Never Mind a Room, We Need a NEWSPAPER of Our Own

Uh-oh. The year's "great books" lists have begun. Female authors have put on our literary heels and danced backward as well as we can, but it looks again like we're going to be left tapping our toes to the music while male writers dance on the best books lists once again. The New York Times just published its year's notable books list -- containing three times as many books written by men as by women.

Admittedly, 25% representation has women faring better in literature than we do in some other important places. Women constitute only 17% of the Senate and less than 3% of Fortune 500 Company CEOs. So perhaps we shouldn't complain. And we certainly shouldn't be surprised. A book the Times included on the list but didn't review is the rare exception, and last year, the number of books written by men the Times reviewed outweighed those by women by almost two to one.

Could it be that women just don't write as well as men? And yet the winner of latest Pulitzer Prize for fiction is notably female, as were three of the four winners of this year's National Book Awards. Four of the five NBA finalists in fiction were women, while only twelve could be found for the more extensive Times list.

It isn't just The New York Times, either. The New Yorker. Harper's. The Atlantic. They all reviewed substantially more books written by men than by women.

Our ideas of who we are and who we should be are shaped by the media, and yet those who shape the media often don't even realize the gender stereotyping they perpetuate.

The Geena Davis institute on Gender in Media found that in G-rated movies there are three male characters for every one female one, with most of the female characters stereotyped and/or hyper-sexualized. Female aspirations were almost exclusively romance, while male goals almost never were. And the top occupation for females? Royalty. Yet studio representatives and writers were surprised at the study results.

Think about how that shapes your daughters. Think about how it shapes your sons.

Studies also show that the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life; the more a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.

The fact of the matter is few readers think about the gender of the authors who write the books they read. But the ways we learn about books, largely from the attention they get in the media, including through lists like these -- shape not just our reading choices, but the very idea of what constitutes good literature. One message the elevation of books written by men communicates is that the male story is more important than the female one.

I don't mind dancing backward and in high heels, but I'm not sure I want to read or write that way. Do you? - Meg


I'm the nationally bestselling author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, a Ms. Magazine great read selection, The Wednesday Sisters, a writing group novel, The Language of Light, and the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, all from Ballantine Books. Other of my 1st Books posts on SheWrites include Sentencing a Book: The Tough Task of Writing the Pitch Sentence/Par... and How to Build a Book Group Audience for Your Book. Find more on the writers page of my author website and at 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started

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Comment by BJ Gallagher on November 23, 2011 at 3:40pm

It's not that women aren't writing enough – it's that women aren't buying enough... books by women, that is. Despite the fact that women buy roughly 80% of all books, their purchasing patterns tell us that women (and men) prefer books written by men. It's even worse with business books! I've been watching the business best-seller lists for the past five years (I am a business book author) and 99% of the books that make those lists are written by men. When I wrote my first business book, "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins," 16 years ago, my literary agent told me that the lead character in my parable had to be male because men won't read books in which the lead character is female. Women, on the other hand, have no problem reading books about men, by men. Same is true for children's books – that's why JK Rowling used her initials instead of her name – so boys would buy and read her Harry Potter books. In the book business, it's still a man's world.

Comment by Marilyn Yalom on November 23, 2011 at 3:30pm


Meg, you are so right!  Our local paper, SF Chronicle, is even worse in its treatment of women writers.  Its Sunday book review section has an average ratio of 5 males to 1 woman author (yes, I've been counting).  Yet I know from our salon of literary women that Bay area women are producing noteworthy books all the time.  What's to be done?


Hope "The Four Ms. Bradwells" is getting the attention it deserves.


Fondly, Marilyn Yalom

Comment by Cassandra Dunn on November 23, 2011 at 1:30pm

Great post, Meg. Well said!

Comment by Melody Fuller on November 23, 2011 at 1:18pm

Funny you should have this on your mind!


Here is a little bit of what is said about us women writers--of color who *win*.  I say we make our own award and rock it like no other!:

In a post for Commentary Magazine, D.G. Myers said black female writers have increasingly granted a number of honors in a literary affirmative action, of sorts.

Literary awards to black women writers are not historic. For nearly three decades, critical attention and honors have been demanded for some writers (and granted) on the basis of their race and sex. The day is long past when the identification of American writers by race and sex became a mental habit, a social custom; it is now a deep structural element in the grammar of literary criticism. Indeed, the self-congratulation implicit in the trumpeting of the “historic” achievements of black women writers is, by now, thirty years on, a stock reaction like tears when lovers are reunited or laughter when yet another stand-up comic says the word f--k. The Source What "He" Said  The Whole NBA Video (I have not watched all of it)

Comment by Bev Murrill on November 23, 2011 at 12:54pm

It's hard to blame you - being cranky, I mean. Honestly, it does get boring that we have to keep slogging away at this old issue that is so so slowly being changed. However, it is being changed, and articles such as yours are responsible for helping other readers/writers/reviewers to evaluate their own prejudices. This is a great article and it's really encouraging to know that we're not giving up. thanks Meg.

Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on November 23, 2011 at 7:48am

Ok, yes, I was cranky yesterday. 

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