Writing Equality

Every Saturday I have a writing date with Margaret where we struggle to put words on the page and then cheer each other on when we submit things or come up with ideas we are merely grasping at. Last Saturday she asked me about a contest that I had entered back in December. Grand prize was 2k and the prompt was to write about a man-made natural disaster in order to bring awareness to environmental issues. I fell madly in love with the story I wrote. It was exciting, it felt right, I knew it would be a contender and how often does that happen, really?

When Margaret asked about it, I said they hadn’t made a decision yet. But I was wrong. Kamel did some searching online and came up with a winner’s page posted back in Jan. This particular site is run by Gawker, not particularly known for it’s literary merit to say the least. But 2k was on the line, and they couldn’t even send a notification email out? They had just over 250 applicants – which tells me they could have easily sent out emails and also slightly embarrasses me that with such a small pool of competition I didn’t even get an honorable mention. But then I looked at the winners and I understood why. Both main winners, male. The excerpt from the winning story – a strong male voice, incredibly fact based (a focus more on terms and science than on good story telling). The only mention of female participants? Both in an honorable mention capacity, not even as a runner up. The site is mostly read by men, and science based writing is culturally viewed as a men’s genre, but don’t even tell me that women don’t write sci-fi as well as men do, don’t even tell me that there just aren’t as many women writing it as men. My frustration doesn’t come from losing, it comes from a sub-par winner that happens to have a quick Hemingway-esque style and no imagination. Main character is a reporter? Reporting on a natural disaster? Wow, color me shocked.

If you have spent any amount of time in the literary fiction world as a woman it becomes clear there is a glass ceiling. I felt it subtly throughout undergrad in my creative writing classes – those who were treated like the best writers in the class? Almost always men. (With the exception of me, of course… I’m not even going to lie about that.) When I was teaching a Women’s Lit Survey course at USF, I was shocked to have students tell me point blank they didn’t read women writers, that they thought male writers were more interesting, told a better story, that women only write about romance and feelings. They said this without a flinch, to my face, all while I was writing a novel about death, about taxidermy, that was irreverent and complicated.

When I told Margaret this she asked me how I hadn’t punched them in the face. Well, as I got to know them, I also saw that they didn’t know very much about a lot of things, so I figured it was a bit of a lost cause. I am a writer, I think I’m pretty awesome, maybe I could teach by example?

So Margaret and I had a common chat about typical sexism in writing, how frustrating it is, how – yet again – men are the predominant winners for contests, for fame, and for publication. And then Margaret wrote a fabulous blog about the issue. She says,

Gender inequality that has nothing to do with writing is going to affect writing. That’s what it means to live in patriarchy. Everything is touched. I don’t think it’s a mark against any literary journal or magazine to acknowledge that.

This isn’t just two lady writers bitching about not getting published. I’ve received countless denial letters, it’s par for the course of any writer, regardless of gender. It’s about a constant preference for a male voice. To say it more clearly – how many books to movies can you think of with a strong female lead? Not an ensemble cast, not the girl who moons over the vampire, but a movie with a dynamic female lead that came from a novel. Even if you name 5, there are 50 more for men.

These are the numbers that Vida collected and put into pie charts. Go ahead and click on the link, scroll through the page, it will take you 5 seconds to see the SHOCKING inequality. I knew it was there, as a writer I feel it in the air, but to see that if I submit to Harper’s I don’t just have the slim chance of every other writer to be published there – I have less than 25% chance whereas a man has over 75% of the field. It honestly makes me want to cry. It makes me want to rage. And it makes me want to write and write and write and write and submit until I get published again and again. But will I even make a dent? The glass ceiling is there, waiting to stop me.

30 thoughts on “Writing Equality”

  1. Yes to this whole thing. It’s hard to know why you’re getting rejected, but stats like this make it blatantly obvious that something deeper is often at play than “I liked this” or “This was terrible.” I’m proud of you for being brave enough to say, “My stuff is better than this. This isn’t an issue of my work being good enough, this is an issue of sexism.”

    It’s hard to just come out and say the latter, when you know someone else is going to say it’s the former. This has long been an issue of mine, from my first job up through college to my current job. Unless sexism is hugely blatant (which, in my daily life, it often isn’t), it’s hard to point it out.

