Reading Women bookmark by Joanna Walsh

Making this the year of reading women – An online campaign wants to get readers to seek out women authors, whether new, overlooked or forgotten

“I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.” This may sound like something a machismo English Lit lecturer in a Martin Amis novel might say, but these bon mots are not fictional. This chest-beating declaration came from Canadian academic David Gilmour (not the Pink Floyd one). Forget the Brontes, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Enright or Lorrie Moore: according to Floyd, people with double x chromosomes aren’t worthy of being taught to a class of aspiring writers. As ridiculous an attitude as it is, Gilmour’s evisceration of women from his course highlights the ongoing disparity between how female writers are treated, and the gendered attitudes towards fiction.

That views like Gilmour’s still exist, reinforces the need for Joanna Walsh’s Reading Women campaign. Walsh, an illustrator and author of short story collection Fractals, was inspired by two (male) reviewers who had hoisted themselves out of the comfort zones of reading predominantly male writers. She started the #ReadWomen2014 hashtag on Twitter, to encourage readers to seek out female authors, and rediscover women who have been overlooked or forgotten as writers. “It started as a celebration of the names I’d written on the back of some new year’s cards, which I posted online and invited others to tweet suggestions of women writers. I was astounded by how many people joined in,” says Walsh. To accompany the online campaign, Walsh designed bookmarks of feted writers like Marguerite Duras, Deborah Levy and Carson McCullers. The act of creating something physical and tangible also increased the sense of visibility of both the campaign and the writers themselves. “The bookmarks certainly gave it a focus”, says Walsh. “I’m not sure it would have been so popular without them, but I want everyone to explore an aspect of women’s writing they might not have otherwise.”

Walsh was partly inspired by the VIDA count, which was published last week. A voluntary US study, it calculates both the gender balance of female reviewers, and the number of books by women that get reviewed in UK/US newspapers and literary journals. Publications under scrutiny include Granta, The TLS and The Paris Review. One of the most problematic offenders for gender balance was The London Review of Books, who was shown to have a history of 82% of articles written by men, with just 18% by women. The LRB responded – with a statement on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book – using a quote by one of its former (female) editors: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities.” Before I stop typing to collect my children, let me make this point: if editors find there are fewer pitches by women (and make assumptions as to what the reasons for that is) they should seek out and commission more female voices.

VIDA’s count is weighted towards US publications, but its methodology encouraged The Guardian to make its own examination. Last year, the newspaper published statistics focusing on UK broadsheets, and found that male reviewers and authors outnumbered women 2:1 in most cases. VIDA Co founder, Professor Erin Belie of Florida State University believes that gender is a fundamental issue. “When women are infrequently reviewed, or reviewed with coded language that emphasises their gender (which is pretty common), it sends a signal that women aren’t to be taken as seriously as their male writer counterparts.” Statistically, more women than men buy books, but fewer men read books by female authors. There is often an assumption that writing by women focuses on the personal, families and the domestic. As if those topics have not been handled with the same degree of seriousness as male writers. The presumption of less gravitas in women’s writing is also linked to how women writers are represented.

Last November I chaired a Dublin Book Festival panel with three writers (Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Jennie Ridyard) who all revealed that they – and other women authors – are regularly asked more questions about their personal lives, families and relationships than male writers are. Do interviewers enquire of Ian McEwan how “he juggles it all?” Or ask male 30-something writers whether they want to have children?

Calling out bias helps, as does pointing out the imbalance. In VIDA’s case, various publications have taken on board the findings. “Pamela Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) is on record saying that making changes that bring about a more balanced mix of men’s and women’s voices isn’t very hard to do,” says Erin Belieu. “The editor of The New Republic released a statement saying he knows his magazine has a big problem in this area and he’s going to make serious efforts to address it. So the count has been influential.” With VIDA’s important model, 2014 may yet become the year of reading (more books and reviews) by women.

Joanna Walsh blogs here. Follow #ReadWomen2014 on Twitter: @readwomen2014

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on March 8th, 2014

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