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In literature and media, women still marginalized

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April 14th, 2007

By Guest Blogger Anna Clark

The implication by Waterstone’s, the huge British bookstore chain, is that men write better than women.

According to The Telegraph:

“(Waterstone’s) asked its 5,000 employees to name their favourite five books written since 1982, when Waterstone’s opened its first store. The resulting list of the top 100 favourites is dominated by male authors.

“The list features the cream, both male and female, of the modern, international literary world, from Umberto Eco and Bill Bryson to Robert Harris and Ian McEwan; from Margaret Atwood and Jung Chang to Zadie Smith and Zoe Heller. But male authors outnumber female writers by a staggering 66 to 27.”

I actually find myself agreeing with Jon Howells, a Waterstone’s spokesperson, who rationalized the results by suggesting that :

“the figures could be explained by what he believed were the markedly different reading habits of men and women. Men, he thought, preferred books written by men while women were far more Catholic in their tastes and were not influenced by the sex of an author.”

“He said: ‘Women read more than men - the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55 - but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don’t care about the gender of the author.

“‘Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.’”"

I understand that many women writers who write in traditionally male genres, or use male protagonists, gender-neutralize their names so as not to deter the potential male reader. That was why, among many others, P.D James and J.K. Rowling chose to use initials (of course, Rowling’s decision was made before Harry Potter was HARRY POTTER).

But what Howells doesn’t acknowledge is that it is Waterstone’s own staff that seems to be holding the biases he recognizes in this particular case. And he implies that his staff is disproportionately male, even though he states that “women read more than men” and are the store’s “core customer.”

Eh? Explain that, Mr. Howells.

Consider this the literary world’s parallel to the staggering byline gender gap in print journalism, particularly op-ed pages. It’s a story long been told by Jennifer L. Pozner (in the Chicago Tribune, Women’s Review of Books and Extra! magazine), Ann Friedman (at both Alternet and The American Prospect), Ruth Davis Konigsberg, Hannah Seligson and Garance Franke-Ruta, among many other feminists.

And now we see that just as media editors and consumers don’t seem to trust female journalists as authorities on any topic that can’t be dolled up as a “women’s issue,” the literary world likewise doesn’t believe women have produced the same level of serious literary fiction as men.

Guest Blogger Anna Clark is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains the literary and social justice website, Isak www.isak.typepad.com

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