters (a woman), Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey, Jacqueline Winspear – 12 women, 3 men.  My SFF shelves are divided a bit more evenly, but the women slightly outnumber the men by a little on those shelves as well. And of course, most if not all of the authors on my romance shelf are women. The only place where male authors seem to outnumber females is on my classics shelves and in nonfiction and reference books.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy books by men – far from it. At the risk of sounding like  a cliche, some of my all-time  and more recent favorite books are by men — The Lord of the Rings; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Name of the Wind; Libriomancer; Winnie the Pooh; and the Belgariad, to name just a few.  Of course, some of my old and new favorites are by women – McCaffrey’s Pern novels, A Wrinkle in Time, The River of No Return, A Discovery of Witches, the Harry Potter books.

My shelves skew toward female authors neither because I consciously seek them out over male authors, nor because I avoid male authors, but for two reasons:

  1. I read a lot of genre fiction. Romance is dominated by women authors, to the point that male authors use initials or women’s names. Mystery has long been open to women, especially those writing classic detective stories and cozies (the field is less open for hardcore thriller writers, though that is changing.)  Fantasy has been relatively open to women writers. For years, SF was not very easy for women to break into (which is why authors like Andre Norton and James Tiptree Jr. wrote under male pseudonyms), but again, that’s changing. A significant number of Hugos were won by women this year – but there’s still a lot of sexism in the SF/F writing and publishing world.
  2. I gravitate toward books with well-written, well-rounded female characters alongside the males. For a long time, these were harder to find in books written by men than in those written by women. (Think about the dearth of women in The Lord of the Rings – although the few women who do show up are pretty amazing. And think about the way women are portrayed in many of the hardboiled detective mysteries – as either the damsel in distress or the seductive broad.)

Clearly, judging by my bookshelves and those in bookstores, female authors are getting published, if not in the same numbers as men. But I’d still like to see more parity in the publishing industry – and not just in who gets published. I’d like to see less “gendering” in how books are acquired by publishers, designed (I’m referring to cover design), and marketed. I’d like to see more well-written, non-stereotyped and non-objectified female characters in stories. And I’d really like to see our culture become more open to boys and men reading what are thought of as “women’s” or “girls'” books, but are really just books.

Look, it shouldn’t have been necessary for Jo Rowling to publish the Harry Potter books under her initials just so boys wouldn’t be put off. It shouldn’t be necessary for men who write romance to publish under a female pseudonym in order to gain readers and avoid ridicule. An author like Shannon Hale shouldn’t show up at a school to discover that the middle-school boys hadn’t been given permission to attend the assembly – perhaps because some of her books have the word “Princess” in the title, and because her protagonists are female. (If your response to that is a dropped jaw, followed by outrage, rest assured you aren’t alone.)

If it’s fine for men to write female protagonists, why not the other way ’round? Why do so many books by female authors get “feminine” covers that discourage male readers from buying them? Why do some publishers assume that a book that deals with love or family is “women’s fiction” or even “chick lit” if it’s by a woman, but “literary fiction” if it’s by a man? Why do some male authors think that it’s OK to write flat female characters because they “don’t understand” girls/women, as though girls and women were some alien race? And why, in heaven’s name, do we encourage and even require girls to read books about boys, but discourage and excuse boys from reading books about girls? (Which, by the way, only perpetuates that females-as-unknowable-aliens myth.)

Shouldn’t we have moved past all that by now?

Fixing these biases in the writing and publishing world is going to take a lot more than just choosing to buy or read only women authors. I don’t think our buying habits alone can change things, though it can’t hurt and will probably help. But editors choose books based on their own, often unconscious, assumptions and biases. Since readers can’t buy what doesn’t get published, those assumptions and biases tend to perpetuate themselves. (Yes, authors can now self-publish, but the notable successes in self-publishing tend to be in genre fiction. It seems to me that literary fiction crowd is pretty scornful of self-publishing, which doesn’t leave much room for it to influence traditional publishers in the general/literary fiction field.)

