As a woman, I’m a little bit tired of being pandered to. We get sold moisturizer, vodka and high-heeled shoes in the name of empowerment. We’re made to feel like the worst women ever if we don’t buy the special “breast cancer pink” post-it notes/stand mixer/blow dryer. “Red Alerts” about our fertility rates dropping, chances at marriage plummeting and the pitfalls of every life decision we make are splashed on the cover of every newspaper and magazine. Values like feminism, equality, charity, awareness and sensitivity are exploited for commercial gain so often that sometimes we don’t even pick up on when there’s a real issue that deserves our attention. When I first heard about 2014 being the “Year of Reading Women”, it didn’t even register. But then while writing the pen name post I came across an article that explained the very real issues that prompted this declaration.
Let’s start at the beginning. Every year VIDA, an American organization supporting women in the literary arts (whose name apparently doesn’t mean anything, nor is it an acronym), sorts through a years’ worth of the most influential literary magazines and journals in the world. They tally up, by gender, writers whose books are reviewed, reviewers, bylines and average review length. The complete 2013 findings can be found here.
Spoiler alert: They weren’t good.
Notable failings included the New York Review of Books, who review books by male authors 79.5% of the time*. Harpers came in at 74% male authors reviewed and the London Review of Books at 91.3% male.
*in 2012, that number was 79.8%, and the company vowed to improve. Which they did. By one more female author *insert slow clap here*
So, starting with Joanna Walshs’ #readwomen2014 campaign, various people of influence started to declare 2014 the Year of Reading Women. Some people are vowing to read solely female authors, or simply just to take a look at their reading habits, notice any imbalances* and make a concerted effort to seek out female authors. Most of the literary journals have made some sort of (likely empty) promise to do better next year. But one argument that has been put forward is that publishers aren’t publishing books written by women. And journals certainly can’t review books that aren’t being published. This is a fairly good point (although the New York Times Book Review is coming in at only 55% male so…they managed to find a few). But we can’t deny that publishers, in general, are publishing fewer books by women, and spending less money on promoting them.
*and then be incredibly ashamed and wait for the feminist police to come to your door and take away your feminist card.
So, what I’m hearing is that publishers hesitate to publish books by authors who haven’t sold well in the past, or garnered any positive attention and public demand. Critics can’t review books unless they are published, and rarely review books that have not been promoted heavily. We don’t hear about these books unless they are published, promoted and reviewed. If we don’t hear about these books, we can’t increase the public demand for more of the same. If you ask me, it’s a vicious cycle and no one wants to be the one to break it. One of the following (or all of the following) need to occur:
a) Publishers need to take a chance on some female authors who may not have yet gained notoriety.
b) Critics need to dig a little deeper and write some reviews for some books that have not been mailed to them by a big-name publisher as the next “it” book (I’m as guilty as anyone of this, I had no idea so many of my book reviews were of male-written books).
c) Readers need to create a demand for books by female authors by reading books by currently under-appreciated female authors.
As editor of the Literary magazine Critical Flame, Daniel Pritchard said in regards to this issue “Nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control”. So, in whatever way you feel is right, and in whatever capacity you can, please support the Year of Reading Women. Personally, I am not going so far as to exclusively read women, but it is something that is now on my radar. When I choose books on a whim or books to review, I’ll think twice.
But I’m still not buying the breast-cancer pink mittens*.
*I donate lots of money to many charities, including Canadian Cancer Society. Please don’t send me angry emails about how I should support the fight. I do. I just already have mittens.