Monday, October 08, 2007

more on women and fiction

Another shout out for Ron Hogan at GalleyCat, who seems to have personally taken up the cause of getting women's fiction more publicity. I agree with what Ron says in his blurb here--talking about why more women's books aren't recognized doesn't do any damage. If you just want to read to read, power to you. Read. But. I'm going to have this conversation anyway.

I was especially pleased with Ron because one of the underrecognized women's debuts he mentioned was my current favorite book, THE SPANISH BOW, by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I was really sad this morning to see on Bookscan that the book has only sold a little over 1,000 copies since its pub date in early September. Why, guys? Why? This is such a great book and would have been a no-brainer of an Oprah pick--great story, good writing, the right length, beautiful package done by Harcourt, historical and cultural appeal as well as literary, smart story that is nonetheless extremely readable... Why does it not get as much buzz as it deserves?

It's been a man's world for a really, really long time, and most of our "classics" are by men. That is just how it is. But now that that's not how things go anymore a little affirmative action won't hurt anyone.

And it's not just for women I'm saying this. The person who first turned me on to the issue of underrecognition in contemporary women's fiction was my twelfth grade English teacher, Dr. Bob. I'm especially grateful to men like Ron, Dr. Bob, and my dad who don't need to but notice the discrepancy anyway.


angelle said...

remember the paintings on the bn wall? maybe we should complain.

moonrat said...

oh god! that's right!! that made me SO ANGRY.

for anyone who hasn't seen it--some Barnes & Nobles have these tapestry paintings of great authors on their walls, especially around the cafe areas. of about 20 authors, only two women--george elliot and virginia wolff. who are both stuck in a corner together among all the distinguished gentlemen. but come on--even if we're sticking to old-school classics, what about austen? or any of the brontes?

moonrat said...

but in further complaints it's a very white western-cannon tapestry, as well. but that's a different bone to pick. in a different post.

Precie said...

My B&N's artwork is made up of oversized prints of book covers...including Plath's The Bell Jar. I'll have to pay closer attention next time I'm there and do a count.

Oh, dear moonrat, don't get me started on the canon!

David L. McAfee said...

In the past, it's because most of the people who were educated enough to write and sell books were white males. Not that there weren't any smart women who could have done so, just that they weren't educated to the level of males until the 20th century. The same applies to other races (sexist and racist, I know, but historically accurate). That is why so many of the great classics seem to be the exclusive domain of white men.

That is changing. As society melds more and more into a great big diverse group, I think you'll see a greater diversity of races and genders represented, but for books to be largely considered as "classics" takes time.

Lisa said...

Oh God, now I'll have to rant because this is the thing that irritates me more than anything else in publishing. Riddle me this? Why are there 7,500 different categories of "Women's Fiction" but men just write fiction? Some of it is, of course, geared to women, but I'd argue that much of what is labeled women's fiction, would just be plain old fiction if it were written by a male author. I find the "women's fiction" labels to be indicative of a judgment that it's "less than" somehow or just a stone's throw from romance (don't kill me -- but I'm not a romance fan, obviously). So somehow, because there are so many more women authors (I'm pretty sure), only a comparatively small number of those get to be called fiction writers and consequently, they aren't recognized nearly as often as their male counterparts. Is this a misconception on my part?

David L. McAfee said...

Lisa - JMO, but I think it has more to do with the intended audience than the writer.

moonrat said...

if only... it definitely becomes a stigma even when the label starts with the best intentions--maybe because "women's fiction" is considered a genre and thereby genre fiction (like romance, scifi, and thriller).

i hate those labels, too. it also used to frustrate me back when i worked at borders that toni morrison wasn't shelved in fiction--she was shelved in African American fiction. right along with African American romance and African American erotica. that made me really cranky just thinking about how toni morrison must feel in her separate-but-equal little subset that somehow managed to overrun other genre barriers (would you put THE GREAT GATSBY next to BEDTIME EROTICA FOR FREAKS (LIKE ME)? Why not? Their authors are both white!

Ok, I got a little sidetracked. sorry. But I have to agree with Lisa--it seems like gender overrides level of literature in many venues.

Kristin said...

I don't think the lack of women writers in the 19th century and before was solely due to education...most women were considered flighty and silly and not worthy of 'serious' thinking. They were marginalized whether or not they had an education.

Think of George Eliot who published under a man's name so that people would take her seriously. How sorry is that?

Perhaps that is what many female authors should consider. Taking on a man's name and see where that gets you. I'll bet you'd have a better chance of showing up in the NYT Book Review.

Even JK Rowling felt the need to hide her gender in order to attract boys to read Harry Potter.

