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.