Monday, March 5, 2012

Is There a Literary Glass Ceiling?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

VIDA, an American organization that supports women in literary arts, recently released 'The Count' for 2011 providing a sobering (and somewhat depressing) look at the current state of rates of publication between women and men in some of the most prestigious literary review outlets (including the New York Times Book review, Times Literary Supplement and the New Yorker). The statistics on the gender split in book coverage is, though not surprising (in 2010 they were just as depressing!), an indication that we women still have a long way to go in terms of breaking the perceived literary glass ceiling.

Now, before I raise the hackles of every male reader of TKZ (and no doubt some of the female readers too!), I want to preface this blog post by stating that I do not believe there in overt bias in the literary world - what concerns me more is how we deal with what appears to be an ongoing systemic issue - one in which women continue to be underrepresented in terms of publication, review, awards and media coverage. 

My aim is to promote discussion not to whine, complain or moan (which sadly, seems to be the reaction to many women commentators when they raise the issue of gender in publishing!)

The statistics, however, speak for themselves...

For example, Vida's 'Count' for 2011 reveals that at the London Review of Books last year 26% of authors reviewed were women, at the New York Review of Books that figure was 18% while at the New Yorker of the books mentioned in the 'briefly noted' section only 33% were authored by women.  When looking in terms of reviewers that are women the results are eerily similar - with 16%, 21% and 30% of female reviewers at the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement respectively.

When I started telling my husband about the figures he immediately leapt on the fact that, when considering the statistics in terms of reviews, you also need to look at the percentage of books authored by men and women. Fair enough. 

Now these statistics don't seem all that easy to come by, though The Guardian newspaper recently contacted some of the UK's largest publishing houses and found that for their 2011 non-fiction releases Penguin, Atlantic Books, Random House and Simon & Schuster reported 74%, 73%, 69% and 64% of their titles were (respectively) authored by males.(The article citing this can be found here) This genuinely surprised me - for I had no idea that there was such a gender imbalance in terms of publishing. 

These figures are, however, for non-fiction titles, and I wondered whether there were similar figures in terms of  fiction. An article by Ruth Franklin on the 2010 VIDA figures in The New Republic provided me with a little more insight. Franklin reviewed the Fall 2010 publisher catalogs and again, to my surprise, this revealed a similar pattern with most of the major houses hovering around 25-30% female authorship. Only Penguin's Riverhead imprint came close to parity with 45% of its titles authored by women. When the Franklin investigated the smaller, independent presses she found their results fared just as poorly with the best performing publisher (Graywolf) having only 25% of titles by female authors.

All in all these statistics suggest we have a long way to go before we understand why women are underrepresented in publishing - especially given that the overwhelming percentage of readers are women.

So what do you think these statistics suggest (and please, no abusive comments...) and how do you think the balance can be redressed? Should it even be redressed?  In my view the first step is awareness and the second will be getting more men to read books authored by women(!) as well as more women involved in the upper eschelons of both publishing and reviewing. But will this really help? 

What are the numbers really saying about the perceived literary glass ceiling?


  1. I'm thoroughly surprised, too. None of my friends who write seriously are guys.

    And loads of the most famous people I can think of off the top of my head are women too. Ursula Leguin, Andre Norton, Mercedes Lackey, J. K. Rowling, Madeline L'engle, Lowis Lowry, Charlaine Harris, Sophie Kinsella, Mem Fox, Laura Numeroff, Suzanne Collins, Agatha Christie (the list goes ever on and on).

    When I think of famous men authors, I can only get Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King without having to stop and consciously think of more.

    I did just recently discover that both Frewin Jones and E.B. White were men, though. That threw off my groove.

