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Statistically Speaking, Literature is for Men

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: literature, gender bias, writing, statistics, Ruth Franklin, VIDA, arts, The New Republic, Will Wlizlo,

gender-book-statsLiterature, at its pinnacle, strives to reflect the human condition, but it much more often reflects the male condition. At least that’s the conclusion of The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin, who crunched some numbers on whose books are being published, whose tomes are chosen for review, and who’s penning the critiques when they hit the shelves. Franklin found that our litterateurs and cultural arbiters are overwhelmingly male; only about one-quarter of literary books published are written by women. She breaks down her findings:

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

Unfortunately—and surprisingly—Franklin found that independent and small-run publishers are just as skewed as the bigger publishing houses. “I speculated,” writes Franklin,

that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women.

Literary gender disparity, by Franklin’s reckoning, seems to be systemic: the fewer books published with female authors, the fewer books with female authors critically appraised in the press. VIDA, a group that studies gender in contemporary literary arts, charted gender trends in book review sections of magazines and newspapers. Look at Harper’s, Granta, The New York Times Book Review, or even Franklin’s home publication The New Republic, and the stats are depressingly similar. Most that VIDA tabulated from have a similar 2:1 ratio of male to female authors—both as reviewers and as subjects. Franklin even checked her own scorecard and found that only 33 percent of the books she wrote about were written by women.

“As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s,” Franklin reflects, “I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility.”

Source: The New Republic 

Image courtesy of VIDA.