The XX Factor

More Troubling Data About Women Writers

Last December, Publishers Weekly was put on notice for its gender discrimination by the organization I co-founded called Vida: Women In Literary Arts . PW ’s Best of 2009 list included exactly zero women writers in the top 10 and proportionally few in their top 100 category.

Now, the American writing community seems to be waking up to the unbalanced reality of our literary culture. Last month, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner called out the New York Times Book Review for their slavish devotion to all things Franzen and the ghettoizing of “chick lit,” which sells heartily but gets no respect from the critical literary establishment. ( Read more DoubleX coverage of the “franzenfreude” here .)

While the issue of defining chick lit is an important and complex task, it obscures the larger picture of the present publishing landscape: Women writers of every stripe and flavor, including those in the category deemed “literary,” are less likely to receive the kinds of ongoing critical and financial recognition that sustain and grow a writing career over a lifetime.

So far the media conversation surrounding this issue has been largely anecdotal. To that end, Vida spent the last months counting pretty much every prize, review, award series and publication you can think of, along with every major magazine’s table of contents, to see what the data over the last decade actually reveals. Over the next months we will be rolling out the statistics on our Web site for everyone to consider. To briefly summarize what we’ve discovered, the numbers generally indicate that if you’re a writer who happens to be a woman in any genre, you’d better be ready to spend your time clapping politely as your male friends pick up the majority of significant prizes, grants, awards, publications, and review coverage.

Just this week, senior editor Ruth Franklin, wrote an article that appeared on the New Republic ’s Web site shaming the New York Times for their nonresponsiveness to the Franzen fuss and their overall poor numbers in reviewing books by women. But Vida’s preliminary count reveals that between Feb. 4 and Sept. 2 of this year, the New Republic has published 160 men and only 32 women, this in the categories of nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews. This shows that most publications would be well-served by re-examining the gender balance of their literary coverage.

We don’t believe these statistics reveal some sort of national conspiracy to keep women writers down. There’s no bald-headed arch villain sitting around in his underground library saying, “Hmmm, what shall I do to disenfranchise the ladies today?” The answers to our questions are more complicated than this and most likely have to do with what the critical establishment unconsciously values as “literary.” Are certain subjects and styles considered inherently more “serious” and therefore more worthy of recognition than others? And why is it that more women haven’t been willing to enter into the critical conversation that often determines the way books are received by the literary establishment and reading public? Statistics aren’t in themselves an answer, but are instead an opportunity for those of us who love literature to open our minds to the possibility of other pleasures and ways of reading that we have yet to learn.

In the meantime, we will keep encouraging women to speak up about their experiences in the writing and publishing world. To paraphrase a male writer of whom we’re very fond, truth is, after all, beauty, and that’s all we need to know