Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gender Discrimination and the Publishing Industry

Publishers Weekly’s November 2009 list of what the publication deemed the year’s best titles is glaring proof that discrimination against women authors and against gynecocentric perspective is still alive and thriving. Many readers and female authors criticized the list of ten male names, and in response, “Louisa Ermelino, the novelist and Publishers Weekly’s reviews director, said it had ‘disturbed us’ that its list was all male, but said: ‘We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz’” (Britten 2009). Thus the judges not only showed a dismissive attitude toward women writers, but additionally refrained from analyzing why they did it.

Gender discrimination in the reading public and the publishing industry is diminishing, but very slowly and not with help from prominent biased lists such as that of Publishers Weekly. Slightly more women than men work in publishing (Bureau of Labor Statistics, p. 46), but according to Publishers Weekly’s 2009 survey, “In terms of trends in pay scale, men still outearned women by a lot (although the median salary gap of $30,600 was smaller than the 2007 spread of $39,080), and management is still the field where the biggest salaries are” (Milliot 2009). The same article includes a chart showing that on average women in the publishing industry make $66,000 and men make $96,600.

J. K. Rowling’s publisher suggested that she use her first two initials rather than her first name, Joanne, on the assumption that boys wouldn’t want to read books by a female author (Wikipedia). Rowling’s books may have encouraged boys to read female authors, as middle grade author Adrienne Kress has discovered (Kress 2009). But boys continue to typically read only books in which the main characters are male and eschew books with female protagonists, or in the case of Kress’s fiction they assume that her protagonist Alex is a boy (Kress 2009). Girls, on the other hand, commonly read books with both male and female protagonists (Johnson, Peer, & Baldwin). The book Packaging Girlhood eloquently explains:

It is common knowledge among publishers, teachers and librarians that most boys won’t read books with girl protagonists. Because boys lag behind girls in reading, the common solution has been to give them reading material that they like, and this means books and magazines about boy-led adventures and sports. Girls will read about boys, so publishers should just publish stories with male protagonists. Right? Wrong!

It’s surprising that more people don’t question this faulty logic. It’s unfair, and both girls and boys learn the deep lesson of who is more important and more naturally the center of things. The more equitable and simpler solution is to begin with nonstereotypical reading choices earlier for boys and girls. Younger boys will read about girls as well as boys if the story is exciting or funny and the pictures are bold--and if parents and teachers offer them with enthusiasm. The stories told to children have a profound impact on their worldview, so in the long run it is well worth it to offer those in which boys and girls share a range of experiences and emotions, where they work and play and go on adventures both separately and together (Lamb and Brown, p. 157).

I visited the website Guys Read, created by author Jon Scieszka to promote reading in boys. Out of fifty recommended titles, only six are written by women and only two have female protagonists. The website also encourages gender stereotyping, for it lists such subject categories as “War” and “Sports,” but no category for “Peace” or “Nonviolence” (Scieszka).

It’s not a huge leap to notice childhood dismissiveness toward women, women writers, and female protagonists continuing into adulthood. Ten years ago studies showed that primary school girls in creative writing used both male and female protagonists, while boys often wrote all-male stories and almost always had male protagonists. Both boys and girls mostly wrote about characters with stereotypical gender behavior (Weiser). Children who write such stories are influenced by the culture surrounding them and grow up to continue practicing gender discrimination unless or until they acquire feminist consciousness.

Boys are taught misogyny at an early age, and girls are taught to see the world from a white male perspective. Publishers Weekly’s disdain toward female writers is directly related to how the judges were brought up in this culture: to be disdainful toward women and girls, toward women writers, and toward a female point of view, and to believe that a heterosexual white male point of view is the most important. The judges are perpetuating the mentality with which they grew up. This is regardless of whether they are male or female, since anyone can be conditioned by patriarchy, a social system of male dominance.

Ironically, the all-male top ten list appeared less than two months after Publishers Weekly’s own Genreville blogger, Josh Jasper, on September 17 criticized the same attitude in anthologies:

You end up with nonsense like the British Fantasy Society publishing a collection of interviews with horror writers and not including one woman in the conversation. We at Genreville have heard the perpetrators of such nonsense say again and again that because there wasn't a conscious decision to exclude women, it's not really sexism, or that pointing this out and getting angry is accusing the editors of sexism and is so bad for the genre that it needs to be attacked as censorship (Jasper 2009).

He goes on to describe such anthologists as too “self centered to ever have a useful view about how to defeat exclusion based on gender, race, orientation, and other minority statuses” (Jasper). Jasper further points out that such anthology editors are “doing to gender what people who claim to be ‘race blind’ do to racism: perpetrating it by subconsciously selecting only people who're just like him” (Jasper).

Like little boys who avoid books with female authors and protagonists, Publishers Weekly’s judges have made their disdain obvious, no matter how unconsciously they did it. As blogger Matthew Cheney puts it:

This is not just some blogger's list of favorite books of the year. This is the publishing industry's trade journal telling the world what ten books from 2009 deserve most acclaim and attention. This list will affect how books are stocked in stores and it will affect what books are bought by libraries. The fact that the list only includes male writers contributes to a problem.