  2. Claire, I am utterly surprised by these results. It depends on where you are looking.

    I know that TKZ is looking at all markets, but where I tend to look at fiction (the CBA market) I would informally avow that it is at least 90% female authors (no, I don't have stats to back it up. That's what the percentage feels like). I know because I get frustrated that almost all the protagonists in novels are female (not that a male couldn't or wouldn't write a female lead). I mean if you go in a bookstore and scan book covers, and the vast majority have women on the cover, you pretty much know the gender behind it. That's why I ultimately moved primarily to suspense/thrillers like Threat Warning or Try Dying--male protags, written by male writers.

    I'm not disputing the statistics presented. I'm just saying that from where I'm standing, it's MEN who are under-represented in publishing.

    And when I say that note I'm being specific to fiction and am discarding the "reviews" aspect, as I don't tend to read reviews one way or another, so can't form an opinion.

    It does not surprise me that male writers are more prevalent in non-fiction, though I'm not quite certain why that is.

  3. This is why Sisters in Crime was founded, because women writers were reviewed much less than men. Although the numbers have improved, it's still an issue. So is bias against women writers in general.

    I wear another hat as a romance author. We deal with a derisive attitude against us all the time, despite romance being the best-selling fiction category.

    As a cozy mystery author, I've also felt the same prejudice. Our often humorous books with cute covers are perceived as written by women for women. We're not considered with the same respect as serious crime writers.

    Yet look at the bestseller list and see how many women top it off.
    Do they care how they are perceived? They're laughing all the way to the bank.

  4. Isn't the most popular author in the world a woman?

    I have nothing to say about review outlets and their choices. Let them have that discussion amongst themselves. When it comes to a "glass ceiling" for writers, though, I don't think the metaphor is apt. In fact, vis-a-vis the rewards of merit and the free market, publishing is probably the least affected by a "systemic issue." (Romance, for example, dominates the fiction market, and those titles are overwhelmingly penned and published by women.)

    Also, I have to say, the moment I hear "redress" with regard to literature and the arts, I get the willies. It's at that moment, IMO, we stick a toe into Bradbury and Orwell territory.

  5. This is one of those mega-complicated questions. One thing that occurs to me is that, among other things, is that men and women (in the aggregate) may be writing different kinds of books. YA authors, for example, seem overwhelmingly female. What percentage of thrillers are written by women? What kind of books are reviewed most?

    Already my head is hurting...

  6. These numbers are intriguing. I would have thought the reverse with the proliferation of women's fiction and romance novels out there so I question the numbers being accurate and fair first. So what exactly do they mean?

    It also occurs to me that "author" is not equal to "published author" so I have a few questions:
    (1) Could these results be explained by men dominating acquisitions at the publishing houses thus creating an unintentional gender bias?
    (2) Could the majority of published women's books be by a handful of female authors as opposed to the men's books being largely published by individual men thus skewing the numbers?

    I'm sure there are other ways these numbers could misrepresent reality. A quote often attributed to Samuel Clemens that he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli may be appropriate here: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

    I think there is more to say on this topic.

  7. All I can think of is that the numbers must vary by genres. People have already pointed out that the romance genre is dominated by women. Right now I'm giggling my way through the Dresden books, because they're so overly masculine. But hey, that's fine. Different strokes.

    Out here in Aspiring Author land, I've yet to hear anyone get rejected because of their gender. They get rejected because their writing isn't up to par yet. Everyone who mentions their editors/agents/whathaveyou always seem to mention female ones. I've started to keep an ear tuned to hear if there really are any male editors/agents/whathaveyou anymore.

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  9. Fascinating and suprising post.

    1. Non-fiction doesn't surprise me at all. Even though women have taken over law school and continue to make hay in other "expert" professions, the majority of established "experts" are men. Also, non-fiction books in the devotional and inspirational genre tend to be written by men because women are just making inroads into the clergy.

    Why is there only one woman with 4-stars? Because there was only one with 3-stars. It takes a generation to climb that staircase.

    2. As for fiction, if the survey was done across genres I think the pub numbers would even out. Romance, mystery, and YA are pretty much owned by women. Yet, in the "big" books (hackles down, I have to use some sort of adjective) - military thriller, horror, hard sci-fi, hard crime (ie, no romance element), I'd venture to say it is a boy's club.