    [Also, you mention the book-to-movie issue, which is partially the book-to-movie issue, and partially also just the movie issue. This strip from DTWOF is from 1985, and it’s still so true, and that’s insane: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zizyphus/34585797/ A whole different issue to tackle, but I thought it was worth mentioning. And any time I get to bring up The Rule, I get excited. So there!]

  2. Please don’t stop writing. We need great female writers like you to challenge the norm and fight to be recognized. I know it’s frustrating, but I have full confidence in you and your talent.

    1. YES. Sexism is so difficult to point out in the arts because it’s so subjective, but it IS there. And it needs people like you to fight it and say, “EFF THE BASTARDS! I am HERE and I am GOOD and you are GOING TO READ ME.”

      1. I dno’t think sexism is subjective, but the arts are. And people can fall back on the “well you just aren’t a good a writer as the other guy”… which is true sometimes, but then when their are stats like that it becomes glaringly untrue.

        There is an assumption by society that lady writers write about silly things. Or are too wordy. Or only write CHICK LIT. And the fact that those things are negatives is a problem. It’s also a problem that it seems women can only be successful as writers of bodice rippers or children’s books (Harry Potter included, although I love me some YA). Where is the woman who stands next to chuck palahniuk with equal ferocity? They are out there but no one talks about them.

        1. Yes! That’s what I meant, arts are subjective. And even children’t books aren’t immune, JK Rowling went by JK because a magic book about a boy wouldn’t sell if written by a woman…

          1. I hate that fact. In grad school I tooled around with thinking I could go be L.S. Dupuis but eff that noise. I am Lauren. I write like a Lauren because that’s who I am. I think I’ll just do my best to break it. It SUCKS that JK had to be all JK about it, that should not be the case. Sigh… oh the rage.

          2. The thing I always think of with Harry Potter is that they would not have been particularly successful if Hermione had been the Chosen One. Not only did JK have to disappear her gender at first, a female lead protagonist wouldn’t have sold as well or been as wildly popular. (Quick! Think of a children’s movie with a female lead that isn’t a Princess! … Exactly.)

        2. Whenever I hear people say, “Oh, but I just prefer this (male) author’s voice/stories/writing to this (female) author’s,” I ask, “Yeah, but have you thought about all the ways that our society and culture prime you to enjoy and relate to men’s stories (whether in writing, movies, other media) more than to women’s?” There’s subjectivity in art, but it’s definitely informed by a larger structure.

          I see the same thing over and over in my grad classes – men are listened to more often, considered to be more serious students. And our “canonical authors”? Yeah, mostly men. It enrages me.

          1. I was shocked to get to grad school and see that I was a minority. That I would be in novel writing classes and be one of two women. Seriously?? I honestly thought it would be the other way around. And misogynistic writing? Praised unless it was a femail prof and then it would be questioned, but more often then not held up by the rest of the class as EDGY.

  3. I actually BUY more books written by women. A book written by a man has to be DAMN good for me to buy it because I want to do my part to vote with my dollars.

    I read books without looking at the author’s name or gender, but I buy books by women. (I realize this is sexist. Is it okay since it’s attempting to reverse sexism in the industry?)

    1. I think you should be buying books because you’re interested in the story. I don’t want to be purchased just because I’m a woman just like I don’t want to be not published because I’m not a man. I want the writing talent of women to be just as valued as that of men. Not because it should be that but because they are in fact equal.

      That being said, most of the books on my shelf are by women. πŸ™‚

  4. ugh that is horrifying Lauren. fight that glass ceiling! break it open!

    I have a mix of male/female authors on my shelves, probably more men though, sadly. Maybe you could do some book reviews as a regular feature on here, highlighting great women authors you like? I have a to-read list about a mile long but I am happy to add more! And I’ll just bump some of the male authors to the bottom to make room.

  5. First of all, I love this subject. It is a super interesting read and definitely interesting to think about.

    So here is my question: Why do they choose male authors? I find it hard to believe that it is just discriminatory. That these publications are just out to get women or that there is some kind of intentional dismissal of something because it comes from a woman seems illogical. These people are selecting things because they sell. They aren’t necessarily selecting the “best” entry. Maybe some do. But a gawker driven website isn’t trying to win a Pulitzer. It’s trying to drive up web hits and I would assume that they picked the winner because they thought that was what would drive traffic. The fact that it was a distinct male voice and the website is primarily read by men is probably not a coincidence, but I would guess it is less about sexism and more about making money.

