Women in the Literary Arts

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).