Culture //

Readers, please mind the gap

Sinead Day interrogates gender and racial inequality in publishing today.

The case of women’s success in the publishing industry has been one ruled primarily by exceptions. While authors like J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer have become household names, the unfortunate truth is that female authors are more likely to face difficulty in every part of the publishing process than their male counterparts.

This is not to dismiss the effect of those women who have found great success—even E. L. James, of Fifty Shades of Grey fame (or infamy), has had an undeniably enormous effect on the publishing industry. In 2012, she was responsible for every last Random House employee, right down to the warehouse workers, taking home a $5,000 bonus. However, we should not become complacent in the face of such highly publicised triumphs, as the actual breakdowns of female authorship present a very different picture.

This year’s annual VIDA count, reviewing the percentages of men and women in US literary journals across 2013, found that major publications like the London Review of Books and the New Yorker all had over 75% male authorship. Things are little better here in Australia, as the Stella Count for 2012 reported that major newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald averaged around 40% female authorship, and others like the Australian Financial Review only 20%.

Where gender gaps are closing in some prizes like the National Book Award, these changes are put down to the progress of women, placing the onus for gender disparity on the skills of female authors rather than on the sexist attitudes of award panels.

Even in Young Adult fiction, a genre dominated by women, male writers are more likely to be lauded by the public, with an average of 7 men and only 3 women on the New York Times YA bestseller list. Books by women that tackle serious problems faced by adolescent girls, such as sexual assault, are more likely to face censorship, and while YA women are by no means few in number, they are becoming increasingly overshadowed by male giants of the genre like John Green. Green, whether intentionally or otherwise, has become the face of YA. He holds such public influence that his endorsements of books like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park have curiously coincided with their sudden breakout success. Instances like this suggest that the public is still more comfortable in accepting the white cis-gendered male as the optimal standard and authority.

There are many female authors out there doing fantastic, important work—Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to name a few. We have a responsibility to ensure their equality of opportunity doesn’t fall solely on the publishing industry. As readers, it is also up to us to read critically and to demand gender parity, not only for the sake of these authors but also for the quality of our own reading experience.