    Now as to why that isn’t a localized thing and spreads to stuff like movies is certainly a bigger question. There has long been a (wrong) notion that dudes go out and see more movies and spend more money. Especially young dudes, which is why we get so many comic book movies. But I think the tide is really turning on that. Increasingly you see female driven films opening to large numbers and it is shifting how Hollywood has looked at some of its programming. But still, none the less, I think it definitely comes down to money.

    1. First: YAY BUREN!! πŸ™‚

      Second: I completely agree with you. This is not to really point fingers at these publications and say “WOMAN HATERZZZ!!!” It’s really about awareness. And the larger social problem of devaluing women. You’re right that it is about money and what sells. But for years women have been pointing out inequalities in the writing world and it is ignored or brushed aside.

      Also – gawker was just my most recent example. I’m not really hating on them, except that they are totally mismanaged and a joke. But that’s different. When you say “it’s not about sexism, it’s about making money” right there, it’s about sexism in a much bigger way than gawker. Educated, smart, talent is better sold from a male voice? Only if it’s all we ever see.

      It’s up to people to educate themselves on women writers because the media and the magazines and the journals aren’t going to do it for you. Or it’s up to women writers to yell and scream and bang on the windows and say LOOK AT ME. Because we’re not getting help from anywhere else.

      1. So if you go onto Amazon’s top 10 in the Kindle store (where I shop) 4 of the top 10 books are by women. 1 of the books is a word search book (doesn’t count) so really it is 4 of 9. Also two of the books by a man feature a strong female lead.

        People do read books written by women. Women are reppin in the top 10. Just not enough women are being published. People’s books are published because there is an audience. I don’t have this number in front of me but I wonder what the average purchase rate of books is between men and women in America right now.

        1. I would take the Kindle listings with a grain of salt. For one, they are subject to change rather quickly so looking at the ranking on a single day isn’t going to reveal all that much. Also, Kindle sales are limited to a very specific readership: people who both read enough to want and make enough money to afford to buy a Kindle. They also don’t tell us anything about the big picture of publishing which includes magazines, literary journals, prizes, reviews, grants, etc.

          Yes, people read books written by women. But not as much as they read books written by men. There are a lot of complicated reasons for that and numbers alone aren’t going to tell the whole story. And women writers aren’t celebrated or revered the way men are, in general. Jonathan Franzen is a good example of this, and this article is a good look at how a man and woman writing similar novels are treated.

          Also, as an FYI, women buy books in far greater numbers than men. I don’t know the exact number, but women account for significantly more of the book-buying in America than men.

      2. It IS sexism, in a way, even if those doing it don’t realize it.

        And it’s self-perpetuating. Think about it this way … society has long told us “anything” done by a man is better than that same thing done by a woman. So, it’s incredibly easy for these judges/editors/whatnot to look at a story, see a female author’s name, and dismiss it immediately as crap. Then, no matter how well written that story is, that reader is going to only going to see crap. That doesn’t happen to male authors nearly as often, if ever, really.

        With the papers it’s a huge example of the “old boys club” … just look at the disparity between the genders working as reviewers. Working in a male-dominated industry, I can totally understand the frustration. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to deal with, especially when we can see the ceiling there above us.

        Fight on, lady.

        1. @Sarah.

          I think the sentiment you expressed is a pretty archaic one. At one time, sure, that sort of thinking was true. But this isn’t the 1880s. The world has changed. I was an English major and read probably 60/40 men to women and that is only because women actually really used to be suppressed so they don’t get in many of the historical lit classes.

          I had a definite majority of female professors. Doctors. Published women who are very well respected in their fields. No one is looking at these people and saying “woman, next”.

          And this notion that anything done by a man is instantly viewed as more worthwhile than the same thing done by a woman…doesn’t this feel like a pretty dated ideal? I know that statistically women make less money, and I know that the life of a working woman can suck and I sincerely appreciate that plight. But man, that feels like a 1930s conversation to me. My boss is a woman. My boss at my previous job was a woman. Both HIGHLY respected members of their companies.

