Why are there are no women on the Publishers Weekly
Top Ten Best Books of 2009 list, and relatively few on the overall list? I have a theory. Some might say it’s a stretch. Some might say it’s the elephant in the room. Why no women on the list? The Literary Gatekeeping Machine is responding (unconsciously, I hope) to publishing trends.
What trends, you ask? This one: women buy the vast majority of books in this country, and the publishing industry needs to make sure that their offerings will appeal to the almighty female consumer.
I’m talking about niche marketing. I’m talking about product branding. I’m talking about girly book jackets.
There. I said it.
Back in 2000, former Soft Skull Press editor Richard Nash talked about this trend in the KGB Bar Lit Magazine.
He said: “There are two ways for fiction to get sold in this country --though I’m being very crude here with my description. One way is more ‘male’ and the other way is more ‘female’. The more female way is through book clubs, because they are 85% women, and that is like a really crucial component of how paperback books really are being sold in the United States. It’s through these book clubs…
“Then there’s the traditional side, it comes from how a book is perceived, for example, a new book from so-and-so, the kind of book that will be reviewed in the Times
, and will appear on Fresh Air.
This is the stuff that’s going to be face out and everyone’s going to be talking about it – the new Philip Roth, the new John Updike or in terms of the younger generation, the new Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, and Myla Goldberg. But there are a lot more male writers in that category.”
The trouble occurs when a woman writer wants (or thinks she deserves) the "traditional" treatment but doesn't get it.
Few women writers will talk about this issue publicly, but when we get together, it’s pretty much the only thing we talk about. How do male writers respond to our tales? A few years ago, I was in a bar with two friends—one male, one female. They had books just out or coming out. The woman complained about her cover. “It’s so girly,” she said. “No man will ever buy my book.” The man rolled his eyes, took a sip of beer, and said, “That’s like going to ‘Ladies Drink Free’ night at a nightclub and then bitching when you get hit on.”
At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York City, I flipped through the program and found a panel entitled “This is Not Chick Lit: The Branding of Women’s Fiction.”
The description said that the panelists would discuss “how women novelists are marketed and reviewed differently than men, as well as how literary women's fiction will fare with the rise and fall of chick lit.” Women flocked to the large ballroom. I saw many women writers of my generation in the audience—not a single man. Every panelists’ anecdote was greeted with pained, knowing laughter. “What do we do? What can we do?” everyone asked. There are no easy answers, because after all, this is about money and the bottom line. Branding works. Branding sells. And branding is not gender neutral.
For the last few years, I’ve been waiting patiently for someone to speak up, to put his or her foot down. A powerful female New York editor? An established woman writer? See, I desperately want to know what Alice McDermott
and Alice Munro
and Anne Tyler
think about the covers of the newest editions of their books. I desperately want to know if Knopf imagined a different, female-friendly cover for Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs
. In March of 2009, illustrator Daniel Hertzberg blogged about his design
for the book, but these ideas were rejected. Apparently, Moore “insisted on using artwork she found herself.”
She’s no dummy. She got to approve her own cover, something most writers don't get. She didn’t want a soft-focus photograph of a child peering over the requisite baby gate in the Typical American Home. It’s not hard to imagine such a cover. Flip through Ladies Home Journal
and you’ll find the image. And this, of course, is how the whole thing happens: make a book cover look like the cover of Martha Stewart Living
or a Real Simple
Domestic Object Tableau or a Vogue
Summer Shoes feature or an ad for Pottery Barn Kids. Catch the female consumer’s eye. And poof!
immediately, the book presents as feminine, something small and domestic, not worth considering as a Best Book of 2009.
Last year, a young woman in one of my workshops submitted a story reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s “Willing.” It was a funny, smart, and well-written, but because the main character talked in depth about her struggle with love and loneliness, some men in the class balked at discussing it. Another woman in the class said, “This is just chick lit.”
It’s getting to the point where my female writing students are saying to me, “I wanted to write a novel about [blank] but I know I’ll just get some girly cover, so I’m not going to tell that story.“
This scares me more than a little.
I always tell these women, “Write the book you want to write and don’t worry about it.” Yet, I know they worry about it. I know this because I know the fire inside them. They want to write, yes. They want to be read widely, yes. But more than anything, they want to be taken seriously. They want to be on PW’s list in 2019. And how can they do that? Well, for the moment, it seems they should avoid writing anything that the average American woman might want to read.
Sometimes I show these young women writers Frederick Busch’s dismissive 1974 review
of Alice Munro’s Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
. He mocks her “formulaic” stories about happily married women. He insinuates that her narrative voice is typically female and sycophantic. “Look,” I say. “Look at how wrong he was.”
Sometimes, I show them the dust jacket
for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
—the cursive script, the pink shawl. “Look,” I say. “This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.”
Lorrie Moore gave a talk in my city recently, and during the Q&A, I vigorously waved my hand, trying to get the moderator’s attention. I wanted to ask Lorrie Moore two questions:
1. If Self Help
had been published in 2005 rather than 1985, what might it have looked like on the bookstore shelf?
2. Ms. Moore, what advice do you have for young woman writers today? And please don’t say, “First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher.” Seriously now. I know you like jokes, but this is not a joke. What’s your advice?
But the moderator never called on me, and my questions went unanswered.