I’m a novelist, not a statistician. Why am I taking the time now1 to count and graph the lack of recognition for women’s stories? Because it matters, and because I see a path to a solution.
This skewed publishing landscape is fixable. That, for me, is the point of this exercise. VIDA has shown that there are willing hands out there. And that’s the key: many hands. What I’ve love to see is the assembly of masses of data, data from many awards across many genres and categories. I’d love to see that data exploration encompass what books about women and about men are reviewed, submitted to awards, longlisted, and shortlisted. Once that’s done, we might go farther back (in time and the publishing process)2: who writes about women, who writes about men, who publishes it, who reads it. The more data we have, the more accurate our picture of the publishing ecosystem.
We now have the tools to analyse and display masses of data in ways that are easy to understand. We have more ways to parse and communicate the results—and solicit input.
Data is the way forward. Data will give us patterns. Patterns will give us connections. Connections will help sort correlation from cause. When we have causes, we can find solutions—or at least begin to experiment with a variety of solutions. And it will take experimentation: small (or radical) changes at many levels.
But the key point is that the publishing gender ecosystem can be fixed.3 And it needs to be fixed. Literature matters. Our novels are extra-somatic information delivery, they knit together our culture. They are part of what makes us who we are.4 If more than half human perspective isn’t being heard, then we are half what we could be. Stories subtly influence attitudes.5 If women’s perspectives aren’t folded into the mix, attitudes don’t move with the whole human race—just half of it.
If you are willing to do some counting, or some collating, if you just want to be part of the conversation, leave a comment.
ETA: Here’s how you can help.
1 I wrote a post about it 2007 for the LitBlog Coop but this was before social media so the spark didn’t catch. I’m not the only one thinking about this stuff, of course. For an excellent essay on gender and literary publishing, see Katherine Angel’s piece in the Los Angles Review of Books. For a fabulously graphed chunk of data on children’s and YA publishing, see Ladybusiness’s wonderful post (which I didn’t even know existed until yesterday—but this is exactly the kind of thing we need).
2As Laura Lippman and Sarah Weinman pointed out, things were better in the 90s for women in the mystery genre—at least with the Edgar Award for Best Novel—than they have been this century. What changed? I have no data, I don’t even know if this is true of other genres (though I suspect it is). But if I had to guess I’d say it was because abundance became scarcity. Fewer slots at a variety of levels: medium-sized publishers with individual tastes and marketing budgets, bookstore owners with individual tastes, review outlets, front-of-store choices. Scarcity tends to trigger conservatism, retrenchment, reliance on conventional wisdom: the male perspective is the Norm, female is the Other. But as I say, this is anecdata, not real data. It just an opinion—until someone does the work to assemble the info in one place.
3 It’s not just gender diversity that needs fixing, of course. See Malinda Lo’s excellent series of posts on diversity in YA.
4 There are studies showing fiction makes us more empathetic.
5 There are studies on this, too.
27 thoughts on “Books about women don’t win awards: solutions”
Before plunging into nitty-gritty data collection, I think it’s important to take the time to see what efforts have already taken place. If some or all of the data we want have already been collected, perhaps our time would best be spent locating and when necessary seeking permission to share them first.
If we do need to gather and crunch our own numbers, two ways I could contribute early on are to help vet the data structure so that contributors are plugging stats into the same framework and to provide an online form for uploading data sets and presenting the results.
Very important project. I would be happy to count, collate, or whatever it might take to support these efforts. Let me know how I can help.
There are places that do numbers on both reviews and awards — Vida (mostly literary) and Strange Horizons (SF/F). However, I haven’t seen any data related to the gender of the characters. That books about men by men do best, that books about men by women do better than books about women by women, and that there are very few books by men featuring women protagonists indicates that stories about women still don’t matter much. I’ll be glad to do what I can to help, though I don’t have any serious data analysis skills.
Paul, I agree about figuring out what’s already been done. And thank you for volunteering to vet data structure.
Lorna, please send your email via the contact form so I can get in touch later. And thank you!
Nancyjane, it will be a question of counting at first. But, y’know, many hands make light work! So thank you. I’ll email you as/when things get ready to roll.
Musing about how we’ll determine the gender of writers we don’t already know about. By name, in most cases. The ambiguous (S.E. Hinton, Pat Conroy) may be few enough that we can take the time to research them, but of course there are also the misdirective, whether intentionally (James Tiptree Jr., Jennifer Wilde) or unintentionally (Michael Learned, Evelyn Waugh) that can fly under that radar.
If this research extends worldwide, categorizing writers by gender will be more time-consuming for the likes of me who can identify names confidently in only a few languages nearby my own native English. Should the need arise we could save tons of time asking for help from cultural natives of Arabic, Mandarin, Swahili locales.
Have you given any thought to how to place transgendered writers & characters into the mix? Add two more categories for each of the two axes? And, dare I ask, if a book depicts a boy who grows up and then changes gender, would you place it in both the boys/men and the male-to-female transgender categories or just the latter?