Besides, there is really good stuff being written by both men and women, and by really good I mean not only in the literary sense but also in terms of how female characters and gender relations are portrayed. I’d prefer to encourage the men who are writing with awareness – men like Jim C. Hines – to keep doing so, and that means buying their books too.

No, what’s needed is a wider approach. We’ve got to keep the conversations going – about women in publishing, women authors, female characters, gendered books, and above all about the underlying cultural assumption that the default norm in general is male, and female is a variant, inherently different from “normal.” Only when society at large sees men and women as fully equal will that equality be reflected in publishing and in the books we read.

So how do we do that?

  1. Keep buying and reading books by women authors.
  2. Buy and read books with well-written, unstereotyped characters of both genders, regardless of the author’s gender.
  3. Draw attention in our reviews to how authors portray female characters and/or deal with in gender relations – whether positively or negatively.
  4. Avoid gendering books when we review them or talk about them. For instance, be careful about saying that a book with a young female protagonist will appeal to girls or that a character good role model for girls – something I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve done. A character like Hermione or Katniss or Keladry of Mindelan doesn’t have to be a role model for girls only, and there’s no reason boys wouldn’t enjoy reading about their adventures. Back when I was teaching, I sometimes read books about female protagonists to my middle-schoolers; the boys in my classes were as interested and eager to find out what happened next as the girls were.
  5. Notice and draw attention to the ways in which the publisher has tried to gender a book (design, marketing.)
  6. Participate in conversations about gender equality in writing/publishing and in the wider world, whether online or IRL.
  7. Pay attention to our own unconscious assumptions and try to root them out. (This one is probably the most important.)

Challenge accepted.


Leopards and Dragons has written a post along similar lines, taking BookRiot’s list of feminist books for younger readers as a starting point. It’s worth reading. 

15 Responses to “Gender, books, and publishing”

  1. Red Iza

    I’m not surprised that male authors are a majority, I work with books so I noticed that already. But I hate the difference that is made between a book written by a man and a book written by a woman, how the female author is considered less in general, except if she’s a recognized author (and very likely dead !).
    In romance, I enjoy heroins that don’t think shopping is the only fun there is in life and who don’t like pink, but I can’t say they’re that many ! I think women have to work upon themselves first, stop following what is expected of them because of social prejudice and stop spreading that in the books they write, for example, stop mistaking stubbornness for character. Ah, there would be a lot to write about that ! Thanks very much for this post 🙂
    Red Iza recently posted…Review / Chloe Neill : Dark debtMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      You make an excellent point that female as well as male authors need to examine their writing and avoid stereotypes and prejudices in it. Certainly, many of us (women, I mean) have internalized some of those stereotypes and gender assumptions and are unaware of them (and I include myself in that. Though I was raised by feminists, I’m still working to become more aware.)

  2. Bookworm Brandee

    I hadnt really thought about there being more books published by males. I suppose this is because i read so much genre fiction and indie published fiction that tends to be written by females. But it makes sense since we live in such a male dominated society. And it’s makes me sad. i will accept the challenge to do what i can to change things as well. Great post, Lark!
    Bookworm Brandee recently posted…Travel by the Book ~ Cold Mountain/AshevilleMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Thanks, Brandee! That’s what I wanted the post to do – just make people think a little. Awareness is half the battle!

  3. Bea @Bea's Book Nook

    Fantastic post.

    “Shouldn’t we have moved past all that by now?” You’d think so; it is the 21st century, or longer depending on your calendar.

    I wish I could say that any of the facts you shared were new to me but they aren’t. This problem is ongoing and will take a concerted long-term effort to change. I can’t recall off the top of my head if I’ve said things like “a good role model for girls”. I hope not but won’t swear to it. I *have* called out books and authors for their portrayal of women. I don’t think I have done the same for that of men however, not that I can recall anyway.

    “Pay attention to our own unconscious assumptions and try to root them out. (This one is probably the most important.)” – also quite difficult but worth it.

