by Alison Flood)
From a small American literary journal's vow to dedicate a year's coverage to women writers and writers of colour to author and artist Joanna Walsh's burgeoning #readwomen2014 project, readers – and publishers – around the world are starting to take their own small steps to address male writers' dominance in the literary universe.
Figures last year from Vida, the American organisation for women in the literary arts, show the huge imbalance in how male and female writers – and reviewers – are treated: at the New York Review of Books, for example, in 2012 16% of reviewers were women, with 22% of the books reviewed written by women. A similar investigation in the Guardian found that the UK is no better: in March 2013, 8.7% of books reviewed in the London Review of Books were by women, rising to 26.1% in the New Statesmen, and 34.1% in the Guardian.
At American journal the Critical Flame, editor Daniel Pritchard has just announced a year dedicated to women writers and writers of colour, citing the Vida figures as part of the reason for the move and saying that "nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control".
"Women writers and writers of colour are underserved and undervalued by the contemporary literary community," he writes. "Silence on this literary disparity has not been the problem over the past few years. Inertia has. Many editors seem immobilised by their options: either admit their failings and allow a bruise to the ego, or brush off the critique with grand claims about quality and editorial judgment … So, while the Critical Flame may not be a powerhouse of the literary world, we have decided to embark on a project that will help our readers, at the very least, perceive and evaluate the literary landscape differently."
Pritchard told the Guardian that he believes "people from different areas of the literary world have been able to coalesce around the annual Vida count, and that has been an important spark", adding that he hopes it heralds "a much larger shift in our society". "I mean, it has been a long time coming – not because of some supposed forward march of progress, but because so many people have dedicated themselves to making it so," he said.
Joanna Walsh points to authors and readers such as Lilit Marcus, Jonathan Gibbs and Matthew Jakubowski, who have all undertaken projects to read only women writers. Her own project, #readwomen2014, started as "nothing but a few Christmas cards" which dubbed 2014 "the year of reading women", listing 250-odd names from Angela Carter to Zadie Smith and encouraging recipients to "if not vow to read women exclusively, look up some of the writers I've drawn on the front or listed on the back". But she was inundated with requests for the cards, and with suggestions on Twitter for other women authors to include.
"I'm delighted by the response my #readwomen2014 has had ...What's amazed me is the number of people - men and women - who have been willing to pick up on the idea, who actively want to expand their reading horizons in ways they feel are not always being catered for," said Walsh. "Everyone wants equality but few are willing to take responsibility or do the hard work, which is why I admired Jonathan Gibbs and Matthew Jakubowski's projects. Picking up a book may be prompted by a Twitter meme, but it can never be a token effort. As soon as you're halfway down the first page, you're engaged (or not – I wouldn't read any and all books by women, just as I love some but don't enjoy all books by men)."
Some of the most interesting responses she has received, she says, are "from readers who'd looked at their recent reading, realised there was an imbalance they couldn't entirely account for, and resolved to try something new".
Jakubowski, an American author and literary critic, has made a reading resolution of his own: to read – and hence review – only books by women in 2014. He, too, believes there is something of a cultural movement afoot: "It could be that perhaps people are feeling more willing now to take a stand against gender bias in publishing and the literary world, finding it a little easier perhaps to speak out about it now," he says.
His own move was prompted by his realisation that his bookshelves contained more 500-plus page books by men than women. "That surprised me, because as a literary critic I thought I had a good balance of literature from a wide range of authors. But I do not. Not by a long shot. The uneven gender ratio is my loss. It's also part of a larger problem," said Jakubowski. "If we don't decide to do the work it sometimes takes to find valuable, important books by women and under-represented authors, we will continue to miss them and the loss will be ours."
He believes news outlets still favour men over women when it comes to books coverage, and that publishers are more likely to spend large sums on male writers. "The result of this investment by publishers is that readers and literary critics are guided toward books by men. We become eager to be part of what's promoted as big book news, more comfortable talking about a newly celebrated male author. My reading resolution was based on the fact that the world still does not place a high value on what women have to say. I wanted to make a choice not to be swayed by 'big news' about male authors," said Jakubowski.
Gibbs, an author and journalist for the Independent, undertook his women-only reading stint last year after, he says, "reading Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and basically getting peed off with that self-reflexive, 'I know I'm shit and that makes me great' male narrator type story".
"I was aware that my 'favourite' contemporary authors were largely men (Marias, Knausgaard, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer) who wrote about the world through the filter of male consciousness, and I was also aware that the book industry and media largely colluded in, or constructed, my idea that these guys were the best," said Gibbs.
"So, the 'women only' rule was really just a way to force myself to properly look into the question of whether there were women who wrote in a way that responded to my need to see myself in the books I read. If yes, then either I was an idiot, or the books world was sexist, or both. If no, then we're into the kind of Venus/Mars female/male brain debate that is never far from the headlines, but which I don't really understand enough about."
The results, he found, were inconclusive: he read some "great" books, but his favourite authors – male – were not "knocked off the perch in my reading head". Gibbs assumes this is "largely cultural and comes down to theDe Beauvoir quote about man being defined as a human being and a woman as female, ie that the canon lets in the male writers, then says, 'Look: that's the great literature, see how it's writing about the human condition!', when in fact it's only writing about the male condition."
This is a point with which Pritchard, at the Critical Flame, agrees, writing that "as far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers – women, African Americans, Latinos, etc – are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality".
Readers, however, have a choice. This year, Gibbs is allowing male writers back into the fold, trying to "roughly balance" the genders of the authors that he reads. "Last books read: Iris Murdoch's Under The Net, Zoe Pilger's Eat My Heart Out," he says. Jakubowski, meanwhile, is starting the year with Middlemarch.