    No (or extremely few) woman have stepped into the rare air occupied by Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Larry Bond, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, et al.

    Would an agent/editor be interested in a hardcore tech-thriller where the MC was a 40-something female Jack Ryan type character (with no romance/sexual/martial arts/spandex/leather/katana element at all)? I don't know.

    I can't even think of a woman in hard legal thriller territory (ala Grisham or Connolly) except Lisa Scottoline. Conversely, Tess Gerritsen has busted the ceiling in medical thrillers.

    3. Next up would be hard core literary works. I'm talking Pynchon territory. Not my genre. Has a new Toni Morrison emerged in the last decade? I don't know.

    4. I don't read the lofy book reviews. I tend to stick to genre. What types of books are most likely to be reviewed? I'm guessing literary. These surveys didn't go to the review sources closer to the ground such as Romancing The Book or YA Highway where the results would have been different.

    So, now the question would be, who do the publishers support with co-op money. Who is pubbed in hardback rather than straight to MMP? I have to go to the library this week. For fun and curiousity, I'm going to survey the new release hardbacks for men v. women.


  10. Why are women always complaining about the glass ceiling we guys put up? Do you know how much of our time is spent keeping you to 18% to 20%. Why don't you get a ladder and polish the surface?

    Just kidding, of course. Some of my favorite authors are women.

  11. Interesting. I know its more numbers, but I would be interested in knowing what percentage of books are submitted by women. Say its around 30% of books published are by women, but if 30% of the books submitted to publishers are by women, then that makes sense. But who knows? Yes, very interesting.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  12. Interesting- I've seen the numbers with regard to reviewers, but always assumed that women wrote more fiction than men (especially since romance titles are published en masse, with mainly female authors).

  13. I'm with Jim Bell on this one. Clare, your use of the term "glass ceiling" implies that women are somehow getting a raw deal in the publishing world. The further implication is that "something should be done" to rectify this imbalance. Paging George Orwell.

    Actually, something is being done. In the very place where it should be done. The marketplace. If anyone wants success in the marketplace, it starts with a great book, NOT the correct gender.

  14. Would J.K. Rowling's readership have been any different if the first cover had said "Joanne"? Evidently her publishers thought so; reportedly, they demanded that she use her initials on her books. I don't know what that says about reviews or the industry--but it's interesting.

  15. I use 'glass ceiling' only as the most common term used fir a perceived barrier - not saying it's there or not:) I was very surprised by the overall publishing figures and want to see if I can find some kind of breakdown by genre. In terms of reviews, my husband also argued 'who cares, as long as they sell heaps!' but I do think reviews in these mags do create the perception that some books are worthier than others and if those tend to be predominantly authored by males then books by women may get they often do anyway,( hence the terms chick-lit and cozies). sisters in Crime still find this gender imbalance in terms of reviews for mysteries and thrillers...just seems like we shouldn't have to still be having this debate after so many years -sigh!

  16. They say the same things about my profession (computer programmer). Though the number of women going into IT is growing, the numbers getting into the area of programming is declining. Women are not typically attracted to this type of work. You will see more in graphic design, web design or content management.

    I think if they performed statistical analysis across all of IT, the numbers would balance moreso than if they specifically targeted programming. We are the elite, sure. <--- KIDDING! My co-worker is an IT Training Manager, so I had to.

  17. Kathryn is also right that JK Rowling used her initials rather than her first name so people wouldn't know she was a woman...says a lot doesn't it and I know many female thriller writers who use initials for the same reason. Mike, though I am not into any kind of Orwellian intervention I do think it's important to be aware of the issue rather than to ignore it. Diane, I agree overall numbers don't always tell the whole story (just like in IT I am sure woman are drawn to write in different sub- genres or areas) but I was surprised nonetheless that for straight fiction the numbers would be so skewed. I would like to know how many women versus men submit manuscripts too as that might highlight where the disparity starts. I still feel it's odd given most writers I know are women (not that it is a representative sample by any means!)

