Leah Hager Cohen: As a writer, I have a personal stake in the debate over gender disparity in literature. But I just can't bring myself to enter the fray. (Rick&Brenda Beerhorst/Flickr)

I always thought I knew exactly where I stood on prejudice and discrimination (against) and anti-bias work (for), and that I’d be unequivocally committed to working for greater equality no matter who or what the oppressed group. I grew up in a family where racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, fascism and lots of others “isms” were routinely discussed around the dinner table. And I was thoroughly on board: Marching on Washington, going to NAACP dinners, singing union songs with gusto. In fourth grade, that was me proudly heading off to school wearing my “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” t-shirt.

During the past several years, the issue of gender disparity has received an unprecedented amount of attention in a field near and dear to me: literature. As a writer of fiction, nonfiction and literary criticism, I have — or ought to have — serious personal stakes in how the conversation goes. And yet, I have a confession to make: Not only am I reluctant to get involved, I’m downright turned off by the whole debate.

I’ve wondered whether I’d be more inclined to act if we were talking about writers of color, say, or writers with disabilities: any marginalized group I’m not a member of.

For those of you who don’t happen to live and breathe book news, here’s a short, highly selective timeline to help bring you up to speed:

Franzenfreude Erupts (Summer 2010)

Novelist Jennifer Weiner coins the phrase “Franzenfreude” in reaction to what she sees as the excessive attention and praise Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom” receives in the media. She casts her objections in feminist terms, telling the Huffington Post, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book — in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

VIDA Counts (Winter 2011)

VIDA, a grassroots organization that seeks to address “the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture,” publishes its first annual Count: A crisply compiled record of how things break down by gender in the book reviewing world — looking at both reviewers and the books getting reviewed. In it, gorgeous pie charts and crystal-clear stats expose the fact that close to three-quarters of authors in the publications it tracks are male.

Whose Fault is it, Anyway? (Spring 2012)

A terrific essay by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times introduces the bias against women in literature to official (though not necessarily welcome) dinner-party conversation. As Wolitzer dryly remarks, “Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt.” She identifies possible factors contributing to the problem: Amazon’s ghettoization of “Women’s Fiction;” publishers unintentionally trivializing their female authors by designing hyper-estrogenized book jackets; school teachers assigning mostly books by male authors so that boys will more easily “relate to” the reading.

Sexism Smackdown (Spring 2013)

In a widely-circulated interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud responds to a question about the likability of the angry protagonist of her most recent novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” with a degree of robust animation that quickly becomes news. Messud’s response, depending on whom you read, is sassy or cranky or kick-ass or exasperated or frustrated or combative or brilliant — in any case, the consensus is once again that women writers are often held to, constrained and diminished by a different standard than their male counterparts.

Given all this, why am I, especially in light of my aforementioned political proclivities, disinclined to be part of the struggle for gender parity in the publishing world? Is it some kind of internalized sexism, a misplaced humility that won’t let me stand up for a group I belong to?

I’ve wondered whether I’d be more inclined to act if we were talking about writers of color, say, or writers with disabilities: any marginalized group I’m not a member of.

Yet I don’t think this is the issue. If we were talking about sexism in any other arena — the right to bodily autonomy, to marital and parental rights, to hold office, to be educated, to get equal pay, etc. — I’d be in there, glad to fight. The stumbling block for me is that we’re talking about art, the one arena in which the notion of equity simply does not compute.

 The stumbling block for me is that we’re talking about art, the one arena in which the notion of equity simply does not compute.

As I understand it, all art, including literary art, is mysterious. Its provenance is mysterious: We don’t really know from whence inspiration comes. Its destiny is mysterious: Once we create something and set it forth, we have little control over how it will be received. And in order to continue making art — that is, in order to receive the gift of inspiration, tend it by practicing the discipline of our craft, and then keep it in motion by releasing the product of our craft to others — we need to avoid the distraction of focusing on its reception. The more we invest in trying to manage its trajectory once it has left our hand, the more attention, in particular, we devote to jockeying for reward — whether in the form of cash, praise, prizes, fame or status — the more we close ourselves off from receiving and attending to the mysterious gift in the first place.

