Is your bookshelf a man?

14 Nov

As an editor, as a reader, as a woman – and as a human being with functioning critical faculties, I take for granted the fact that women are capable of producing writing that is fine, beautiful, compelling, insightful, valuable: just as capable as men.

This is not to say that everyone shares my views. Two years ago, Nobel Literature Laureate VS Naipaul famously dismissed female writers in one complacent wave of the hand during an interview where, when asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match, replied:

“I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”. He felt that women writers were “quite different” … “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” … this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world … inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too”. He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.”

I feel no need to engage with why Naipaul might hold these beliefs, or point out why they are, regardless of the literary status of the person professing them, completely fucking stupid.

But the statements made in this interview were just part of a happily festering corruption that has been uncovered in the literary establishment over the last few years. Statistics have shown that, despite being published in greater volume than men’s, women’s writing is grossly under-represented in published reviews around the English-speaking world, and that the reviews themselves are also more likely to be written by men than women. This isn’t trivial – it makes a concrete, tangible difference to the amount of attention that an author receives.

The same goes for literary prizes: these cash sums that are so rare and coveted in the writing world are vastly more likely to be awarded to males. In Australia, by 2011 the prestigious Miles Franklin Prize had, despite being named after a woman, only been won by women 10 times in more than 50 years. As many of us know, this disillusionment and frustration sparked the creation of the Stella Prize (also named for Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin) as a way to celebrate women’s writing. It also saw the beginning of the Stella Count, a way of publicly keeping major newspapers to account for their biased reviewing and coverage. (Check out this year’s data – it’s pretty depressing).

Hand-in-hand with the Stellas came an online community dedicated to redressing the imbalances. The Australian Women Writers Challenge asks people to commit to reading more female-authored books, and to review them on the website. Anyone can sign up and keep track of their progress and reviews – it’s like Goodreads for the socially conscious.

But of course I thought I didn’t need to join a special club to ensure I read writing by women. I thought I was socially conscious without the structure the imposed checks on my biases. How wrong I was.

You see, this week I have been packing up my house, ready for a move. Starting with the books (let’s face it, it’s much more enjoyable being reminded of great stories one after the other than trying to find ways to stop shampoo bottles from leaking into cardboard boxes), I decided to find out how much my bookshelves reflect these biases against women in the literary world. I thought it might be a little under equal representation – maybe 60-40.

I was wrong. I was shocked by how wrong. My bookshelf is a man.

Of the 463 books in my possession (for the sake of clarity: I am counting how-tos, reference and text books, but not journals, picture books or sundry publications like sheet music; I am also counting my partner’s books as our libraries have fused) 378 of them were written by men, and 85 were written by women.

That’s not 50-50, it’s not even 60-40. That’s 82% male and 18% female writers. JK Rowling and Jane Austen comprise a disturbing portion of the female number.

My reading habits this year weren’t far off: of the 21 books I’ve read so far this year, only 8 were written by women. (It may or may not be worth noting that 2 of them were actually about feminism – Lean In and The Misogyny Factor). That’s 38% – hardly equal representation in the influence of my mind.

So off the back of this discovery about myself, my bookshelves and my reading habits, I am going to try harder. I’ll attempt to address this inequity with a bit of positive discrimination: next year I’ll take up the AWW Challenge and read at least 62% women authors. Given my usual aim is to read 20 or so books, that’s roughly 13 books by women (rounding up). I might have to buy some more books by women… (hooray, to the bookshop!)

What about you – is your bookshelf a man? Do you know? Go and count them – I bet it will make you see your reading habits in a whole new light.

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