          Maybe I just live in a little bubble of luck and circumstance, and because I’m not sexist think that no one is. But this feels like a strangely outdated line of logic.

          1. As much as I’d like to agree with you, it’s not as outdated as it seems. The fact that Lauren and many other female authors have to deal with people being shocked they can write strong stories, and that we often hear “female writer = chick lit” and ONLY chick lit, proves it.

            My argument that those screening stories for journals/papers/etc. is meant to specifically apply to that circumstance, not to everyone. I never insinuated women, as a whole, are always dismissed. The fact remains, however, that female authors aren’t given as much weight as male authors, and really … you see what you want to see. If you expect a story to be strong, you can very well gloss over it’s flaws. If you expect it to be weak, you’re going to be looking for the weaknesses. That today, in 2011 for crying out loud, some women still choose to write under male pen names to be taken seriously? That’s a problem.

            As for working in a male dominated field … I’m not complaining about it, and I’m CERTAINLY not saying I have it hard. My boss is an extremely well respected woman in the field … that the “old boys club” persists doesn’t detract from that. But when people are shocked at how much she’s making, as compared to the men? (I’m not exaggerating that. On a recent interview she was asked her salary requirements. When she gave a response significantly less than her current salary she was told, was “But, that’s how much Bill and I make. There’s no way they were paying you that.”) When that happens you KNOW, despite all the progress, there is still something wrong there.

            Yes, it sucks. It’s frustrating. But it’s also something to work for. Something to change, so we CAN bust out of the 1930’s conversations. I’m not saying that, as a woman, I’m being limited in what I can achieve, I’m saying others expect less from me.

            No one is sitting here saying “Oh poor us. We have it so bad.” We’re just saying, the glass ceiling is there. It sucks. And we’re going to fight it.

  6. 6 of the top 20 are women. One is a cook book (doesn’t count). So it is really 6 of 19.

    Wasn’t disputing women buying more books, I honestly didn’t/ don’t know the answer.

    I’m still in the middle of Freedom. I haven’t read the other book. If it is as good as Franzen (which this article would seem to indicate) than I am really excited. This article you linked does begin to do the thing I hate most about this debate which is to degrade works because they aren’t written by women. Franzen is the bomb, plain and simple. The Corrections is one of the best books I read over the last 10 years. He is the bomb not because he is a man, but because he dominates as a writer. If he were an 85 year old Ethiopian paralyzed blind woman people would have read and loved that book because it is amazing.

    1. Nobody would have read that book because they wouldn’t have been able to get an agent. But that’s besides the point. Franzen is amazing and The Corrections was amazing. But there are equally amazing women writers and no one hears about them. This isn’t about saying male writers are actually shitty. This is about saying women writers are way better than anyone gives them credit for. And as a business, as someone who wants to get a paycheck from writing, this scares the shit out of me. Because I see it everywhere. I am under valued because I am a girl and no matter how well I write, that’s still sitting there staring me in the face as reality.

    2. Also – I’m not sure what your point is anymore. Are you making the argument that women just don’t write at the same quality as men? That really there isn’t a glass ceiling and everything is equal and lovely and we live in a capitalist society that ebbs and flows with supply and demand? Those things are make beleive. I mean, really, what exactly is the point you’re pushing? 6 out 20 or 19? I should be PROUD of that?

      1. Well 6 out of 19 isn’t terrible for any given moment I wouldn’t think. It certainly doesn’t scream high injustice and non-representation.

        The point of the number in the top 20 was just that people do read women’s books. It’s not like people are going “woman, not going to read it”. They are highly successful. So it seems the real argument is not that people refuse to read women, its more that not enough women are being published. Because those numbers don’t lie. The link you provided is STRONGLY damning. Women aren’t being published enough. So I feel like that is the real question.

        My assertion on that front is that people publish what they think they can sell. Now maybe the notion that women’s books don’t sell is sexist. That could be true. Or maybe in our current readership climate men are more attuned to commercial writing? Or perhaps the belief in the previous statement is sexist? I don’t know.

