Women in the Literary Arts

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A Companion to the Historical Film

A Companion to the Historical Film

A Companion to the Historical Film

I received my copy of A Companion to the Historical Film yesterday, to which I contributed an essay. I gazed at the review snippets on the back of this book, where one reviewer has informed a potential reader that this book enlists “all the best names in the field” and allowed myself to feel proud for being published in this collection – no humble-bragging here, my contribution was based on original research and I’m proud of it and the work I put into it. Receiving this book in the mail yesterday made this post timelier for me, and reminded me that I need to keep on fighting in my field. Because the statistics for women in publishing and in the literary arts are still pretty grim.

The 2012 statistics gathered by VIDA examine several notable publications and the percentage of women’s input and representation in all. Going through them gets progressively depressing: The London Review of Books reviewed a total of 73 female authors, as opposed to 203 male ones; The New Republic has only 9 female book reviewers, compared to 79 males ones; 47 bylines for The Atlantic were by women, contrasted with 176 by men; The New York Review of Books has 215 male reviewers and a measly 40 female ones, not to mention the fact it reviewed 316 books by men, but only 89 by women; and The Paris Review, one of the oldest and most respected journals for new literature, included 11 female poets but 48 male ones last year. I could go on, but there’s an obvious pattern here: writing, reviewing and ‘literature’ are predominantly considered to be a male art. Women also fared terribly in 2012 with some leading Australian publications, including The Monthly and The Australian Literary Review.

There is nothing particularly new about these statistics, as they simply confirm what many female writers know to be true from their own individual experiences: there is an obvious gender bias when it comes to the production, reception and review of work by women. It’s a bias that seems to be getting worse, not better. So what’s going on here?

At the heart of the problem is of course institutional sexism, which infiltrates many working environments and to which the literary arts and leading publications aren’t immune. The same barriers which have stopped women from being hired because of their gender, and which have hindered their rise in various other workplaces, also affect the hiring, publishing and submission environments of many notable publications. It’s not always intentional sexism, but it exists because this is how our workplaces and societies have functioned, and continue to function. But added to that general institutional sexism is something extra: art and literature are considered ‘serious’ affairs, and women have traditionally been regarded as anything but ‘serious’.

As I’ve stated before, we only need to look at the way many books by women are received and categorised. Men get ‘literature’ and general ‘fiction’ sections, while women get ‘chick lit’ and ‘women’s writing’. Men get to speak for humanity as a whole, like a template for the universal human experience, while women can only speak for women. Their books are specifically marketed to other women, in a sexist assumption that what women write has a select audience only. Books by men, however, are marketed to all. In that logic, it makes sense that there would be a gender bias when it comes to the reviewing of women’s work. If women can only speak for other women as ‘special’ sub-categories in the human experience, then why should a male reviewer pick up a book by a woman and be compelled to review it, write about it, and take it seriously? Why should he relate to it and approach it as something that speaks of our shared humanity, rather than gender? And indeed, why should a leading publication pause to consider its own gender biases and practices when it comes to who they hire and who they consider worthy of being reviewed and published?

Change won’t really come until there is a deeper shift in consciousness about women’s abilities and their creative and intellectual outputs. There have been many feminist critics who have highlighted how intellectual thought, creativity and writing were always considered ‘masculine’ by nature, and we are still fighting against that dominant assumption. Women are traditionally aligned with their bodies, men with their minds. Until we can start to see beyond this binary, we’re all going to be stuck with more grim statistics.

So what can we do? VIDA offers some practical tips: “Count your bookshelves … Write seriously about works by women. Solicit and commission writing by women.” This is all absolutely necessary and it’s pretty basic stuff in the year 2013. Because you have to wonder why in a world where women make up 50% of the global population their perspective, their abilities and their works are still not afforded equal space in prominent publications. Now, go look at your bookshelves (I am).


Amelia said...

I spy a Romanian (Parvulescu)!

I read those statistics too and I think it's insane. I am trying to do my part as a reader too, I am trying o read as many books written by women as possible. I am trying to stray away from the classic and well known names of literature and find new writers.

While I do agree that the stereotype of women being less creative needs to go, we as consumers of literature can do something about it. We can push for women writers to have more visibility.

Hila said...

Amelia: Yes, most definitely Romanian! This collection is truly international, the people who have contributed are from all over the world.

I also think that we as consumers can help change along, but I would also like to start seeing active change in submission processes, in hiring environments, and in general attitudes to female writers. I could show you an impressive selection of sexist responses I've received in reply to some submissions. And yet, we're sold this pure 'meritocracy' line about the publication process. Sometimes this is true, things are based on merit, but I also think it's disingenuous to suggest that gender bias doesn't play a large role in this process too, and I guess these statistics prove it.

rooth said...

