These charts on female writers, book reviewers, and editorial staff have been floating around the internet for a few days now. The quick take-away is that women are far underrepresented in the major publications that promote and review literary works, non-fiction, and poetry. Mother Jones was quick to point out that the gender make-up of their staff and contributors is much more equal.
The comments are also worth reading. As of my last reading, there was really only one comment that seems to be trolling and the rest are genuinely reflective and thoughtful. One theme that is continually repeated is that in order to judge these numbers, we must look at the number of submissions. If women are not submitting at the same levels of men, then clearly their books will be reviewed less frequently. And while this doesn’t touch why there are more men on editorial staffs, it does start to get at some of these differences.
The author of the blog post goes into this in more detail on another page, and so some of what I’ll say here may seem to be merely echoing, but going back to submissions is not sufficient to determine the source of the imbalance. Once we have submission numbers, the question becomes, why do submission numbers look like this? My guess is that yes, female submission numbers are lower. But merely knowing that this kind of imbalance in submission exists does not preclude discrimination. If women writers know about the imbalance in the final product, it might scare some of them away from submitting in the first place. In this case, we might see that the quality of women’s submissions would be much greater than that of men, on average. Quality, I’d argue, should be more important than quantity in determining the outcome of publication or not.
Reading it also reminded me of @katinalynn‘s rant on long fiction the other day. In reference to recent long books by Bolano, Franzen, and Murakami, she notes “All three of these books received great acclaim before they ever hit bookshelves, in no small part due to each author’s past success.” Success in publishing (and in most fields, actually) is incredibly dependent on what you can show that you’ve already done. This New Yorker story on the plagiarism of Q.R. Markham quotes literary types as being more accepting of his work, or in awe of it, because he had published a poem in an Best American Anthology Poetry. One good publication and you’re much more likely to get the next.
This is partly a signalling issue. If someone gives us a signal that they are good, and someone else has no signal, we assign lower levels of risk to the one with the signal. Someone else has essentially done the work of evaluating this person for us, so we do less to actually evaluate them on merit. Whether we intend to or not. Thus, success becomes entrenched and one good turn leads to another.