I remain somewhat troubled by my inability to reconcile a belief in social justice and a belief that making art requires us to detach from expectations about what happens to it once it leaves our hands. I worry that I’m being hypocritical, or craven, or maybe just dumb. I welcome being pushed to see this from different angles, shown how I might get a different purchase on the matter. But until such time may come, I cannot bring myself to enter the fray. For now, while saluting the animated conversation and following with interest the robust debate, I can do no other than sit this one out.


Tags: Books, Gender, Writing

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  • PatriciaGoodwin

    Wikipedia separated women writers, not Amazon.

  • smb

    Leah – you are of course welcome to sit out this debate. Even
    though—thank you!—you have linked to several articles that provide
    evidence about the gender disparity in publishing and there are other
    studies as well (ex: the same play manuscripts sent out to artistic
    directors and literary managers under male and female names were rated
    lower when they had female names on them). I think the reason to
    publicly engage in this discussion is that so much bias, even among
    women, is unconscious and only by showing the data can we see how bias
    is not imagined but real. While I agree that I wish I could just focus
    on the work, the art, and not on the public reward, there are real
    consequences to women artists (to all artists) when work is not valued
    because of gender, racial or other bias. It’s not just about some kind
    of nebulous “reward” but about the ability to live and work as an artist. To have the finances and resources that allow us to have the time to “attend to our mysterious gift.” As a professor and successful writer yourself, you know that publications are required for academic positions; that money from successful publications buys time for more writing; that money pays for childcare; and that public success provides all kinds of opportunities: collaborations with other artists, paid speaking engagements, etc. Art is not a job, but art is also not a hobby.
    And . . . I could write an entire separate comment about how bias keeps
    so many voices—of different genders, nationalities, races, etc—from
    reaching a wide audience. So, maybe your reluctance to engage in the
    debate about the marketplace may be put aside when you think of all
    those writers whose work you may never read, all their “mysterious
    gifts” so different from yours hidden from you, because of the bias of
    the marketplace.

    — Sari B.

    • gofigure

      She’s “sitting out” the debate, but was, presumably, happy to have one of her novels long-listed for the Orange Prize — a prize specifically for women, a reward given specifically to address in the inequities in the way men’s and women’s books are treated by critics and in the marketplace.
      In other words, she’s happy to take advantage of the advances won by organizations like VIDA and the women writers who put themselves out there to point out the disparities between how men’s and women’s art is treated. She’s even willing to chide other writers for “jockeying for reward.” Meanwhile, she herself does nothing to extend a helping hand to other women writers, or to make the path easier for writers yet to come.
      That’s straight up hypocrisy.

      • smb

        That’s interesting information, about the Orange Prize. Overall, I find it strange that Leah’s uncomfortable joining a discussion to, as Kim Triedman wrote below, creating a level playing field in the market. Also, it’s odd that she feels that wanting a discussion and response to clear bias will somehow destroy the magical art-making process. I feel that I can separate the creative/working side of writing and business side of writing in my head and in my life. It’s an odd argument she’s making. Or not making.

        • gofigure

          It’s worth noting that she’s done quite well under the current standards — in terms of critical esteem, if not sales (I’d never heard of her until I read this piece).
          If you visit her website, you’ll find that her most recent novel received a front-page rave in the New York Times Book Review. Previous books were also widely reviewed. Why should she fight to change the status quo and perhaps have to share her space with the commercial women writers who currently get no attention at all from places like the Times? Why should she struggle to expand the definition of what constitutes “literary fiction,” when doing so could possibly jeopardize her spot on the cover of the NYTBR?
          I think she’s being both hypocritical and selfish. You can’t reap the benefits of a movement — feminism, civil rights, whatever — and then yank the ladder up behind you.

