5 Things Sexism-Deniers Say to Women Writers (and Why They’re Wrong)

photo of New Woman--Wash Day

New Woman–Wash Day

Men are logical; women are emotional. Men can be depended upon to come up with reasonable assessments of situations while women just aren’t that reliable. Their emotional-ness gets in the way. If you want a properly reasoned, intellectual opinion on an issue, a man is your best bet. If you want emotional support and compassion, it’s a woman you need to go to. And so the stereotypes go. The very stereotypes that are supposedly so passé that we just don’t pay them any mind any more.  

But then, someone says something, and you think, wow, we just haven’t really moved on from the days when it was perfectly acceptable to assert all of the above.

This is how I feel every time I hear or read one of the following statements, most of which I’ve heard or read at least once in the last year. In honour of International Women’s Day, I’m writing them all out and I’m providing an account of the evidence that disproves them. I’d like us to all be well informed about why each one of the statements below is ridiculous, unfounded and untrue.

This is not to say that I suggest anyone engage in debate with people who make these statements. I’ve tried this more than once in the last year and each time it was unsatisfying and ineffectual. People who make these statements are not interested in debate or evidence or ideas so there’s no changing their minds.

What I propose instead is that we make sure we use of more effective contexts to celebrate the work of women writers (on social media, on blogs, in the press) in order to make sure the statements below are shown to be false.

Are you ready for a tour through the mind of a sexism-denier? Neither am I! But it has to be done in order to expose bigotry for what it is: false, derisive and damaging if not kept in check.

1. Men are better writers than women.

This one is usually presented as though it is an obvious statement of fact that the woman writer simply will not consider, against all reason and regardless of its being the most logical explanation for the overabundance of men publishing ‘literary’ books, getting more reviews than female authors and getting more awards.

Let’s take a look at the numbers because they tell a very different story. It’s known nationally amongst lecturers (anecdotally to be fair) that 80% of BA English lit students in the UK are female. It’s also well known that women are much more likely to be avid readers than men and they buy two thirds of the books sold in the UK. However, books by women about women just don’t receive the accolades. In a study of the last fifteen years of nominees for six major literary awards, Nicola Griffith found that winners for the most part had to be men writing about men or boys. Then there’s the experiment by Catherine Nichols who sent her novel to 50 agents under a female name and 50 agents under a male name and found that the male pseudonym brought her more than 8 times the number of responses.

To me, the only logical conclusion is that our educational system and our publishing industry are set up to favor male writers and that this leads to discouraging a large number of potentially extremely talented female writers from even giving publishing a try. If we consider the pool of undergraduates studying English lit to be a prime source of writing talent, then the 80/20 female/male breakdown surely should produce a few more female writers capable of publishing, acquiring reviews and winning awards. I just don’t accept that lack of female talent is the problem; it’s the lack of a system where women can thrive.

[Note: when I refer to ‘publishing industry’ in this article, I’m mentally excluding the small/indie presses that have specific missions to offer alternatives to mainstream publishing. If you run one of these presses, I’d love to meet you.]

2. We read more male writers of the past because there were more male writers in the past.

Again, this is a statement that is generally delivered as obvious fact and, again, the numbers tell a different story.

I find this to be a very fraught statement. By the mid-Victorian period, it was common for women to publish, it was common for both male and female writers to use pseudonyms and it was common for publishers to give no attribution at all. For a recent presentation at a literary festival, I wanted to address this very question, but I had no luck at all finding any sort of statement of the gender breakdown of Victorian writers.

However, I knew John Sutherland’s reference book The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction was an attempt to list as many known Victorian writers as possible. He also gives no gender breakdown, so I just started counting . . . for as long as I could stand, which was all the way through authors with surnames beginning with A and B. 30% were female, though I don’t know how Sutherland approached the selection of authors for his list. Considering that Victorian women supposedly faced greater challenges to publication than twentieth-century women, there are probably many more Victorian women writers who vanished into obscurity. Could the 30/70 breakdown actually amount to something closer to a 50/50 breakdown? Possibly.

Let’s compare that to a recent account of the 100 best novels (of all time periods) by Robert McCrum: 21 are by women. Of all the novels ever published in English—right up through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries when we have an abundance of women writers publishing—he claims that only 21% of the greatest are by women. Considering that only 14 of these novels were published before 1850, there should be a lot more women on that list. Again, the problem here is not that there simply is a much larger pool of male writers to choose from; it’s that our culture prioritizes writing by men.

3. Agents/publishers/editors don’t pay attention to gender; they only select work on its merits.

I consider this a step up from statements one and two. At least this statement acknowledges that there is a case to answer, even if it seems to deny that any responsibility lies with the publishing industry.

The truth is that the responsibility doesn’t entirely lie with the publishing industry. Our responses to people, issues and ideas are partly dictated by deeply ingrained, subconscious reactions to gender, race class and a whole list of other characteristics. It’s perfectly possible that these agents/publishers/editors wholeheartedly believe they are selecting work only on merit.

Then there’s also the possibility that those working within the industry figure out what type of novel is successful in getting published, getting reviewed and winning awards (ie, books about men by men) and they do their best to choose what they believe will be the most successful novels.

I’d love to try and turn this around by making so much noise about books by women that the publishing industry will have to sit up and take notice. This is precisely what I’m hoping to do with the Women Writers Network, which I’ll be launching in the next few months. (Sign up below if you want to be kept informed of progress!)

4. Less women are published because less women submit manuscripts.

If we completely ignore all context, then this statement seems harmless enough. What can agents/publishers/editors do if they simply don’t have as many manuscripts written by women as they do by men?

One publisher, who in my view has *a lot* of integrity, has addressed this very problem in a way that I am really, really impressed with. In a Guardian article about the 2015 Vida Count, Rob Spillman of Tin House, the only journal to have been found to have a majority of content by women, described in some detail how this was achieved. After the first Vida Count, Spillman said, they discovered that ‘agents sent us two thirds more men than women. And more disturbing, I found that when I reject someone and tell them to send me something else, men were about four times more likely than women to send me something. Women that I’d published before were also much less likely to send me new work’.

How did Spillman approach the correction of this imbalance? He got really, really hands on: ‘I not only started doing very basic things like keeping a running count, but I backed off soliciting men because they mainly took care of themselves and send me stuff no matter what. And then I redoubled my efforts with women and repeated offers, actively going out to seek out women’. In conclusion, it can be done. It is possible to reverse a record of publishing more men than women by offering more support and encouragement to women. I think this seems a small price to pay in order to have a more equitable representation of women’s voices in the publishing industry and I truly hope this catches on with other publishers.

5. There can’t be any bias against women in the publishing industry because it is almost entirely staffed with women and women don’t discriminate against women.

Yes. Seriously. This was directly stated to me by someone who works in publishing a day or two after my Twitter chat was on the Guardian Books Blog.

Women do not always support other women. Women are often against other women. It’s the nature of activism. Those who are fighting to change things are up against a system that the majority is comfortable with. That’s why the system is the way it is: because it works well for a large number of people. From the day Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the very first piece of feminist theory in the English language in the late eighteenth century, it has been an acknowledged problem that a lot of women are very comfortable with patriarchy and don’t want the sorts of changes proposed by feminists.

This is why I really like the idea of making a lot of noise about women’s books through an organized network of women writers. It’s a lot harder to transform the way people think than to find ways of working with the way that they think, whether we agree or not. If we make it abundantly clear to the publishing industry just how much we want to hear women’s voices—by buying loads of books by women as well as promoting them amongst our friends online—then the publishing industry may have to change its ways. Nobody can argue with the bottom line, can they?