Popular Publishers Tell Women to Be a Man or Write Like One

re_birf via Flickr
re_birf via Flickr

By Caryn Rubanovich

I’m sitting in my writing seminar. Over this past semester, I’ve gotten to know my fellow classmates and their writing intimately. I’ve read their poems, fictional stories, non-fictional accounts. I’ve befriended, fallen in love with, and despised their intricately constructed characters. I’ve familiarized myself with each of their voices like a unique fingerprint on a page. Despite the incredible raw talent in the room, many of us have never considered ourselves writers before. This seminar was filled with gifted writers, all except two of whom were female.

My classmate raises her hand.

“Nine out of the ten short stories we were assigned last week were written by men. And actually, most of our assignments have been authored by men,” my classmate points out to the instructor. “I was wondering why?”

“I prefer to read male writers,” the instructor answers.

Her words were like a slap in the face. For the rest of the class, I couldn’t really concentrate on anything. What was the point? What was the point of writing if my work was going to be discriminated against by virtue of my being a female? This was just another example of the injustice that women and other marginalized writers have faced for far too long in the creative world. And I couldn’t believe I was confronting this in my class of all places, the very place that should be supporting and nurturing my sense of authorship and the development of my work. The deeply ingrained gender bias of publishing had successfully seeped its way into the classroom. It made me wonder: Would I ever see the day where my work had a fair shot of being considered by publishers without having to suffer the “repercussions” of being a female writer?

Virginia Woolf once said, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Indeed, countless women writers historically took on pseudonyms in order to publish their work. Think protective pseudonyms are a thing of the past? Think again. Joanne Rowling published the Harry Potter series under J.K. Rowling after her publisher was afraid “Joanne” would scare off boys buying her books. Clearly, we still live in a world where women authors feel forced to write under a pseudonym in order to be successful. It’s the 21st century. How ridiculous is that?

Yes, one could argue that publishing has become better and more open-minded than ever before, blah blah blah. But … I’m sorry, when Joanne Rowling aka J.K. Rowling aka Robert Galbraith aka who-kn0ws-what-other-pseudonyms-Ms.-Rowling’s-been-using is “one of the best-selling, most respected, wealthiest authors” and has covered up her gender for every single book she’s ever published — you have got to admit there’s a problem.

So why are women writers using protective pseudonyms? Katie J.M. Baker from Jezebel offers some clues:

“Women rarely win prestigious literary awards, and they have especially low chances of winning them if they actually write about women … It doesn’t help that there are way fewer female book reviewers at publications, as well as fewer books by female authors that are reviewed.”

Of the books reviewed by The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker in 2013, 75–80% of them were written by males. Sexism is alive and well in the world of writing and publishing.

Julianna Baggott, an author and assistant professor at Florida State’s creative writing program, shares the “key to literary success” she was taught during her graduate studies: “If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can’t be a man, write like one.” When Baggott invented a pen name for herself, N.E. Bode, to publish The Anybodies trilogy a few years ago, she didn’t hesitate to make Bode male. Soon after her trilogy was shortlisted as a People magazine summer pick, Baggott admitted it felt good to be “one of the boys.”

What does a man even write like? I have encountered a few people who adamantly believe women and men write differently. “It’s their sentence structure,” some people say. Others: “Men write frankly. Women are more sentimental.” People seem mesmerized when a man writes with emotion. But when a woman does that, writing about the vulnerabilities of the human experience — she’s too emotional. Writers like George R.R. Martin and Joss Whedon are praised for writing convincing female characters, but it doesn’t seem to be all that noteworthy when Harry Potter reads like a boy.

When Joanne Rowling’s editor for The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, found out who wrote it, he reportedly said, “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” Wait, what? Why? Why could a woman not write that? What would make a woman incapable of writing a detective novel with a distinct voice, complex characters, and a stirring plot? I didn’t know strong craft was a gendered thing.

Oh, because it’s not.

In a 1998 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Francine Prose wrote her insightful piece “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” guided by a simple underlying question: Can readers tell a writer’s gender based on prose? And guess what happened when Francine Prose conducted a “blind taste test” where readers were shown unidentified writing? Without a gender label, readers had a hard time identifying the author’s gender based on prose. As Prose says,

“In the end, of course, it’s pointless to characterize, categorize, and value writing according to the author’s gender, or to claim that women writers fixate on everything that irritates gynophobes about our sex. The best writing has as little to do with gender as it does with nationality or with the circumscriptions of time … The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing.”

Good prose is good prose is good prose. And Prose is a literary boss.