  • Lucy

    elephant in the room that Leah Hager Cohen can’t, or won’t, see is that yes, we are
    talking about art–and art worlds of all kinds have historically stacked
    the deck against women. Does she somehow think that women painters have
    gotten a fair deal? Women composers? Does she think that because the
    composition of her art is pure, its marketing, publicity, and critical
    exposure are as well? I like her fiction, but she seems
    incapable of critical thinking here.

  • ejc

    I agree that the creation and path of art involves mystery. But these numbers are not mysterious. They are the opposite of mysterious. Their consistency (70% m, 30% w) is what makes them so powerful. It would be different if now and then women got 70%, 90%, 45%, 55% of the space, but that literally never happens (unless someone is having a “women’s issue”). I wonder if the tension for you might be between the state of mind you need to be in to create, and the state of mind you need to be in to feel upset about these numbers. You are rejecting their implication because it would undermine the power you need to do what you do. But I don’t think you have to read your own work and its reception through this lens in order to see that this is a problem affecting a lot of people, and that it’s related, interrelated, with other types of prejudice. You can make an exception for yourself if that makes more sense to you, and still see how f##ked up it is that women make up the majority of readers and students of writing and literature, and yet the cultural elite offers them a male platter of writers over and over again, in fact says in no uncertain terms that those writers are better, best, etc. Be upset for the young woman who leaves an MFA program on the same level as her male peers, and watches as doors “mysteriously” open for her male counterparts over and over again, while those doors remain shut to her. It takes away from her power, from her creativity, from her artistic abilities. It does. It really does.

  • sophia

    The debate isn’t about the quality of the art but about the misrepresentation of quality by the bias against women’s writing of high quality in favor of the work of men of inferior quality.

  • Jessie

    The “art” part of writing is the creative part of it. The “business” part is the publication of that art, the reviewing of that art in order to provide content around which to sell ad space, the selling of that art in book stores and in online venues. It is the business of books that separates out art produced by those who don’t fit an easily packaged, salable mold and puts it in inferior silos. Do not confuse the two or obscure the very real problem of sexism in the business of literature by acting as if it is all part of some fuzzy, warm thing we call “art.”

  • Lisa Lanser-Rose

    Cohen sounds caring and courageous. I’m not sure that it was helpful, however, to conclude that the wellspring of creativity is too “mysterious” and delicate for battle. “The more we invest in trying to manage its trajectory once it has left our hand, the more attention, in particular, we devote to jockeying for reward . . . the more we close ourselves off from receiving and attending to the mysterious gift in the first place.” That’s not helpful in an age when writers are supposed to act as their own publicists. Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to many writers, who cultivate introversion the better to “attend the mysterious gift of inspiration.” Perhaps it’s also against the nature of many women to act as their own town criers. To be read, however, and advance our careers, women writers must jockey for reward–in a race that appears to be rigged against us. If I speak up, will it just sound like sour grapes? I for one am glad that VIDA is speaking up for us.

  • Sam

    I appreciate the references which show respect for the gender bias issue, even though you disagree with entering the debate. Usually, things we don’t agree with rarely get such respect from the opposing view. Reasonable people are usually fine with accepting less than desired results, as long as they know the system and terms were fair. Unfair systems are rightfully upsetting and should not be allowed to go unchallenged.

    It’s interesting that you wonder if you might be more on board if the issue was
    around people of color, etc. While things are still far from equal for many groups, civil rights battles have also led to a greater appreciation of diversity in arts. More people can experience other cultures and perspectives. The women in literature issue is on that continuum, and ultimately getting more women’s voices out there will help promote greater equality more broadly.

    It’s also women pointing out specific literary examples of other deserving women. I have to ask, when women complain in the context of being part of the receiving public, and not just the self-serving writer’s context, does that make the complaints more valid?

