Liz’s News of the Books

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Wherefore art though, Juliet, in the New York Review of Books?

What kind of problem affects 50% of the writing population? I’ll tell you. It’s that women are criminally underpublished and/or reviewed in almost all the major literary and cultural magazines.

When I was at AWP last year I was intrigued by an organization called VIDA. In addition to advocating for women writers, they had charts and statistics showing the shocking lack of women being published from year to year. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised by this, and not just because I am a woman with eyes.

On my way into morphing a literary sage, I started and edited a literary magazine, The Toucan, for four years. (It’s still going, just not with me, and you should submit, especially if you’re a girl). Despite this fact that The Toucan was run by two liberated ladies, (and my co-editrice, now lead editrice, is a card-carrying feminist), we for some reason didn’t have a lot of ladies in our pages. This concerned us. We couldn’t figure out if women weren’t submitting, or if we too fell prey to patriarchy’s silvery sentences, depriving our sisters of a place in literature.

And to be honest, I’m still not sure what’s going on. Among my friends, there’s no lack for female writers, and an informal survey of Facebook actually has them griping about the submission process more than the guys. (Refrain from sexist stereotype here.) Still, I could see a trend among female writers not submitting work. I’m not going to speculate as to why, but it’s possible.


Anyway, earlier this week, VIDA  released their yearlong “count” of ladies in literary publications. And it’s sad.. What’s more likely than just plain ‘ol girls not submitting, given the disparity of the numbers (The New York Review of Books reviews 89 women to 316 men?!), is that there is, in fact, editorial sexism. I mean, there are more than 89 books by women out there. Even if you account for the fact that the NYRB is likely not reviewing Harlequin Romance (which men can write too, not being sexist), there has got to be at least 150 books by women they could have written about.

I don’t like the idea of quotas. I don’t like the idea of rewarding someone with attention for something they had no control over. True equity, statistically, will probably never happen. And that’s OK. Right now, though, it seems like there’s a lot of ignorance going on, a lot of missed opportunities.

The idea of a campaign against women is a little odd for a literary magazine, what you read and accept is in line with your editorial taste. But if for instance, you only accept stories that read like Hemingway, you may need to broaden that taste, if for the sake of learning about other types of stories. You could very well ask yourself why the women writers’ pieces don’t appeal to you as much, and learn about your potential biases.

What’s more obvious, really awful and insidious is not reviewing a woman writer. By not reviewing a book, you deprive it of an opportunity for recognition and publicity. Readers may never encounter the work. Aren’t we always talking about finding girls role models? Girls are inspired female scientists and athletes. What’s more inspiring to the scribbling young girl than a female writer with consistently acclaimed work, or at least one with an intriguing review?

(Then again, given the way some people review work by women, maybe it’s a good thing the reviews are scare. For instance, take Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines, a searing polemic about the stunted wives of talented writers, dissed by a clearly…confused would be the kind term… female L.A Times reviewer for being “too feminine”.)

Unfortunately, and as you would know if you are any person with eyes and a brain, this disparity is not a new one. Some friends of mine make it a point to seek out and read female authors because YOU NEVER HEAR ABOUT THEM. We all can rattle off the dead white guys. Very few women make it into that pantheon on first thought. For a long time I found myself just reading the dead white guys, too, and I thought this was simply because I liked them. I do, but there are so many worthy women you just don’t hear about. Looking at my bookshelf now, I spot Barbara Kingsolver, Patricia Highsmith, Audre Lorde, and Kate Millett. There are names even more obscure but equally talented who I’d love to read sometime. But why are they obscure? Partly because no one ever bothered to review them. I swear I’ve learned more about female writers of the past by reading Susan Sontag’s diaries than I did in 11 years of English classes.

Here’s my call to arms:

  • If you are a girl and you write, for heaven’s sakes, submit your work in such vast quantities that it can’t be ignored.
  • Also, write brilliantly so if they do ignore you, it’s a scandal.
  • Gentleman, if you edit, give the girls a fair shake, would you? No dismissing a piece by dint of its “girly” subject matter or silliness like that.
  • If you review books, as I do, try to keep your amount of ladies and gentlemen reviewed fairly even. Unintentionally, I’ve reviewed a lot of women, and women-centered works. They’ve almost all been important, insightful pieces I was glad I read and wrote about. Seeing VIDA’s count, I’m even happier to have fired one salvo in the fight for equality.

Now go, do your work, and do it right!

— Liz Baudler, Blogger

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4 thoughts on “Liz’s News of the Books

  1. Pingback: theblonelyblog

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