Lit-gap: Examining Gender Disparity in the Publishing Industry.

In 2014, an American organisation VIDA found that on average, when analysing the most popular publications in the US, women were under-represented not only in published works but in literature reviews. Equally, with only a few seconds’ Google search you can find countless examples of women who feel “passed over” by publishers in the US and UK because of their sex. However, what I’m going to ask in this essay, is a question where the answer is not often proven, but assumed until proven otherwise; is this sexism?

First, let’s just consider whether it is fair to claim that in an industry where the majority of readers are women, 64% to 45% in 2012, and the majority of publishers are women, that women are discriminated against. Imagine if it was the other way around, imagine if the majority of readers were men, and publishers, at the very least you would use these figures as a talking point about discrimination against women. So why then, in the reverse, is it still considered discrimination against women? And it’s true, that whilst yes, professional reviews see a somewhat disproportionate representation of men, the best-seller’s lists, and book awards are either equal or predominantly given to women; in the 2015 Costa Awards, 12 women were short-listed compared to only 8 men; in a study of major American literary prizes from 2000-2015, by Quartz, aimed at proving discrimination against women (which we’ll revisit later), found that the total awards won by women were 48 to 41 by men; The Man Booker Prize for 2016 (despite its name) shows an equal balance of male to female authors short-listed at 3 to 3.

Considering the VIDA count, which does appear troubling and has ceased not to have been used when arguing about the Lit-gap, there is a widely quoted mantra that appears at the top of VIDA 2010 which says that “numbers don’t lie.” And whilst this is true, numbers don’t lie, their interpreters certainly do. What the VIDA count fails to consider, when looking at how many men are reviewed, or even published, is both how many men submitted work versus how many women, and whether there may simply be a difference in quality or style as it appeals to readership between men and women. We’ll look at the differences in style later, but an important and overlooked factor, partly because it will be difficult to measure, is in submission representation. Assumptions have to be made for lack of numbers, but it is a fundamental area of concern, if the submission representation of women is higher than men, and men are published more often then it supplies evidence to the claim that women are “passed over” (although “why” would still be up for debate), and if representation was the opposite, and that men submit more work than women, then men being higher in published works or reviews would seem just an obvious side-effect. The answer to gender parity in the second case would be to encourage more women to write, or submit, their work. It should also be noted that according to VIDA in Young Adult and Children’s Books, it is women that dominate not men.

So let’s look then at the representation of men and women in English Literature or Creative Writing courses at University or A-level. A study from the English Subject Centre found that from the years 2004 to 2008, women studying English Literature courses at A-Level was almost or over double that of men in any given year, 36,552 female versus 15,214 male in 2008—and I picked these dates specifically because this would be the generation that would now have moved into the industry (if English Literature and Creative Writing is believed to be a path to a writing career, which, as a graduate of the latter I’m not so sure). For English and Creative Writing undergraduate and post graduate students, female students represented over 70% of the total. We also know, going back further than that to 2002, in a study by Wilhelm and Smith, that young boys were less prone to reading than girls, but are these sufficient enough to argue that more women than men will go into writing? Perhaps, but if there are more women than men submitting their work to these publishers, does “short supply” give men a competitive edge?

There is a glaring counter-argument; the advantage for publishers, from a business stand-point, would imply that female readers, of which are predominant, are more willing to read both men and women, whereas male readers are only willing to read men. I raise this because it is a common argument made to explain the gap. Laura Miller, from Salon, writes that “publishers can assume that a book written by a man will sell to both men and women, but a book by a woman is a less reliable bet.” However, in an analysis by Goodreads in 2014, titled A Look at Who’s Reading Whom, it was found when looking at a “sample size of 40,000 active members, 20,000 men and 20,000 women,” that of 50 books most read by men, 45 of them are written by men and that of the 50 that were most read by women, 45 of them were written by women. According to Goodreads, “we are still sticking to our own sex.”

So if this is true, what incentive is there for publishers to publish more men than women if they receive more female submissions? Would they willingly lose money for the sake of gender discrimination, especially considering the majority of the publishers themselves are women? Unlikely. In the VIDA count, Tin House was the only publication where the reviews for women outweighed that of men, and the editor, Rob Spillman, told The Guardian that he received “more men than women” and “backed off soliciting men”. Either way you look at it, it becomes increasingly apparent that a true, and reliable, study on the amount of submissions from women and men, as well as how many go into writing, would be a necessary step to finding out if there is a bias against women in publishing.

Remember that Quartz article I mentioned? The study of major American literary prizes from 2000-2015. This is a classic example of a confirmation bias’ last resort. Imagine if you didn’t know the data I had just given you, learning that a media outlet like Quartz was investigating gender parity in literature awards, you would assume that they would find, or hope to portray, that men are dominating, and that women are being overlooked, but instead they found the opposite, and rather than write about how positive this looks for gender equality in publishing, what do they decide to do? They write a piece titled, There’s a gender gap in prize-winning literature—not between the authors, but the characters. Proving that the books that won awards, whether written by a woman or a man, were predominantly written with male protagonists and that this, therefore, was an example of sexism. Well the problem here is that would this be an issue, or even written about, if the awards were won predominantly by male authors? Probably not. I’ve also heard about as many claims that men don’t understand women enough to write about them, and discouraged to do so, than I have about this very debate; one such example from Cheryl Lange on Men and Women writing Women (nothing on women writing men, of course), states that “some believe that male authors are not able to write accurately from the female perspective or present feminist ideals because they have not experienced life as women.” You see this all the time, moving the goal post, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even if the industry was dominated by women, all the reviews were written by and about women, and all the main characters were women, outlets like Quartz would still be trying to claim that there was sexism in the industry because there were fewer women using book vouchers for Waterstones.