Good call on the bookshelves. I'm more than guilty of having a male-dominated bookshelf and my favourite authors are all male. That being said, it's something to work on and be conscious of. There's something about those chick lit-esque covers that are a huge turn off for me.

PS - Have you been following the news around the publication of Lean In? I haven't read it yet but wonder if you have a viewpoint on it

Amelia said...

I agree that there's something rotten in the industry.

To me as a reader, I am interested in finding female writers and reading them but sometimes it's very hard because of the reasons you said.

I wish there would be like an internet book club that focuses on women writers.

Sally said...

This is one of those topics that connects to so many others in my mind, I can barely be articulate about it. So I'll just say: It's incredible that stereotypes so utterly ridiculous still persist. And I am still bitter that I was made to feel foolish growing up if I listed a female author as my favorite, and that peers have made fun of my taste in literature (writing my thesis on the Brontes did *not* make me one one of the cool kids in the English dept). And boo to the plethora of hiring, salary, submission, and other discriminations - just, ugh.

(But the book looks wonderful, by the way - congratulations!)

Odessa said...

Congrats on the book, Hila! That is definitely something to be proud of.

And yes, it's so sad to see these statistics on women in the literary or film industry. I mean, I'm already aware of it but seeing it presented in visuals and hard facts is something else. Thank you for the reminder of looking at our bookshelves. I don't even think it was a conscious decision on my part by looking at my 'goodreads' account, 11 out of 15 books I've read so far this year were written by women. :)

Danielle P. said...

It's so disheartening to read these statistics... and to know that things are getting worse.

I couldn't agree more with you about the categorisation of books written by women. And to think that some women are glad to call their works "chick lit"! It just makes my brain hurt.

(At first glance, I'd say my bookshelves are split evenly between men and women, which might be attributable in part to my fondness for crime fiction — a genre that boasts a high number of excellent female authors!)

Hila said...

Rooth: Haha, and those covers are supposedly used to market these books to us 'ladies'. It doesn't work with me either, they turn me off from buying a book. Which is sad, considering I may be missing out on good books because of silly covers and silly marketing decisions about women's intellectual capacities. Nope, haven't been keeping up with Lean In, I'll have to read up about it.

Amelia: well, this post made me start a 'club of sorts! Also, there's this challenge: http://australianwomenwriters.com/2013-challenge/sign-up/. I'm sure there are others online, as I seem to remember seeing other similar challenges/clubs.

Sally: It is ridiculous how persistent these silly stereotypes about female authors are. Have you read the book 'The Madwoman in the Attic'? It describes the sexist legacies about creativity and authorship so well. And thanks!

Odessa: Thank you! So much hard work went into that essay. And yes, I agree with you: seeing these statistics laid out like this in charts is so disheartening. It makes me angry.

Danielle: The category 'chick lit' makes my brain hurt too. I'm not surprised to hear that about your bookshelves!

hungryandfrozen said...

Congratulations on being published, Hila.

Those statistics are horrible, but as you say, it confirms a lot of things I suspected anyway. I hate that writing by women is seen as special interest, or that so much romance writing - which is no less legitimate than any other genre - ends up shunted into "chick lit" categories and suddenly loses credibility. Am doing my small bit by trying to read more by women writers (and more films by women directors!)

Mariella said...

Honestly I am a bit shocked by reading this, I really didn't think...maybe because in my mind there are so many brilliant women writers that I never thought there would be gender bias in the publishing field...but maybe that's just me being naive. My books are scattered between my home and my parents' home so it's hard for me to make an exact guess, but what I know for sure is that I have read many books by women, and if I think about it I tend to prefer women writers over men, consciously or not, I could not say.

Mariella said...

By the way, I hate the term 'chick lit"!! Although I must admit it is a sad reality...

Mariella said...

By the way, I hate the term 'chick lit"!! Although I must admit it is a sad reality...

Hila said...

Laura: you know, it's funny, because historically, romance was seen as a legitimate genre - when it was the domain of male writers (I'm thinking of traditional romance, such as the chivalric romantic literature written in the middle ages, and so on). But now that it's aligned with female writers and readers, well of course, it's embarrassing and a 'special interest'. Sigh.

Mariella: I'm not really shocked by these statistics, just depressed. It's so obvious there's a gender bias, and yet we pretend as if publishing, writing and reading are based purely on a 'meritocracy'. It's silly to suggest that the same sexism which affects the rest of our lives doesn't affect this particular industry too. I really dislike the term 'chick-lit', as well as 'chick-flick'.