Since the days of King Alfred way back in the year 927, England and therefore America later on, was a patriarchy.
To the publishing industry, this meant the next thousand years-worth of books were written by pale males for pale males. The few exceptions were almost exclusively wealthy pale females like Mary Shelly or pale females who took male monikers, like George Elliott.
To the casual observer, today’s publishing industry at a passing glance appears to be dominated by women.
As an author, I’ve taken to opening my query letters with “Dear Madam or Sir,” the likelihood my letter will reach a female editor, reviewer, or agent is so high.
And yet, it seems I still sell books in an age in which white-haired men of a certain age can visit my booth at book festivals and without so much as a “Hello,” kick off a bewildering conversation by asking,
“Why do women in writing these days insist on being called ‘author’ not ‘authoress’?”
I couldn’t have been more astonished or outraged if the man had called me names and slapped my face.
What do you say to that as a mature, confident woman who had hoped we as a society were past all this?
I didn’t know at the time, but on my third or so draft of re-writing this scene in my head the way it should have gone, I should have said,
“Well, Sir, we don’t call ourselves ‘authoress’ for the same reason you don’t call your MD a ‘doctoress’ or your legal representative a ‘lawyeress.’ The title should denote enough respect to make gender irrelevant.”
This incendiary event led me for the first time to wonder, “Just how common is sexism in the publishing industry,” especially since I had hitherto assumed it was biased in favor of women, not against it.
So asked the internet about it.
Julie Crisp, editor at Tor UK seems to be one of the few industry pros who say “It is not at all common,” and the sole reason Tor publishes so many more men than women is that there’s a greater volume of men who submit Sci-fi and fantasy over women.
In stark contrast, the ladies at Tramp Press of Ireland report an infuriating number of industry peers who dismiss their work outright in telling them, “I don’t read women’s fiction,” as though it were beneath them to do so.
And let’s not forget the attitudes like those famously summed up by writer and activist Norman Mailer:
“I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”
Readers under 40 years of age may never have heard of Mr. Mailer.
The over 40 crowd might remember him as a controversial writer-man who advocated for the release of cold-blooded killers in exchange for exclusive expose material and stabbed his wife with a pen knife.
What a guy.
Maybe that’s what’s what separates the authors from the authoresses?
In the spirit of adding journalistic significance to my otherwise typical rage-rant, I asked my buddy, Amanda Lamkin (founder of Line By Lion Publications) for her take on the sexism in the industry.
She said in her experience, she has noticed a difference between masculine and feminine writing styles, but not necessarily an inequity:
“Women tend to be more descriptive. Men tend to be matter-of-fact in their writing styles which can be good. But especially for first time male authors, the manuscript often reads like a list of events with lots of telling and little showing. ‘My dad and I did this when I was growing up. Then we did this, and soon, we did that’.”
She went on to report that as a female publisher, she finds she has less credibility than men whose publishing houses faithfully use copyrighted fonts without permission or even the ones who have gone bankrupt. Men and women come up to her on the regular after she’s told them she’s the publisher and ask to speak with her husband assuming he is in charge by virtue of his… art endowment.
As far as diva-style attitudes among her authors are concerned, Lamkin says, ‘The phrase ‘I work with you, not for you,’ has crossed my lips a couple times, and it’s always been with men.”
So the sexism, though less obvious than it was in the days of the suffragettes, is still a thing, and that sucks.
However, my hope for the publishing world lies not in the fact that diverse authors are more welcome than they ever have been or in women finding success filling roles that have historically seen as a man’s domain or that it took me three years in the book biz to catch my first whiff of bullshit as it pertains to gender inequality inside and outside of the industry.
It comes from the fact that when I left high school, I did not know who J.K. Rowling was, but I knew who Harry Potter was. In those days, there were only 4 books in the series, and I did not know or care that someone wrote them, while someone else delegated the editing, printing, and cover art to a bunch of other someones.
For all I knew, the books were made by elves. All that mattered to me as a consumer of these books was the quality of the writing.
That said, the reason we know her as is J. K. Rowling is because when she was a broke and shopping her book to a thus far Potter-less literary world, she feared publishers would evaluate her work less favorably if they knew from the start she was a woman.
Was she right?
And if she had presumed the best of people, submitted her work as a woman, and the folks at Bloomsbury had been a tad more bias, even by accident, against female writers, would we be trying to escape reality in a book world where-in Harry Potter never existed?
I don’t know the answer to those questions.
I do know (well, I think at least) that having a whole genre dubbed “Women’s Fiction” feels like both a helpful and unhelpful step in the battle for equality.
On the one hand, it calls attention to the concept that women write stuff.
On the other hand it sets their work apart, leading critics of the genre to think, “Okay, ladies. If you can’t be exceptional among your male peers, isn’t introducing a separate judging system in the form of ‘Women’s Fiction’ kinda like conceding you are, as they say, ‘Not bad for a girl’?”
Also, as Lamkin pointed out in the course my talking with her, “We have to accept work based on literary merit and not to fill arbitrary quotas. If we start checking off boxes (like gay guy, trans person, or pacific islander) we lower our standards and cheapen our product.”
Valid point, that.
No publisher should feel obligated to publish someone because she’s a woman or he’s a gay druidic shaman. The publisher should feel obligated to publish a book when its writing is exceptional.
Or, you know, if it’ll make crap-tons of money.
So, I guess the moral of the story is keep writing quality work whatever your sex or orientation. When possible treat sexist assholes to a heaping handful of whatever salt and sulfur helped you get this far in life.
And no matter what pompous pale men of a certain age may tell you, “Author” is a gender-neutral title.
Thank you for stopping by the website. If you’d like to check out a YouTube video remarkably like this article with more pictures and my wacky voice in the background, check out the linked below:
…with the thumbnail that looks remarkably like this:
Have a great week and write on!
(also, leave a comment if you wanna dispute “write on” as an appropriate catch phrase. Please and thank you 😉 )