Why Doesn’t The Literary Establishment Like Books By And About Women?

Young woman reading a book on the train

The publishing world is continuing to send a generations-old message that a person’s gender and the color of their skin affects their ability to produce literature.

Luckily, when I recently came across a New York Times essay by Jennifer Weiner about the increased pressure on female writers to tend to their looks, I was coming out of a difficult couple of weeks rather than going into them. For about a week I’d been in a moody slump for multilayered reasons. Some of it was situational. A lot of it was a deep feeling of defeat as I moved through some big decisions about work, family, and community. If I’d read Weiner’s essay two days before, I probably would have gone back to bed upon finishing it.

I’ve been prone to falling into foggy, reclusive funks since I was a kid. They range from a general bleakness falling over my perspective to a full disappearance into the confines of my house, retreating into conversations with the books I read by making excessive notes in the margins. As a melodramatic teenager, I longed to sit at a modern Algonquin round table, philosophizing, proselytizing, and chain-smoking through the day. Back then I would call these funks my “dark periods.” At 16, these dips into the blues seemed to fit with the romantic vision of a heady, independent writer I had for myself.

These funky spots happen once or twice a year at most, and they’re almost always the result of an internal onslaught of insecurity about my stance as a professional and a mother. I was exiting one of those week-long tunnels when I came across Weiner’s essay, which made me let out an audible, “Huh,” as my brain went into a frenzy, connecting this piece to others I’d read over the last several weeks. The message, lately, has been clear, and it had a hand in my downtrodden mood: In 2015, women and blacks are under as much pressure as ever to stay locked away from any real, global achievement in the corporate and literary worlds.

No wonder I was doubting myself.

Weiner’s essay both calls out and admits to her (and our) own participation in the increase of pressure for women to appear as perfectly made-up dolls. While the piece was painfully simplified at times, it drew upon an important theme—how is it that we’ve come so far in the long march toward the promised land of equality while the whole of society continues to trip, claw, grope, and needle us to delay our arrival?

Recently, Nicola Griffith published a blog post about the lack of women receiving prestigious literary prizes, leading to the idea that “…women aren’t interesting. Women don’t count.” If a woman does receive a Pulitzer or a Man Booker prize, her prizewinning piece is usually written from a male perspective. Why doesn’t the literary establishment like books about women?

No one seems able to answer that question, but I think it may be linked to a similar phenomenon that has recently been noted in the business world. A New York Times piece highlights evidence that modern family-friendly work policies aren’t helping women gain equal footing in the workplace, as shown in research by Erin Reid and Robin Ely. It seems that lack of real progress has to do with a 24/7 work culture that inadvertently supports old-school expectations of what “success” looks like.

For example, it’s still assumed that a man at the top of his field is able to remain so because he has a wife who stays at home and manages his domestic life. When life-interfering hours are expected in a workplace, a woman is likely to transition to a role with less demanding hours and a pay cut. But a man is likely to suffer in silence, missing his children’s big milestones while unable to risk being seen as less masculine—diminishing his chances for a raise or promotion—by the powers that be. Gender equality is still a believable theory, it seems, but what is the significance of a theory that can’t be put into widespread practice? The fact that this applies to “corporate” culture means that it certainly applies to such in the publishing world. Publishing is a big, corporate industry, whether we like it or not. It only makes sense for such ideas to apply to it.

The May 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review contained it’s annual summer reading roundups. The contributors were respected writers such as Wendell Jamieson, Laura Lippman, and Christopher Buckley. But there was only one contributor of color—Asian-American science fiction author Charles Yu. Worse, there wasn’t a single title in the roundups or reviews by a black author. So, according to the newspaper around which I structure my Sunday afternoons, you shouldn’t waste your lazy summer days reading books from writers who look like me.

It almost seems as though the Times recognized the glaring omission before going to print and made an attempt to excuse it via John Williams’ account of Book Expo America in the “Open Book” section. There, in print, the insignificance of black authors in the publishing world is put rather plainly:

At the event’s ‘buzz forums’, editors make the case for books that won’t necessarily generate the automatic attention of the latest by Lee Child or Margaret Atwood. Those slated to get a boost include ‘Black Man in a White Coat,’ by Damon Tweedy, about the experience of black doctors and black patients in the American medical system.

However, when you turn to the bestseller section, two of the three enlarged book covers are significant works by black authors (both, in this case, from the Y.A. genre): Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. Both of these books earned Newbery honors.

Over the past year we’ve seen culturally significant and exemplary work come from Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, Tracy K. Smith, M.K. Asante, and more. Despite evidence to the contrary, the publishing world is continuing to send a generations-old message that the color of one’s skin affects one’s ability to produce literature.

I’m a woman and I am black, so what does this mean for me? Should I get up in the morning and rock it like a supermodel to gain attention as an author? Is there any point to writing a book, since it’s apparently impossible that a large work of cultural criticism from a brown-skinned girl will have any lasting impact? If my husband is under pressure to maintain his corporate image, does that mean I should help him out by being a better domestic doyenne? Does that mean my husband’s job, being the one that brings in 90 to 95% of our income, is more important than mine?

Being a bit of a sensitive soul who’s prone to the occasional “funk,” such questions can start to weigh heavily on me, as I’m sure they do for other artists and writers. What brought me around was a thought that woke me up at 2:30am one night:

If people don’t record justice, injustice, and how cultural twists and turns affect their world, no one will know the impact of America’s Big Decisions.

And with that thought, I grabbed my notebook and started to write.

Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.

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