The editors who created this list have chosen to perpetuate sexism. They have…made it easier for male writers to have access to sales and publicity at the expense of women writers. Their list perpetuates the idea that the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men, and that idea will continue to have an effect out in the world (Cheney).

Although Publishers Weekly has received a great deal of attention for its discriminatory top ten list, judges frequently ignore women writers. According to Politics Daily contributor Lizzie Skurnick, “no matter how many jewel-like works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry lady writers churn out in the course of a year, the bulk of the awards nevertheless goes to men” (Skurnick).

Science fiction, like most genres, is now more tolerant of female authors, but the horror genre continues to show at least as much disdain as Publishers Weekly’s judges and to be dominated by biased white males. According to Jessica Amanda Salmonson, approximately seventy percent of supernatural fiction published in Victorian magazines was written by women, and yet modern retrospective anthologies include almost all white male authors and exclude the best supernatural fiction of the nineteenth century (Salmonson, p. x).

Gail Pool of the Women’s Review of Books points out that gender discrimination in the publishing industry is obvious in mainstream book reviews. The New York Times Book Review has not increased its number of female book reviewers since the 1980s, and the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, BookForum, and the National Review continue to have much larger numbers of male reviewers than female, thus demonstrating disdain toward women’s perspectives (Pool).

In summary, patriarchy still has its hold on the psyches of those who review and judge books for influential magazines such as Publishers Weekly and the New York Review of Books, and it continues to heavily influence the literary realm. Lists, anthologies, and book reviews continue to overwhelmingly be androcentric and dismissive of female authors and perspectives. Book reviews in the most major magazines are male dominated, and horror fiction is dominated by prejudiced white males who are dismissive toward female and nonwhite contributions to the genre. More so than the horror genre, major magazines such as Publishers Weekly and the New York Review of Books are extremely influential to the publishing industry and readers in general. If these publications encourage people to read mostly male writers and ignore female writers, then the reading public is likely to read those male authors and ignore women writers.

We have reached a time when a large portion of society has stopped seeing the world exclusively from a white male perspective, while simultaneously influential people blinded by patriarchy continue to discriminate against women writers. That is, whether male or female, the Publishers Weekly judges on some level, perhaps subconsciously, believe that a male perspective and male writers are more important than a female perspective and female writers. It is a sign of some progress that many have spoken out in reaction to Publishers Weekly’s top ten list. Hopefully the judges have learned something from this response and will try to become genuinely conscious of diversity.


Nick Britten, “Sexism row over Publishers Weekly's top books of 2009,” The Telegraph, (accessed November 13, 2009).

Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 14. Women in the Labor Force, a Data Book,” (accessed November 30, 2009).

Matthew Cheney, “Jury, Meet Peers,” The Mumpsimus: Displaced Thoughts on Misplaced Literature, Nov 6, 2009, (accessed November 22, 2009).

Dale M. Johnson, Gary G. Peer, and R. Scott Baldwin, “Protagonist Preferences among Juvenile and Adolescent Readers,” Questia, (accessed November 29, 2009).

Josh Jasper, Genreville, Publishers Weekly, “The Problem with Thinking that Not Seeing Race/Gender/Sexual Orientation etc. is a Good Thing,” September 17, 2009, http://www. (accessed November 13, 2009).

Adrienne Kress, “Gender in the Publishing World,” The Temp, the Actress, and the Writer, April 7, 2009, (accessed November 22, 2009).

Lamb, Sharon and Lyn Mikel Brown. Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketing Schemes. St. Martin’s Press, NY: 2007.

Jim Milliot, “How Low Can you Go? PW’s 2009 Salary Survey: The recession brings small raises and sinking morale,” Publishers Weekly, July 13, 2009, http://www (accessed November 22, 2009).

Gail Pool, “Book Reviewing: Do it Yourself,” Women’s Review of Books, http:// (accessed November 22, 2009).

Jon Scieszka, Guys Read, (accessed November 29, 2009).

Lizzie Skurnick, “Same Old Story: Best-Books Lists Snub Women Writers,” Politics Daily, November 6, 2006, (accessed November 22, 2009).

M. Elizabeth Weiser, “Can Women Writers Survive the Creative Writing Workshop?” Women Writers Net, (accessed November 26, 2009).

Wikipedia, “J. K. Rowling,” (accessed November 13, 2009).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Yet Another Book List Discriminates Against Women Authors (Yawn)

Now that, in reaction to Publishers Weekly's all-male top ten list of 2009 books, I've written a term paper about discrimination against women writers and female a British list, the Blackwell list, has come out with a list of their favorite ten books of the decade, and only one of them is written by a woman.

Perhaps I should be impressed, since that's one more than Publishers Weekly listed. But I'm not impressed. In both cases, the judges are perpetuating the patriarchy with which they grew up and internalized. Instead they should wake up and stop believing that a male perspective (particularly a white male perspective) is more important and more worthwhile. The cycle continues: male authors get all the recognition and sell their books, while female writers write brilliant literature and get ignored. This is really getting old.

And it's not just these two lists: this is the norm with lists of favorite books. It has also been the norm with anthologies over the years, although this is finally changing...except in the horror genre.

Joanna Russ wrote a book called How to Suppress Women's Writing back in 1983. While researching my term paper, the copyright date at first discouraged me from using that book, but then I read a one-paragraph excerpt from it, and it indeed still applies.