Gender in Literary Circles & Sturgeon’s Law

I love Twitter, mostly because it’s a great way to be distracted. Usually the distractions are short, but sometimes the links are so fascinating that I’ll get lost for hours. Over the last couple weeks, two very similar and equally depressing links floated through my Twitter feed.

The first post is by VIDA, and you can see all their lovely statistics on the breakdown of the male/female ratio in respected literary publications, not just by author of fiction and non-fiction articles, but also by book reviewers and the authors whose books are reviewed.

A few days ago a complementary article in(/by?) Lady Business came out regarding a different person’s sampling of internet book reviewers and the gender of the authors they review.

Here’s the long and short of it: the numbers are so horrifically skewed in the male direction that it’s headdeskingly unfunny.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert in sociology or unconscious biases or anything like that. But I do know that the first step in recognizing your bias is having someone else point it out. It’s not comfortable, and it can be monumentally embarrassing. I’ve had a number of my own biases pointed out, and despite the momentary trauma, I picked myself and made myself a more aware person. I’m not an unbiased saint, but at the very least I’m aware of more of my biases than I used to be. I’m sure there are many people who would like to point out more of them.

So here I am, pointing out the fact that there is a serious problem in the literary world—not just in the vaunted literary magazines but in the so-called meritocracy of the internet.

The most fascinating part of the VIDA post is the quotes that they have next to the graphs, including some from staff members of the targeted publications. Some of the quotes are upfront about the bias, some justify the numbers, and others shake my faith in people:

I’m not too appalled by our figure, as I’d be very surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in [this publication].

Thank you for 1) attempting to deflect the issue and 2) implying that the fiction women like to read is somehow beneath your standards. The second point pisses me off to no end. I’m really sick of the pervasive mentality of Sturgeon’s Law—that 90% of everything is crap. It’s a vicious and insidious way of dismissing other people’s works, and it happens to entire genres. Science fiction, fantasy, the entire YA sphere, romance, etc., they’ve all been and continue to be targets for the self-defined Elite to put down in order to make themselves feel special.

Here’s the reality: 90% of everything isn’t meant to entertain you specifically. No matter how well “literary” novels are written, I just don’t like them. They’re not my taste. That doesn’t mean they’re automatically crap.

Just because you think that The Hunger Games was better when it was called Battle Royale doesn’t mean that Suzanne Collins’s work is an utter waste of time. The fact that you despise Twilight doesn’t mean that Stephenie Meyer should never touch a keyboard again. Even if you find the gender dynamics in The Wheel of Time to be facepalming nightmares, that doesn’t mean that Robert Jordan’s (and Brandon Sanderson’s) efforts were nothing more than sound and fury. I may despise the classics, but I’m not above quoting them in order to sound pretentious.

This slavish dedication to Sturgeon’s Law, especially when it’s aimed at genres/series that have heavy female readership, is an amazingly effective tool for silencing, denigrating, and dismissing women. You can really see it in force whenever romance novels are brought up, and it is appalling.

Now, I’m not saying that men are going around deliberately excluding women. My heart and head both ache because of the numbers in both those articles, but I’m not really looking to start a witch hunt—I’m looking to raise awareness. The internet is supposed to be a place where everyone has a voice, but ideals don’t always hold up to reality. I’m particularly dismayed at the statistics from the internet reviewers: male bloggers reviewed books by female authors just 19% of the time:

Reading diversity is a complicated subject and book selection often a process that we’re not conscious of. We’re impacted on all sides by a myriad of things influencing our decisions. But reviewing and talking about titles on public blogs and journals is an active decision that we’re making every time we put a book down and go, “I’m going to write 1000 words about that and share it with the Internet!”

What are we saying to those who trust our reading choices? What are we saying to the publishers who send us materials to review about the books that deserve that kind of virtual hand-selling? Does it impact what they think is relevant and sellable? What does it mean when we review that book by a man, and that one, and that other one and pass over the women writing the same kind of story? There’s worth in examining the reviewing choices we’re making.
—Lady Business article

Like it or not, editors, book reviewers, publications, bloggers, and others who have positions of relative authority have an audience that trusts them. They must become aware of their biases, not just to make them better educated and better informed people, but so they can help their audience do the same.

The issues behind these statistics are numerous, and they’re not easy fixes. But the first step in finding a solution is first realizing that there is problem. Now make sure that other people know about it so we have more help fixing it.

4 thoughts on “Gender in Literary Circles & Sturgeon’s Law

  1. It makes you want to try an experiment – release a book under a male pseudonym and a female pseudonym, promote them equally, and see which one generates more sales/reviews.

    1. That would be a very interesting experiment, especially if the only difference in the releases were the names on the cover. (And possibly the title so people wouldn’t catch on so quickly.)

  2. This is amazing. And horrific. And it reminds me of a discussion started by Shannon Hale blogging about the lack of females in animation. Here is a piece from a commenter that really astounded me.

    “I’m an animation major at BYU. A few months ago, I was selected as the director for our 2013 capstone film, Chasm. The protagonist is a mechanic and inventor, and a little bit older (40s,50s). We decided to make the main character female to try for something different and break our school habit of having guy protagonists. I was floored by the fierce, negative response from a couple of my male classmates–everything from “it’s too technically challenging to animate the breasts” to “it’s impossible to design appealing older women because men get more rugged and handsome with age and women just get ugly” and even “But women don’t DO that sort of mechanical stuff!” It was mind boggling. I hope the completion of our film will prompt the other students in our year to set a standard and fight for gender equality in entertainment.”

    I know that gender perception at BYU is a different can of worms, but this kind of beats into my head that even though on the surface women are afforded the same respect as men, in people’s minds we still really don’t. It’s like how (as I think I’ve ranted to you before) I posted a comment on Facebook about being excited about attending a Josh Groban concert, and a guy friend replied “Gross.” It was a turning point for me, realizing how unfair it is for male-oriented entertainment to be considered “legitimate” and “good,” while female-oriented entertainment is always given that condescending eye-roll. Somehow, it’s not okay for girls to like what they like.

    I hope this gap in entertainment can be bridged. I have hopes to create work that can be enjoyed and appreciated and meaningful to both genders, based on themes that appeal to humanity as a whole.

    Also, I was thinking the other day how in English, women are linguistically derivative of men, too. Even “male” and “female” gives that impression. But that’s not how it is in other languages. French “homme” and “femme” are completely different, as are Japanese “otoko” and “onna.” How is it that English ended up this way, and do you think that has any bearing on our culture?

    1. I almost thew a fit when I first saw that comment at work. It made me want to tear my hair out and headdesk at the same time. Thanks for finding and quoting it here.

      I really hope that this gap can be bridged, too. It’d be nice if the next generation of women didn’t have to deal with this mind-boggling amount of stupid. I think it’s the responsibility of the current and rising generation of creative people–writers, artists, musicians, etc.–to set a standard for gender (and other) equality in entertainment. Like it or not, we look to entertainment often, and things won’t change until more and more people start taking those “risks.”

      As for your linguistic questions, I don’t know. I’m assuming English ended up those terms because it’s a Germanic language (as opposed to a Romance language as French is) and something interesting happened several hundred years ago. Though since both French and English are Indo-European languages, I don’t know how or why that split occurred. I don’t have the expertise to really make a definitive comment on the linguistics/cultural influence, but unless France is some gender equality utopia, I doubt the terms have made much difference in the perception of and treatment of gender in French culture.

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