    I have to disagree with the implied ethical system that it’s not good to promote one’s art, even if the promotion is through a cause as a macro proxy. We have to make time for all sorts of things, so why not promotion too? It’s true that we can’t ultimately control how the public will receive our work, but it’s certainly possible for us to influence that, either positively or negatively. I would rather have a say, and not remain silent while others get to control the story and labels of things. It is your right to not join in, and you wouldn’t be the only woman who doesn’t. I think what you wrote is brave. I just disagree with the beliefs that led to the decision.

  • Trudi Goodman

    It affects my ability to be hired. I am an older woman actor and it’s hard as heck to get hired these days.

    • J__o__h__n

      Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Dianna Rigg – your problem is being American not a woman.

  • Kim Triedman

    I appreciate Leah’s clear and thoughtful summary of the dialogue over gender disparity in the arts. And I understand her point about being distracted (as writers) by the process of what comes after the writing. However, I think that she has missed a very important point. The fact of the matter is that these days, most writers do need to be their own best publicists. And by that I am not talking about reviews. I am talking about plain, old-fashioned visibility. If the books don’t get onto bookshelves (or Amazon, or B&N, etc), or onto the reading circuit, they simply don’t find an audience. And no matter how mysterious the writing process may be, writing a novel or a poetry collection or anything else is, in the end, about throwing words out into the ether so that someone else might happen to find them. And feel fuller for having read them.

    As much as I lament every step of the underside of writing — and I DO lament it — it is sadly now a fact of literary life. We no longer have the luxury of NOT managing the trajectory of our work . And I believe that what we write should not be judged on limitations placed on it by publishing houses and literary media bent on ghettoizing or trivializing “Women’s Fiction.” The flap over gender disparity it is not about cash or praise or prizes or fame or status. It is about the simple issue of fairness — of wanting a level playing field so that our work can compete out in the market on its own merits. For me at least, the dialogue has nothing to do with “jockeying for reward.” It is about playing by the same rules.

    Kim Triedman

  • Michael Odom

    She’s right. Those who hold aesthetic value above social or economic value are a much smaller minority than women, yet we are being forced to discriminate for or against artists according to their genitalia. If Emily Dickinson goes out of print because she is female, I’ll join the fight. But if the woman up the street writing fan fiction about her ex-husband is forced on the editor of Harpers, I will also fight. That they both have vaginas is not the issue. Now, if VIDA did a count without the bias toward irrelevant (and disrespectful) quantification, if they start with a meaningful assessment of the aesthetic value of the works being accepted or rejected, if then they found great writers excluded for their gender, then I’d be wholely with them. As it is, this is a war of the majority against a minority; the quota-leaning condemnation of sexism attacking the last of the bibliophiles.

    • smb

      It’s an old argument you’re making: women must be publishing less because their work isn’t as good. It’s not a good argument. Journals are publishing about 60-75% more pieces by men than women. Do you really believe *that many* men write better than women? Seriously? We are not asking to discriminate in favor of women. We’re asking for recognition that there is a bias towards men. In at least one study I could find (and I’m sure there are more) the same exact manuscripts given male or female author names were rated by expert reviewers with lower scores when the manuscripts had female names. Even by female reviewers, I’m sorry to say.

      Here’s a response to the arguments you raise.

      • Michael Odom

        I had read through the VIDA page before. It seems to recognize the problem while surrendering to it: “We might, for instance, create a rubric for evaluating the quality of each individual work submitted, create a system for applying that rubric, and determine the ratio of publishable-to-unpublishable work in each gender’s submission pile. There’d be a lot of math involved, margins of error, etc. We’d apply for a nice fat grant to conduct this study, get paid to count stuff, and perhaps feel less grouchy about the time it takes. We’d still be left with gray areas and contradictions! ”
        And, no, I do not believe men are better writers in any quantity nor am I one to discount the role of sexism or racism in any culture. My background, however, is not as an academic but as a bookseller. What I wanted was the study that does not ignore the only reason a passionate reader picks up a book, buys it, and reads it through to the end. You can guilt an editor into publishing work she doesn’t particularly value but I’ve never met the reader who chose an author out of a sense of obligation. As we brick & mortar booksellers have learned, you’ve lost when your last sales pitch is an appeal to morality.