(Sorry, I’ll shut up now~)
Nicola, I don’t know where to start helping. But if you point me in a useful direction, I’m in!
Kate: thank you! Would you email me (easier to file everything in the right place for later) so I can remember?
Paul: All good questions. My instinct would be to put trans narratives under the protagonist’s gender of choice, so for example FTM would be under Men and MTF would be under Women. But that will only cover trans not genderqueer narrative. But this and the language questions can only be answered by going back and forth with various communities. That will probably happen with time!
There’s a related article at npr.org by Rozane Gay about diversity in publishing.
PS. Thanks to Terry Tempest Williams for posting this on Fb.
Thanks, Ro. (FYI, links are always useful…)
I’ll help count. Sent you my personal email on the contacts form.
This is such an important project and I’d love to help out. I have some background in data analysis or I’m happy to just help count.
I love this so much- not the data as is, but that action is being taken to collect and hopefully change it. I work in the music industry, which is very obviously still a man’s world, and I fairly recently began working with an author. In navigating publishing l’ve found that the business sides of the industries are quite similar but I encounter more women in the book world than in music. It seems those in power, and perhaps readers at large, still gravitate toward male-centric work, though. 😐 If I can help in any way, let me know! Thirtyroses@me.com
Christine, Eric: Would you email me via the contact form so I can file your email addresses with others for later? Ta!
This is all extremely worthwhile. The best answer lies in changing the way the industry works. This includes traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Book publishing in fact, is the single largest category of revenue in “entertainment/media” worldwide. It is a $150bn industry which dwarfs all other single categories and it in fact, seeds and sustains many others. The industry was first established during the Napoleonic era as an actual “industry” and as I’ve previously noted, creative work is pretty much the only category of work in the west which still functions much like “indentured servant” used to 200 years ago. The industry itself, whether retailer that has discovered the ability to obtain nearly limitless product to sell for free (Amazon, other e-book sellers) or established publisher, which operates in a – I’ll be charitable – 19th century fashion, is based on assumptions made during a time when only a percentage of people were literate or potential customers.
Today, worldwide, probably 80 percent of people are potential customers (book buyers/readers). In North America (or the west in general) this figure is truly almost 100 percent. Yet only 20 percent, in North America, are being well-served and there is little understanding of the genuine interests, tastes and desires of the existing market, much less any impetus to getting to know or serve the 80 percent who are not regular bookbuyers or readers.
What I, and our company, bring to this table is over 100 years of experience across a broad range of other industries, including new/emerging sectors in green energy, manufacturing and sustainable foods. New product development and launch and Fortune 100 manufacturing. Finance and nonprofit entrepreneurship. We are also educators, recruiters, trainers from a variety of new disciplines.
We are of course in a huge uphill battle because even people of good will, who know in their hearts what a truly good book is, who understand the value of reading and understand what books really are — are in the 19th century mentality about the process. Right now our best message is we are “like Whole Foods for books.” Whole Foods, of course, doesn’t have 100% of the North American retail food market. But it’s growing fast while other sectors are shrinking and it has led to the growth of … let me give an example … in 2000, there were only 6 organic, grass-fed beef producers in Canada and the U.S. Today, there are more than 2,000. In 1980, Whole Foods started in founder John Mackay’s garage and there were only 6 organic/natural grocers in the U.S.
Today, there’s only one of us. Ten years from now . . .
Thank you for the opportunity, Nicola. We are not going to quit, we will not give up and we are going to get it done. We have lived through the tech revolution. I refer to this as the “creative revolution.”
Yes, and yes.
Sign me up
Nancy, will you send me your email address (via contact form) so I can add you to the list?
I thought Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” won the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction…..
Kelsey, it did. But it’s linked short stories—the first of which is from the POV of a man (I didn’t read them all) so I counted it as Both.
As I recall almost every story is from a different point of view, but Olive is the main character and the book is very much about her and her relationships with her family and community.
(For the record I firmly support printing more literature by and about women, but I also think it is important to recognize works like Strout’s)
I’ve just re-read “Olive Kitteridge,” which I love. It roams through many different characters’ perspectives, including, often, Olive’s husband, Henry.
Kelsey, well, the Pulitzer did :)
Rosalie, thanks. Yep, that’s what I thought: both.
I think that’s an interesting proposition, Nicola, if I’m reading you right – that the point of view character through whom the author describes the central subject of a work (at least Olive Kitteridge) is about as important as the focal character. Is the book really about Henry et al. with Olive simply serving as a means to that end, or is the book really about Olive and the POVs simply the handy tools? Or are they all around the same valence with point of view a mere winkle?
I have read a mediocre novel or two in my time. My personal bias is that if the POV character is such a flat and transparent lens as to be inconsequential to the story then that constitutes authorial failure – such a missed opportunity and such blindness to human depth to suppose that any character held so close to the reader’s nose could be so disregarded. However, that isn’t to say it doesn’t happen. I would hope that in a Pulitzer-winning work every POV character would be drawn with subtlety and depth and be worthy of that aboutness we seek to document here.
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