There is something else that should be added to the mix here, something quite likely to alter the pool with which reviewers and publishers have to work with. It is essential for a publication to represent in their reviews a broad spectrum of genres, and equally to publish a selection of genres as well, so the introduction, in the 1970s, of a “Woman’s Writing” category has since, I would argue, lessened a publisher’s ability to publish women. Let’s say you were told to select a certain number of Crime novels, Women’s Writing novels, and Fantasy. Since the Woman’s Writing category applies to anything which reflects what it’s like to be a woman, this will surely draw in the majority of female writers, especially those with female characters, and potentially all of feminist literature. Wouldn’t this severely cut the chances of women applying, if men apply to all categories, and a portion of women are drawn away into this dedicated woman’s category? The same goes also, and probably moreso, for dedicated woman’s magazines. There are countless examples of publications, MsLexia for example, and agents individually taking away the female writers from the general pool by offering an exclusive magazine solely for women. It is no wonder, then, that publications open to men and women would have a supply problem. I’ve heard people use the “no men allowed” genre as an example of sexism against women before, the idea that Women’s Writing isn’t “real writing”, but again I question the logic of calling those involved in the exclusion victims of discrimination, rather than those excluded.

Another interesting side to this, is does it really matter? If the purpose of a review is to promote personal preference, then how can you force people to review a different split of men versus women? If the reviewer prefers a male writer to a female writer is it sexist? If on average, reviewers prefer male writers to female writers, is the solution to force those reviewers to include writers they don’t prefer? Or should we fire these reviewers in favour of ones who do prefer women? Equally, perhaps women are not as dedicated to writing if it is perceived to be a “feminine” activity (and in my experience, as a male writer, it always has been) and so men might feel they have more to prove, and simply produce more “stand out” literature. Again, I’m not saying this is true, but there are far more possibilities than outright discrimination.

But is there a difference in style? Is there something about the male writing style, or the male creative brain, that appeals to publishers (both male and female) more than women?

There have been studies that show men write more “to the point” than women, where women are more interested in developing setting and character; Simon Baron-Cohen described the male brain as “systemizing”, an example of “mechanistic thinking” whereas women typically possess more “empathizing tendencies”. The latter you would assume would make more interesting storytelling, but as a result, I would argue, of the over-saturation of Sci-fi and Fantasy, publishers and editors are looking for straightforward storytelling, they’re looking to be thrown in the deep end rather than having to study how the world works before they’re allowed to meet the main character. Fiction Editor, Beth Hill wrote that she prefers male writers because “by far—and not always, but most often—the male writers get to the point sooner. They jump into action and begin the story without hesitation. Their characters are people with character. The people in stories written by men don’t hold back.” However, whether it’s true or not, I wouldn’t argue that it had that much of an impact on publishability, after all, if the readership is predominantly women, and women tend to prefer reading women, and if publishers are largely women, then how can a woman’s style be that different from a man so absolutely if more men are published? I do think however that if there is a skill that both genders seek and would respect if written by a woman or a man, and if men by and large present this skill over women, it could explain why men may simply be more publishable. The best argument in this case, is risk-taking and innovation.

Trickey, of the British Psychological Society (as reported in The Telegraph), stated that, shaped by evolution, “it’s easy to see how the balance between prudent, cautious long term decision making of females would have marred up very effectively with the impulsive, carefree, adventurous approach of males.” In Judgement and Decision Making, Vol. 1 No.1, 2006, it was noted that men perceive “less risk” and have “a greater likelihood of engaging in risky behaviours.” Although another article by Drew Boyd in Psychology Today implied that really it is the perception that men are more innovative that is more significant; “men are perceived as more innovative and risk-taking, and women are perceived as more adaptive and risk-adverse.” In either scenario, it would explain a publisher’s likelihood to favour a male writer over a female writer, although if it is just perception then it may well be a perception that needs to change. More research into this, I think, is required to come to that conclusion.

As I think I have demonstrated, the issue is far more complex and there is far too little information to really draw the conclusion that result necessitates motive, and that fewer women equals sexism. I’m not denouncing the notion as a whole, but it does anger me that in cases of social inequality, we assume guilty until proven otherwise. We presume that if there are fewer women in a certain field that said field must be sexist against women, again ignoring the fields in which there are fewer men, and actually I find more and more articles celebrating the majority female representation and damning the majority male, as if inequality is dependant on who is being treated unequally. And all you really have to ask is “would this have the same amount of attention if women dominated the reviews, and if women were published more often than men? And would it be considered sexist against men?” And I just don’t believe it would be. There have been articles circling in the last few years about a “year of publishing only women”, to force equality over merit. And as disgusting, and fascistic as this idea is, people flock to it as some humanitarian goal. But the truth is that if you create a system where women are published regardless of quality, and where standards inevitably drop, as soon as men return to the pool, they will be so vastly superior to the women that it would only make things ten times worse, and then feminists will have to push for two years of only women, and then three, and eventually it will be a single-sex industry, unless it dies first. And this is a broad principle that can be applied to a number of these cases, whether it’s race, class, gender, sexuality, or any kind of disparity, the solution is never to order out the majority and fill the pool with a looser and lower standard, favouring only those because of their race, or because of their gender, rather than on individual merit. It does not help anybody, it only hurts everybody, especially if you have not yet proven the reason for that disparity.

As far as my personal opinion goes on the Lit-gap, I do not consider there to be sufficient enough evidence of sexism, nor do I buy that an industry where the majority of readers, publishers, and award-winners are women, and where there are magazines that men are not allowed to apply to, and agents who men are not allowed to apply to, and genres that do not apply to men, can be in any way discriminatory to women, or if it is, that it would take priority.


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