  18. I'm with your husband, Clare. And I agree with you when you say we still shouldn't have to be still be having this debate. I see this whole issue as a tempest in a teapot.

    To say that any gender is over or under represented in any genre or for that matter in any field somewhat begs the question. You're not going to have equality of results in any open model. Not every element in the marketplace, particularly at the sales end, boils down to a question of so-called "fairness" or "equality." As the saying goes, the universe isn't cruel; it is indifferent. To put it another way, may be an issue --- anything can be an issue --- but just because it's an issue doesn't mean it's valid. It's manufacturing a problem where there isn't one, in the hope of creating some sort of Frankenstein monster that doesn't really work at all.

    As far as J.K. Rowling being asked to use her initials to hide her gender is concerned, the gender identity horse was out of the barn and down the road about five minutes after the first Harry Potter book dropped. Sales for the subsequent books didn't fall off, to say the least, when readers learned that J.K. Rowling was a "she." Anne Rice for that matter didn't become wildly successful until she dropped the initials and the pseudonym and came out as, uh, "Anne Rice." It didn't hurt her; she virtually created a subgenre. In both cases, the marketplace spoke. Was Bob Stine disguising his gender when he used his initials? How about Edgar Doctorow? Tess Gerritsen, Gayle Lynds, Chelsea Cain (I could go on) have done very well in the thriller genres. No initials there. That is what happens in open markets.Cream rises to the top. Not always, but often enough.

    Men for their part are under-represented in the children and young adult,fantasy, and romance markets. There's no conspiracy or glass ceiling there; women, for whatever reason, seem to write better/more popular books in those genres. I don't see a grand conspiracy because women are arguably under-represented in the dark mystery, thriller, and hard science-fiction genres. Men tend to have more interest in those fields. The sexes are (generally) hard and softwired a bit differently, and that (generally) manifests itself in any number of ways. This is but one of them.

    As far as the issue of publicity, reviews, and the like are concerned...I can speak only for myself, but I have never chosen to review or not review a book on the basis of author gender. If the book interests me, I read and review it. If not, I don't. I've never done a study on how that breaks down for me, percentage-wise, between male and female authors, simply because it's never been an issue for me. Publicity? I am BOMBARDED with publicity for books written by men AND women. No favoritism there. As far the NYT, The New Yorker, and the like are concerned, I don't read them so I don't know what they are doing, review-wise. I would ask a couple of questions, however: 1) What type of books do they review in those periodicals? My guess is that they review books which they feel their readership want to know about, and that those books are more often than not written by men than women. They probably don't review many romance novels there, but they probably don't review many horror or westerns either. 2) Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we go Orwellian and work out some sort of review parity that is satisfactory to those who have discerned a problem in this regard. Is the next complaint going to be that, unless the favorable/unfavorable review is 50/50, there is some sort of critical bias against women authors in the reviews themselves?
    Or that book vendors must stock male and female authors in equal numbers? Or that a consumer has to buy books along a similar division in the name of equality? Where, pray tell, does it end?

  19. I am certainly not advocating any quotas or enforced 50/50 rules, just highlighting the statistics:) I actually want to find out more by genre as I had wrongly assumed that in general fiction the breakdown would have been more even. Perhaps that can be next week's post as I don't want to assume women are over-represented in some genres (like children's fiction for example) when the stats might actually show otherwise. As for being a storm in a teapot...well, maybe, but I am keeping an open mind as to what the stats are telling me rather than what I thought was the case. These stats surprised me, and I want to digest what they might mean not merely dismiss them.

  20. You're right, Clare, that collecting information is key. As some detective once said, "We just follow where the evidence goes."

  21. So, as Kathryn Lilly suggested when I blogged on pen names, perhaps everyone should write under a cross-gender name (like, H. Kim Pickering) so no one can tell if they're male or female. Do that for a year and THEN, run the statistics.

    I'm just sayin' . . .