        • Lynn

          Has it occurred to you that a lot of our consumer choices contain an unconscious bias? To discount the unconscious gender bias there IS to discount the role of sexism in the culture.

    • gofigure

      Who gets to perform this “meaningful assessment of the aesthetic value of the works being accepted or rejected?” You? Me? Sam Tanenhaus?
      Anyone making any kind of assessment will bring his or her own biases to the table.
      I’m curious, too, as to where you’re getting the idea that there’s anyone out there advocating for quotas, or pushing for Harper’s to publish the fan-fiction of the “woman up the street.” Articles? Links?

      • Michael Odom

        You, me, Sam, and everyone who picks up a book in a bookstore. This is the point exactly: in an attempt to find quantifiable objectivity, you suit the dominant culture and bracket the only issue that is relevant. To discount aesthetic values as subjective is the common tendency in our culture. but you will never read a poem except as a subject and only as subjects do poems matter. As for quotas, they are the abyss we’re tightrope walking over. An editor being careful to represent all who has learned to question their unexamined judgments as biased will, like you and most people, look for counts that divide into piecharts representing gender or race. The result is default quotas. I don’t think anyone consciously asks for them, but they are our culture’s knee-jerk conclusion.

    • ab

      As smb says below “In at least one study … the
      same exact manuscripts given male or female author names were rated by
      expert reviewers with lower scores when the manuscripts had female
      names. Even by female reviewers…” This is the crux of the matter. This phenomenon has been demonstrated not just in the context of manuscripts but also in the context of academic resumes. ( Bottom line, if it has a woman’s name on it, it’s got less of a chance than if it’s got a man’s name on it, across several different contexts. Good argument for naming your kid “Alex.”

      • ab

        working link:

      • Michael Odom

        Thank you for the link. I’ve followed this issue since the first VIDA count. yet missed that Scientific American article, probably because it is not primarily about literature. It is, I agree, the kind of study I would want: one that accounts for the value of literature. It’s easier for a reader to care about the breakdown of data when the love of literature is not bracketed out as not quantifiable. I’ve also read that even when editors select evenly from the slushpile, they unconsciously solicit manuscripts mostly from established male writers. Having demonstrated that important authors are being overlooked, I am more sympathetic when VIDA promotes a particular author as someone we might have missed and should take the time to read.

        As a non-academic, this is the experience that haunts my perception of the VIDA counts: a decade ago or more, the now defunct, independent bookstore where I was the Poetry Buyer had a National Poetry Month sale with a prominently displayed table of poetry titles. In that month, there were two of my colleagues who I would regularly find in the poetry section scanning the shelves for ethnic sounding names and looking at author photos to decide which books to put on display. These colleagues were not poetry readers generally nor were they showing any interest in reading and sharing the poems they were featuring. The poetry was irrelevant to their moral view. Most of the titles they selected did not sell, but then, unlike other titles featured regardless of race or gender, they weren’t selected to sell & be read. They were selected to represent ethnic and gender diversity: laudable in other contexts, but as readers have no obligation to love an author for their skin color or genitalia, my colleagues had only given America’s readers another reason to ignore the poetry section.

    • Erin

      VIDA has *never* called for quotas of any kind. We have asked that editors become more aware of their own gender bias when making editorial decisions. And we associate ourselves specifically with “literary arts.” Hence the name. We’re not talking about fan fiction and shopping novels. Just a few facts for your consideration.

      Also, I’m not sure exactly what it is you’re being “forced” to do and by whom, but you might not find the quantification of gender bias quite so irrelevant if it affected you.

  • MLO

    Perhaps you could look at the issue this way: the bias under debate is not against the art itself, but against the right of the artist to be taken seriously as an artist.