The double standard female authors face

I just finished reading an all-consuming book, the kind that leaves you restless and wanting more. It was the sort of book that makes it hard for me to decide what to read next, for fear I will be disappointed. The book I so recently fell in love with was Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult.

Picoult’s latest offering is multi-faceted and deals with mental illness, loss, family, grief, science and the heartbreaking reality of elephants, both in captivity and the wild. The amount of research she clearly did for Leaving Time is staggering to think about. And the writing about elephants is profoundly moving.

None of this comes as much of a surprise, as Picoult is a familiar name atop the New York Times Bestseller list. She studied writing at Princeton, and Leaving Time is the twenty-third novel that she’s penned in twenty two years. Her books deal with serious subjects, like gay rights, end of life care, gun control, teen suicide, childhood cancer, stem cell research, wildlife conservation and the Holocaust, to name a few. What is surprising is that despite this impressive resume, Picoult’s books are commonly referred to as “beach reads.”

As Picoult told Bryony Gordon at The Telegraph in London last week, “I write women’s fiction. And women’s fiction doesn’t mean that’s your audience. Unfortunately, it means you have lady parts.”

Picoult didn’t stop there. She went on to say, “If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction?”

What Picoult is saying is nothing new. Her concerns have been echoed for years by other authors, perhaps most notably by author Jennifer Weiner.

Weiner began speaking out against the double standard faced by women authors back in 2010, when Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom was covered extensively by the New York Times, even being reviewed twice within a seven-day period, and Franzen himself was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. While Weiner made it clear that she wrote commercial fiction rather than literary fiction, she made a valid argument when she pointed out that books written by women or those aimed at predominantly female audiences are largely ignored by the New York Times, while male-centric genres are featured regularly and even celebrated.

As she told the Huffington Post at the time, “I’d love it if the Times actually ‘celebrated’ my genre, but at this point I’d happily settle for the paper merely acknowledging it. As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NYTBR round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored. . .romance gets ignored completely. . . and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn’t exist on the paper’s review pages?”

As a romance novelist myself, I can’t help but notice that I’ve hardly ever seen even a mention of Nora Roberts in the Times despite the fact that her books have spent over three and a half consecutive years on their legendary bestseller list. I decided to put my memory to the test and did a quick search of their online database. The results confirmed both my suspicions and Weiner’s assertions.

Author                       Number of search results yielded

Janet Evanovich        24

Nora Roberts             55

J K Rowling               61

James Patterson        197

Stephen King            923

John Grisham            101

These results are even more meaningful when you consider that every single author listed above, both male and female, was listed by Forbes Magazine last year as one of the top 15 highest earning authors in America.

Perhaps all the noise is making a difference. In April of 2013, Pamela Paul was named editor of the NYTBR and in the months since, books by women authors have seen more equitable treatment. Under Paul’s leadership, the number of female book reviewers has increased, as well as reviews of books penned by women. Exactly half of the NYTBR’s 100 Notable Book List this year was made up of books by women authors. As Sarah Seltzer at Flavorwire puts it, “it’s astounding what a few years of well-voiced exasperation on social media, combined with a concerted campaign to get bookish publications to rectify their gender byline counts, all added to an actual new editorial direction, can do.”

It only makes sense for the literary world to acknowledge the contributions of women writers and the interests of female readers. Women write approximately half of all books published. And women make up eighty percent of fiction readers in this country. Eighty percent. As British author Ian McEwan once said, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

When preparing to write this piece, I posed the following question on social media: Do women writers face a double standard in the literary world? The most telling comment I received came not from an author, but from Rebecca Moreland, a college student majoring in English. Rebecca wrote, “As an English student, I’ve noticed that the overwhelming majority of authors we study are male. Also, when we’re studying someone like Frost or Hemingway, the first thing we’re told about them is their nationality, or perhaps when they were born. But if we’re studying someone like Virginia Woolf or Mary Shelley, the first thing that’s said is that they’re female. It’s like maleness is the default and femaleness is an anomaly that must be labeled. Also, works by women tend to sort of automatically get put into a category of ‘stuff for girls,’ which means that men won’t read it. Of course, women will read works by and about men. Your sex is not the most important thing about you unless you’re not male.”

I can’t speak for all authors, or even all women writers, but I for one believe that it’s the words that matter, not the gender of the person who writes them. For me, that’s what it’s always been about. The words. Their meaning. The beauty of language.

A book that is written by a man is not automatically more important than a book written by a woman. Perhaps this quote from Leaving Time says it best:

I look at him. There is a green mask around his eyes, a reflection from the mirror, as if he is some kind of superman. But he isn’t. He’s flawed, and scarred, and battle-weary, just like me.

Just like all of us.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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