Too many people think that women only write “women’s fiction.” Newsflash: Women write about everything and anything. It’s ludicrous to group women authors into “women’s fiction” by the sheer fact that they’re women, regardless of whether their books share any thematic relation. (Amazon, I’m looking at you … Let me know when you make the “men’s fiction” section.) Grouping books written by women as “women’s fiction” is dangerous because it sends the message that those books are only for women. And that, as author Randy Susan Meyers explains, means that books written by women are a sub-category. Instead of suggesting to men and boys that books written by women have little to do with them, let’s send the message that well-written, quality books have everything to do with them, regardless of the author’s gender.

Of course, there are talented female writers who “made it” in the publishing world. But the reality is that American publishing companies have a history of being literary fraternities for the privileged white male. Many of the large publishing companies were started in the 1920s and 1930s by wealthy white men who were really more concerned with favoring their “brothers” than giving opportunities to women or marginalized writers. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed much. Research from VIDA, an organization that draws attention to gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture, tells us that publications still show significant bias in favor of men.

Publishers happily put out writing by men and male authors. But when it comes time to publish women or other marginalized groups? “Oh, no, no. We need a marketing ploy for that.” Men have the luxury of successfully selling books with text-only covers, whereas novels written by women “need” illustrations of domestic images on the covers to grab the consumer’s attention. Next time you walk through a bookstore, notice some of the ridiculous covers that objectify women, whitewash people of color, or perpetuate other subtle forms of discrimination. Good writing is the only prerequisite needed for a male author’s success. I wish I could say the same for women.

Publishing is an elite, privilege-laden world where only the lucky few are invited to play in the sandbox. Some try to defend these practices by saying that publishing companies are only filling customers’ demands. Consumers must only want to read books from the white male perspective, or about the white male experience. But Dawn Davis, head of a new Simon & Schuster imprint called 37 Ink, notes, “African-American women … we just learned from Pew, are the largest group of readers in the country.” That needs to be common knowledge. Now. I have a feeling that black women do not only want to read about the white male experience. I’m just saying.

I don’t deny that there are white male authors who write fascinating books, and that there are some white male characters I admire greatly. But I would also like to read about something other than the white male experience. I want to read about strong female characters who aren’t preoccupied with romance. People of color who aren’t written into the background. Gay characters who aren’t “sidekicks” to the central character.

When readers, especially young readers, don’t find characters they can identify with, or find that characters like them are written as afterthoughts, they’re getting the message that their stories don’t matter or aren’t important enough. It’s what one group of researchers refer to as “symbolic annihilation.” When we ignore, deny, or underrepresent women, girls, and other marginalized identities, young readers begin to believe that these characters are less important than their white male counterparts. This, in turn, privileges white males and their stories while ignoring other much-needed and wanted stories. No wonder many of us have grown up with the implicit assumption that our stories aren’t worthy, that we don’t have anything important to say, and that we are invisible. As American physicist and astronaut Sally Ride famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I want access to writing by all people, especially those who have historically been marginalized. While it’s not perfect, fortunately women and other marginalized populations have another avenue to write nowadays — social media and the Internet. Cue the angelic choir.

People may have tiffs with social media or blogging sites, but they really are revolutionizing what it means to publish. These sites have become online platforms for people to share their thoughts and ideas. Communities who have historically been oppressed now have more opportunities to connect, and to represent and speak for themselves. That’s one of the reasons why social media is so awesome. It’s accessible to so many of us who have had our voices silenced in the past.

If you’re looking for places to get started, might I recommend getting your daily dose of intersectional feminist writing and news? Stay up-to-date with current research on gender equality in publishing, learn about exceptional women and girls in publishing, and scroll through blogrolls to read more about specific issues and discover more social justice activism. Check out resources on how to work toward getting published.

Concerned readers and writers like myself who have long been disgruntled with the lack of diversity in publishing can participate in activism hashtags like #DiversityinSFF, #ReadWomen2015, #VIDAcount, or #WeNeedDiverseBooks. We can follow accounts like @DiverseBooks, @RiptideBooks, @BookRiot, @bookrageous, and @diversityinya. Through social media, we can join supportive writing communities, exchange tips and advice, and stay informed about upcoming writing contests and calls for submissions. We can get access to reading lists like this one of books written by compelling women writers, or by people of color.

At the end of the day, is it perfect? No. And publishers should not sit back thinking that social media and online blogging is a substitute for more traditional publishing. It’s not an excuse to look away or brush these long-standing issues under the rug. Yes, social media is creating opportunities for writers, and giving them access to information, but it’s just an introduction to the bigger story, and this story is far from over. Publishing companies need to stand up and take responsibility for the disparity that they have perpetuated.

One day in the (near) future, when women and other under-represented writers are welcomed with open arms and equitable practices, when publishing companies lose the outdated, discriminatory attitudes and tactics, I hope to look back at this article and see it as a battle cry of the past. Whether by becoming active in social media conversations on writing and publishing, reaching out to publishing companies, or starting to write to reclaim your own voice, let’s rewrite the rest of this publishing narrative together. It’s about time for a good plot twist.

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