  7. So I was Kamel’s friend that had posted that link. I put it up because I have a lot of writer friends (all female) that would have been interested in the contest, so it’s sad to see that not a single female won. Especially after reading what the winner’s stories had been about. It’s strange actually, because most of the writers and even the head editor of Io9 are female. I think there are only one or two guys that contribute to the site (at least the last time I checked). You know, I just checked and the team of judges consisted of two males and one female — at least they sort of had it balanced.

    I share your sentiment about a glass ceiling for female writers in general. I’m not a fantastic writer by any means, but I do have a few female friends who are wonderful writers. It’s sad to see that, especially in male-dominated fields (video games, sports, cars, etc) you don’t typically find female voices, despite their being plenty of females who are knowledgeable and capable of reporting and sharing their thoughts on these subjects. Sometimes I’ll read a video game article written by a male and think “wow, I could have probably written that 100 times better, and two of my other female friends could have written it 300 times better”. I’m starting to feel a change, though — the younger generation doesn’t seem to see male/female boundaries the same way as older generations do, and I feel that in the coming years we may see a change. Keep your head up and your hopes high :]

    1. Thank you SO much for sharing that link with Kamel. Honestly it had me writing my favorite story of the year. And I HOPE that things are changing, I think the more people are aware of how men are dominating in writing, the more publishes, judges, editors, will take a second look at women’s work and really think about why what they’re reading is “best”. I think, as readers, we get used to a certain vibe, a certain rhythm, and as editors we see the voice that sells and jump on that bandwagon again and again. But when there is cash on the line, notoriety on the line, careers on the line, it’s so important to look at skill, to see variance in art, to not fall into what society deems as “good” every single time without a second glance.

  8. I don’t know a whole lot about the subject of writing or sexism, but I just wanted to throw my two cents in.

    I feel like all these numbers and pie charts are kinda skewing things. It’s frustrating to see those numbers and it’s easy to see a imbalance, but we need to think behind those numbers as well to see the whole picture. We need the number of women and men who applied to be published at these places. I mean if 60 women and 500 men applied to be published at The Atlantic and 55 of those women were published while only 154 men were, then it’s not a matter of sexism or viewing work written by females as sub-par but a simple lack of women looking to get published there. If that’s the case then maybe these statistics aren’t a look at the sexism run rampant in publishing, but actually a sounding board for how many amazing women writers there were being published in 2010. Or an acknowledgement that there aren’t that many women writers applying there. Lauren noticed the distinct lack of women in here graduate class as well (not that the qualifier for writing or being published is grad school). My point is that statistics like this can be viewed in different ways, I honestly looked at that and thought “Wow, there must not be that many woman writers.” That’s my point of view, but I can also see how Lauren’s experiences have shaped her view point.

    This is written to diminish what you are saying either Lauren. I don’t doubt that there is still sexism. I would just need more numbers in order to completely agree.

    Fun Fact: I actually don’t like math or numbers that much despite how much I advocate for them here.

  9. You are all making great points about writing and sexism, but I just have to say that the fact that the site didn’t send you a notification email drives me totally crazy. The failure to have the decency to send a 2-sentence email letting people know that they have not been selected for the job/competition/school/etc. is one of my major pet peeves. It seems like this is becoming the norm…but why? How hard it is to send an email, seriously?

    1. YES! so obnoxious and rude in any capacity. The worst, for me, is not being notified for submitting work, but the SECOND worst, is seeing the job I applied for just get re-posted on craigslist without any notification. ACK!

  10. I have thought about writing under a pseudonym for this reason (you know, on that magical day when I’m a real live novelist). Which I know I *shouldn’t* have to–but honestly? If it gives me a leg up, ok then.

    Also? I’m totally guilty of this–the majority of authors I read are male, and if I were to randomly list off my favorite authors, most of them are male…Sedaris, Chabon, Rowling, Gaiman…one female write in there, that’s it! I could blame it on the fact that my boyfriend buys most of the books on our bookshelves, and I read through ’em. But nope, a lot of those I purchased before meeting him.

    It could be, as you say, that there’s just a lot more published male authors out there. But you know? I should make a more dedicated effort to read more women authors. Gotta support my peeps! πŸ˜‰

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