    Wonderful post Lark.
    Bea @Bea’s Book Nook recently posted…Jax Reviews Playing Knotty by Elia WintersMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Thank you, Bea! I know I’ve said “a good role model for girls”, and on the one hand, I guess it’s worth saying because good female protagonists and role models are sometimes harder to find than their male counterparts (and used to be MUCH harder to find – that much is changing, thank goodness!) But on the other hand, if a character is a good role model, they’re a good role model for either gender, period. The qualities of courage, honesty, intelligence, compassion, inner strength, sense of justice, etc. are worth emulating regardless of the gender of either character or reader. I shouldn’t have suggested that someone like Tamora Pierce’s Keladry of Mindelan isn’t a good role model for boys, too.

  4. Windsprite

    I think you lately set a link about girls reading more than boys, didn’t you? So at least the girls are overtaking in reading…

    My method of breaking this is trying to write my own books, even though I haven’t finished a single one 😀 but I think, I don’t really care, what gender the author is, when I like the book. I think, I don’t even need to care to buy more books written by women, because women and men both write good books and you don’t need to make a fuss about it. That’s what I think.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I did indeed – though I think that boys not reading is also part of the gender-and-books problem. It’s great that you’re writing your own books, and I’m sure you’ll finish them someday. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of books by male authors that I enjoy, and I don’t really choose books because of the gender of the author. The point that the essayist I quoted was trying to make is that a lot more male authors get published than women; it’s also true that a lot more of the “serious” literary prizes go to men, and male authors are way over-represented in literature courses in both high school and college. So there are reasons to be aware of what you’re reading and buying – not to stop buying and reading books by men, but to make sure you’re also reading and buying books by women, to try to send a message to the publishers that they should be publishing as many books by women as by men. Because surely, women can write just as well as men! (And one of my points was that the purchasing strategy may or may not work to change publishers’ minds.)

  5. Danya @ Fine Print

    This post is so great, Lark! Unfortunately, my time at school has been dominated by male writers and protagonists (I’m an English/History double major). It seems to me that unless a professor makes a concerted effort to include a diverse list of people on the syllabus, it ends up being mostly men…unless it’s a “women writers” class. It makes me angry that we still need a women writers class since most of the books are from the 20th century anyway. I feel like we should have reached gender parity in literary fiction by now, at least for that time period. /end rant

    One author that I always recommend to people who want complex female characters is Malinda Lo, who has written a few fantasy novels featuring LGBT women. They’re gorgeously written and I feel like they give voice to a perspective that’s pretty marginalized in YA. Plus, they’re kickass.
    Danya @ Fine Print recently posted…Series Review: Alpha & Omega by Patricia BriggsMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      My daughter is at a very forward-thinking, liberal liberal-arts college, and even there, her current literature course is heavily dominated by male authors – which is frustrating to her. Thank you for the recommendation; I’ve heard of Malinda Lo, but haven’t read her yet. I’ll definitely be taking a look at her books.

  6. Stephanie

    I am also always surprised to hear about the inequality in publishing simply because I tend to read more women authors then men or at least 50/50. Like you I read a lot of genre fiction which likely helps with that.
    The paragraph which starts “If it’s fine for men to write female protagonists…” had me jumping up and down and yelling Yes! All excellent and very significant and revealing questions. I have definitely been guilty of saying a book would be good for a boy or a girl and I have tried and will continue to try to cut that out – most importantly to stop MY brain from thinking that way.
    Great exploration of this issue Lark. I wish I had something deeper to say but you pretty much covered everything and I will do my best to follow your suggestions!
    Stephanie recently posted…Saturdays in the Garden – Bison, Butterflies and Another Crazy WeekMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Thank you, Stephanie! That’s high praise, and I’m glad it made you think.

      Re your Saturday post – Oh, I wish I loved gardening! I love reading posts about it, but somehow when it actually comes around to getting out there and digging in the dirt, I’m not so enthusiastic. Of course, anything I plant just gets eaten by the deer and bunnies, which is a little discouraging! Still, I think I’m going to plant some bulbs next fall: daffodils and crocus at least.

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