David L. McAfee said...

Kristin –

Some good points, but ones I did not want to bring up. Men did control the world much more fully then than they do today, and at the time, women were seen as more of a background to humanity than an active part. Women were considered too emotional and too unstable for anything other than keeping house and making babies, which is part of the reason they were not often educated beyond simple reading and writing. These and other sexist ideals worked together to keep women from being taken seriously as writers at the time (though a few did break through those barriers).

The times are a-changing, though. I am told that the majority of people in the publishing industry are female (to the tune of 70%), and also that the majority of the book-buying public is also female. I do not know how true that is, but in truth it would not surprise me.

Moonrat –

I have always imagined the lumping together of “women’s” fiction and “African American” fiction to be more about giving those groups something to think of as a genre all their own than any attempt at discrimination. I was so very disappointed to see Octavia Butler’s books shelved in the African American section rather than in the sci-fi/fantasy section, and in truth I hate the fact that there is an African American section at all, as I always tend to think it hurts the writers by segregating them from fiction in general and promoting the idea that their work is somehow different than mainstream based solely on the color of the author’s skin. However, there are many, many people who disagree with me on this, as evidenced by a recent discussion on this very topic in AW (sorry, no link), where I was told some people of color prefer to have a section they can go to that features black authors writing black-themed books. Personally, I don’t get it, but who am I to argue?

To be honest, the idea that “women’s” fiction is similarly treated never occurred to me. Again, I think it is more about appealing to a specific audience than any attempt to marginalize the authors themselves or minimalize their work, although that is the overall affect such treatment has, imo. Personally, I think all fiction titles should be shelved together based on theme rather than the sex, color, religion, or sexual orientation of the author, but that’s just me.

Lisa said...

I think the classification of fiction, whether it's African American, women's or otherwise seems to be a dual edged sword. I have a friend who has a debut novel coming out in February and it will likely be classified as African American. I asked her if she thought it was a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, there are a lot of readers who do gravitate only to that section of the bookstore where there are books they know they like, whether they are mystery, sci-fi, women's or anything else. On the other hand (as I told my friend), I wouldn't ever head for the African-American fiction section, not because I wouldn't like it, but because I make an assumption that I'm not the intended audience. I troll the tables in front for new releases of everything and then stick to fiction in order to find what I like. It irks me that I am missing out on a lot of books that have been genre-ized, but that's the way it is. Again -- men's fiction varies widely in style, subject matter, etc. but there is no such thing as men's fiction, so you'll find Life of Pi and East of Eden filed in the same section, right?

David L. McAfee said...

Lisa - The problem, as I see it, is that any fiction is referred to as "men's" fiction, or "women's" fiction, or even "African American" fiction.

It's all fiction. That should be enough.

IMO, the big loser in this scanario is the reading public. Your own example is proof of this. I don't shop the African American fiction section, either. It's not because I don't think the books there are be good (one of my favorite authors is Octavia Butler), but because, since it is so noticeably separated and marketed to African Americans, I am not sure I could relate to it.

And that is just one example. there is also Christian fiction, Women's fiction, etc. I am a man, and I am white, and thus these works of fiction that are marketed and (seemingly) written toward specific groups that don't include me are already at a disatvantage when it comes to earning my readership because they alienate me as an audience right off the bat. Not that they need my readership to thrive (they don't), but because I feel excluded from the intended audience, I won't buy it.

As for your example regarding The Life of Pi and East of Eden side by side in the men's section, I have never seen "women's" fiction compartmentalized into Women's Romance, Women's Adventure, or Women's Paranormal, etc. Usually if there is a Women's section at all, most types of fiction are mixed in together, much like the larger general fiction area of the store. Granted, that may be different elsewhere, but I've never seen it.

Ello said...

Moonrat, I have the same painting on our B&N wall! Makes me want to take some markers and do a little graffitti...

This is an excellent discussion and one that needs more momentum behind. women make up most of the book buying public, why are we so marginalized by publishers? And Oprah, I'll put here what I didn't under the other post. Oprah, my dear, who I admire very much, come on already. You started off a strong supporter of women's fiction and now the pendulum has swung so far over and you are now supporting high brow men's fiction only? Why? Why? There is no doubt that this is a great book - but it is a book about a man who though he loves truly and faithfully one woman, is also a terrible womanizer. I won't say more since you are reading it now, Moon, but this was definitely not a favorite of mine. Why is most literary fiction written by men? I agree with Lisa that alot of these labels have a dual edged sword and it is most harmful to those who fall outside of "literary fiction" which seems to be mostly the mainstay of white men.