I often read, and sometimes talk and write about female authors, the trouble they find breaking into the publishing world, romantic fiction being one possible exception. I read and talk about it, because it is true that often simply being female presents a barrier to publication that simply isn’t there for males. While I have not experienced the discrimination that they go through, discrimination is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a blind man I too experience quite a bit of discrimination, and am a firm believer that when the playing field is truly leveled our collective quality of art will hit new heights.
I’m not going to talk about why it’s harder for women to get published, or people of color, the disabled, etc., for that matter either, that’s a topic that’s been talked about for some time, and by people who are far better informed than I. I’m not even going to talk about the whys of when a woman is published, it’s far harder for her novel to get reviewed by the major critics, advertised by the publisher, or even read by the people who see it sitting in the store. Again these issues have been discussed by people closer to the issue and better informed than I am. The point of this post is to more analyze my own habits try to spot some trends and consider anything we find.
I’ve gone through my bookshelves on Goodreads, going back to 2012, the first year I really started keeping track of what I was reading, rather than just picking up a book, reading it and forgetting about it. I’ve looked at the authors of each book and story I’ve added, and the results were a little bothering, But before I get into why they were, I think it’s best to show you the numbers I came up with.
2012: 27 books out of 240, or 11.25%
2013: 51 out of 229, or 22.27%
2014: 26 out of 159, or 16.35%
2015: 13 out of 64, or 20.31%
Now obviously 2015 isn’t over yet, but it looks like we are still starting to see a pattern. In my best year, I just managed to top 22% and in my worst year I managed just over 11%.
Now I can’t speak to the number of women published vs men, as far as I know, no one has compiled those figures across all publishing houses, but thanks to the guardian, I do have an interesting survey of major review publications and their gender spread. I’ll link the article at the bottom of this post for anyone who’d like to read it, but what matters to my train of thought is this, of all the publications surveyed, the best publication, the New York Times, managed 35% female written books reviewed, and the New Yorker only managed 17%.
It’s probably not surprising then that my numbers tend to fall someplace in the low middle of those when averaged out, As bad a s the mainstream publishing world can be, the Genre one can be a little worse. Though I can’t offer stats there, as far as I know, no one has taken the time to collect them for the major Genre publications, so for now we need to work with the statistics above.
So now I’ve gotten the number stuff out of the way, and am only a little dizzy from the math I had to do, let’s start the conjecture about why they are the way they are. The truth is I don’t know, Part of it has to just be what books I hear people talking about, If a book written by a man is more likely to get reviews, then it stands to reason that they would be more likely to be the books people are telling me about, but even then, why are my figures on the low side of the average for reviews? Part of it is likely due to the double filter, I don’t go looking for reviews as a rule. I can give you my thoughts on that another time. But with the double filter, we get two sets of internal biases at work. The reviewer’s and the people talking;, That is to say, if a man is more likely to get the attention of the people doing the reviews, than we can extrapolate from that a wider societal bias. So you have multiple layers of readers filtering out the non-male and leaving only male, or close to.
Now this sounds like I am letting myself off the hook, Like I’m saying it’s not me, it’s society, but that’s not so. When I extrapolate out A bias, I am including myself. I talk to people about books all the time, and while I love many books written by women, for whatever reason I tend to recommend the books by men, with only a few women getting mentions and even then, only likely to female readers, or to people I know who share my tastes in books.
So even there, you see me acting as another filter. Does this make me a sexist? I personally think it does, but for the sake of avoiding an argument, assuming that’s possible, let’s not use that word. Instead let’s keep using the term internal bias, it sounds better, and feels less accusatory. We all have these biases, there is nothing in and of itself that is bad about that. It’s part of life, we pick up so much from society, and we don’t always think about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok either.
“But wait, I thought you said there was nothing wrong with having Biases?” I can hear you asking. So why then did I immediately thereafter say it wasn’t ok either? The answer is simple, because while we all have them, the only way society progresses is if we can learn to see them, and then work on them.
It’s like the Avenue Q song, Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist, but it’s not just racist, it’s sexist,/abilist too. We may not hate black people, but we may also be more likely to think they are up to no good when we see them walking down the street at night. We may love women, but still think a man would be better suited to a job, or position. These are biases and they can be insidious, because we don’t always realize we are being swayed by them. IN our minds, we are being completely reasonable, but outside the effects can be far reaching and hard to combat.
But let’s bring things back to books, because I fear I may be heading down a dangerous digression for a man who wishes to avoid a major argument, and anyway I don’t wish to Diverge from my original goal too much. Though I may revisit that thought in greater depth later.
On the subject of my own biases again, I’ve been browsing through books, both in the store, or online, and said that books not for me, over and over again, as I brows the options before me, but only after the fact thought about some of those books and wondered why I said that. Part of it can be chalked up to mood at the time, but disturbingly, these are books that later I’ve picked up, because A friend, or someone in passing even, gave me no more than the same blurb on the back of the book that made me pass it up earlier. So again, why did I pass it up, and what changed? Part of it again can be that someone else was telling me about it, an endorsement in and of itself I guess, but part of it has to be, that when we talk to people about books, we tend to not say the title or author right away, more what the book is about, and there in, I think lies the difference. Some part of my brain thinks this science fiction must not be for me, because it was written by a woman, because in most cases that’s the difference, in one case I know the author’s name, and in the other I Don’t.
Now you can except my conclusions, or you can’t my goal was never really to convince anyone, my goal was always to try and figure out why the imbalance might be there in my own reading, and I think I’ve found it, And having found it, I believe I even know the solution. I need to make an effort to do better. I need to start asking myself, when I pass up a book, why I am doing that. When I am talking about the books I love, I need to be sure to mention them all, not always just the ones I think the other person will understand or be willing to read. I’m not saying I need to get to a 50/50 split, but I’d like to get to a place where I can do the math and not be disappointed in myself.
I’ll leave you with a challenge, look over your own shelves, If you’ve been tracking already, do the math and see what you get. If you’ve not been tracking, try it, and come back here next year with what you find. I hope to see some of your stats and the like in the comments and sincerely hope you all do better than I did.
Note: when doing the math for this post, anthologies were counted by the editor. In cases where I knew the gender of a pseudonym was different from the actual author’s gender I counted it as such.
Now I did promise that link to the guardian, and I am a man of my word.