About a year ago, I was working in my local bookstore when a couple wandered in to browse. They walked along the wall of fiction, and as the woman pulled books off the shelves to read the back covers, the man paced with agitation. When the woman asked her husband if he had found anything he liked, he complained that there were “too many books by women in this bookstore.”
I still remember this because it surprised me – it was not a complaint we had received before, and I wondered if it was even valid. It is true that this particular bookstore, although co-owned by a man and a woman, happened to be staffed primarily with women. As both of our book buyers were also women, it was possible that our stock reflected a gender bias that I was previously unaware of. And perhaps, as the women who staffed and managed our bookstore were in charge of displaying merchandise, we had unconsciously chosen to promote books by female authors. But as I scanned the store in that moment, I still noted plenty of best-sellers, classics, fiction, poetry, history, current affairs, and science books by men.
The woman, like me, had no trouble spotting several fiction books by male authors. She pointed them out to her husband immediately, eager to pacify him so she could continue to shop for reading material. I wondered, as I observed them, if she was offended by his misogynistic comment. How, I thought, do one’s tastes in literature become so refined that one automatically rejects books written by one half of the population? Could all books by women really be so similar that they were distasteful to this man?
Of course not. Books by women range in genre from fantasy to politics and are as diverse in content and writing style as books by men. Yet this man’s point of view reflects a set of cultural stereotypes that still hinder women in the writing and publishing world: the idea that female fiction is (and should be) domestic and subjective, while male fiction is worldly and objective. Female authors are often associated with romance novels, one of the least respected genres in the literary world. Other female fiction writers, if they break out of the romance stereotype, are still seen as writing for other women about relationships. These expectations inform the way consumers see and understand a book when they notice it was written by a woman.
Women who write about domesticity and relationships are marginalized, but women whose writing moves beyond these realms are still more so. Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay “Why is Your Writing So Violent?”, explores these stereotypes via the question she is most often asked during interviews. She writes, “…the serious male writer is allowed his vision and takes as his rightful subject a world as vast as Dostoyevsky’s Russia, or Melville’s oceans, or Faulkner’s ‘postage stamp of earth’ in Mississippi. One does not inquire of them, ‘Why is your writing so violent?’”. The question, she says, is always insulting and always sexist. So it seems we have a classic no-win situation: a woman who writes about the expected domestic and subjective issues remains invisible to men because of her projected femininity, while a woman who writes about the rest of the world has her writing judged by her perceived lack of femininity.
Statistics show that female authors internationally are still not on a par with male authors. A study done by two academics at Queen Mary College in London in 2005 found that men were likely to read books only by men, while women were likely to read books by authors of both sexes (Smith, “Women are still a closed book to men”). National and international prizes reflect the literary success of men vs. women, as shown by the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, which awarded four prizes to men and one to a woman. Twice as many men as women have won the Man Booker Prize since its birth in 1969. The Nobel Prize for Literature is even less balanced, with seven female winners in the past thirty years. Because awards often dictate which books receive recognition and, ultimately, sell copies, these statistics are valid indicators of the publishing power of men versus that of women. As David Smith noted in his article (above), “…fiction by women remains ‘special interest’ while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative, and style.” The margins for success become even narrower when one factors in the too-seldom recognition of female writers of color.
It is for this reason that institutions like the Orange Prize, which is awarded to one fiction book by a woman each year, She Writes, a website specifically for female writers, and Calyx, a woman-centered publishing press, exist. We have not yet achieved gender equality in the literary world, and therefore we need spaces where women’s voices can be heard. I have serious doubts that the book buyers for our small, independent (yet mainstream) store were able to go so far beyond typical publishing avenues as to stock more books by women than men, and by accident nonetheless. But if they did then that is quite an accomplishment. With mainstream bookstores selling mostly writing by male authors, perhaps having “too many books by women” in one place isn’t such a bad idea.