As an author, Jezebel’s Catherine Nichols discovered that having a woman's name closes doors before they open. This writer knows the far reach of this effect—and offers a solution.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
I couldn’t sleep last night. Because I was so damned pissed by Catherine Nichols’s article “Homme de Plume,” which recently appeared on Jezebel. In it, she discusses how absurdly biased literary agents are against women writers. Querying under both her own name and with a male one, her novel manuscript garnered much more interest from agents when it was sent out through her masculine alter ego. As “George,” she contacted 50 agents, and had 17 requests for full manuscripts, which is an unheard of number. As Nichols put it, George “is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”
Her discovery came as no surprise to me because I’ve experienced the same thing in my efforts to have my story collection and two literary fiction novels find representation. I lost count of how many times I was told “You’re a terrific writer,” followed by the inevitable “but” informing me that the agent couldn’t see how they would market my book to a trade publisher. I bet they could if I had a penis. They’d have all sorts of brilliant ideas for how to pitch my writing then.
Then there’s independent publishing where we have a prestigious press like Graywolf proudly announce their all-male lineup of upcoming authors. Not to mention VIDA’s counts over the years of literary journals that predominately skew toward accepting male authors, despite the fact that women tend to submit more polished work. Or that books written by female authors are less likely to be reviewed in places like the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, or London Review of Books, which results in less visibility and less readers.
Is it any wonder that I can’t sleep? That I’m thinking of changing my name to Angelo? And that I’m so angry and frustrated that my fiction has suffered? This summer I stopped writing, for the first time ever, because I couldn’t stand the sound of my own writing voice or any of my ideas. Funny how publishing and agents seem to be bolstering those feelings.
Look, I’m no slouch when it comes to writing. A part of me remembers that. Ann Beattie chose a story of mine as the first-prize winner of a contest, my story collection won the Distinguished Dissertation Award in Creative Writing at my alma mater, and I’ve had places like McSweeney’s, The Masters Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and many other literary journals publish my work. But the act of diving into a large project like another novel, when I can’t get my other bigger work out there, is impossible to begin. I’ve lost faith in myself instead of losing faith in the system. Isn’t that what women do?
As if having this door shut in my face and losing self-confidence isn’t enough, there’s another repercussion college educators experience thanks to this issue. My not having either of my novels or my collection published screws me completely in academia where I live.
There have been hundreds of academic jobs I didn’t stand a chance at landing because of not having a book published. So my lack of representation, and having that gate more likely to stay closed because of my gender, dooms me to the hell that is adjuncting. It’s like academia and publishing are both telling me your voice doesn’t count, you don’t matter, because you have a vagina. Is it any wonder I couldn’t write this summer?
The other day my stepson said to me, “I don’t get why women athletes aren’t paid the same as men. It’s not fair.” I couldn’t agree more, I told him. But then I thought about it for a second and explained to him that what primarily determines how much athletes are paid is television viewership. When was the last time he or his dad watched women play their sport? How often do men in general, or even women, watch female sports teams? But I bet that damned Victoria Secret runway-show nonsense gets a shit ton of viewers.
The obvious solution to the problem is simple: Stop. Buying. Books. By. Men! Enough already. If not a permanent ban, then at least a substantial hiatus from male authorship. Start buying books by women instead—vote with your dollars. Lady readers that means you, since according to a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts you’re most of the readers out there. Older people can make an even bigger difference since the age bracket people who are 65 to 74 years old are the biggest readers, as the Los Angeles Times discovered.
It also means that male readers need to do a much better job of reading outside their gender. According to researchers from Queen Mary College in London “four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.”
There is no shortage of great women writers now or from years past. Recently I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Swamplandia and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, Green Girl by Kate Zambrano, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamieson, Oryx and Crake (the entire trilogy) by Margaret Atwood, The Dept. of Speculation by Jennie Offill, and Bark by Lorrie Moore, among others. And the list of great writing by women goes on and on. Google it. Trust me you’ll have no difficulty finding talented and engaging female authors whose books you can buy or ask for at your local library, if you’re so inclined.
Is this list evidence that some women are breaking through, finding representation and publication? Yes. But how does it compare to how often men see their books published? You guessed it—more male authors are published then female ones. In fact, as three women staff members from the New Republic found, female writers “accounted for around 30 percent of the list, with small independent presses turning out to be even more male-heavy than a behemoth like Random House.”
Let me explain that I’ve been a reader most of my life. In my youth, I was an anglophile devouring the Romantic poets: Shelley, Byron, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Later, it was Victorians like Gissing, Dickens, Arnold, and Trollope, and the early novels of the 18th century by authors such as Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, and Richardson. I went through a Russian phase where I sank into Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Lermontov, and Solzhenitsyn. I have my M.A. and Ph.D. in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis so I’m familiar with the canon dominated by male writers. If I stopped reading male authors for the next thirty years, and died soon after, the men would have still won the numbers game of who I’ve read over the course of my existence. Spending the rest of my life supporting my fellow female writers, and making sure whatever creative writing or literature classes I teach are biased in favor of women authors, isn’t going to make things even.
But it’ll help.
Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.
Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.
But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.