A few weeks ago, VIDA officially released its annual count of publication rates for women in today’s top titles. It’s not a pretty picture. Men far outweigh women in every single rag except Granta. As a writer, this stuff really hits home. Could it be that all these men are just better writers than all of us women? I don’t think so.
VIDA’s findings remind me of an exchange I had with a customer when I worked at one of LA’s local independent bookstores. A man came up to the counter with Jumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years previously in 2000. He hesitated, not sure if he wanted to buy it. It was for a book group he was in, so someone else had chosen this title. He looked at the book disparagingly and asked, “It’s not chick lit, is it?” I froze. I didn’t know how to respond to this question. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and this man still wasn’t sure if the work was worth his time, or if this work was valid as literature because it was written by a woman. Belittling her work as “chick lit” is just your average, everyday misogyny that runs so deep many of us don’t even realize, but we women internalize this from day one.
Lahiri herself articulates this very well in her 2011 piece in The New Yorker entitled “Notes from an Apprenticeship.” She discusses her love for writing stories as a child, and how this disappeared once she became a teenager and a young woman:
It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”
VIDA’s depressing pies clearly illustrate that more women need to say, “Listen to me!” This combined with many mastheads that are predominantly male mean lower publication rates for women. It’s a vicious cycle. I hope acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving the problem in this case. Let’s hope it encourages a collective willfulness to emerge!