The Literary Glass Ceiling: Fact or Fiction?

When we survey our catalogue, we at Tranquebar are enormously proud of the women writers we have had a chance to represent. In the past we have published Mridula Koshy’s If It is Sweet, which went on to win The Shakti Bhatt Prize, and Padma Vishwanathan’s The Toss of the Lemon, short-listed for The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award. In the future, we hope to release titles across genres by women writers, from erotica (Urmila Deshpande’s Slither) to travel (Swapna Liddle’s Fourteen Historic Walks in Delhi), to chick-lit (Kiran Manral’s The Kay Woman) to non-fiction (Nighat Gandhi’s manuscript on sexuality and Muslim women, Alternative Realities) to cookery (Tara Deshpande’s Sense and Spice).

We started conducting a mental check-list recently of the women authors we publish, following a rather disturbing survey conducted by VIDA. The organization, that closely studies the reception of women’s writing across cultural spaces, analyzed fourteen literary publications, and reaffirmed what has long been suspected – that women are severely underrepresented as writers. The Atlantic had 154 male contributors as opposed to 55 women contributors; The New Yorker, 449 male contributors as against 63 women contributors.

The figures are damning. But numbers, at the end of the day, are only representative of broader prejudices. Several cultural theorists, academicians and authors have tried to arrive at why women writers are possibly getting marginalized in publishing. Laura Miller is one such feminist critic.  She says that while women may form the bulk of the reading population (58 percent of adult literary readers are female), their selections aren’t sex-specific. Women read across genres and gender categories, and are as likely to buy a novel by Dumas as one by Jane Austen. Men, on the other hand, tend to display a definite bias, preferring male authors and books about swashbuckling heroes.

In 2005, at Queen Mary College in London, when a hundred academics, critics and writers were asked to discuss the books they’d gone through most recently, four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women showed no specific predisposition for male or female authors, and were almost as likely to have read a book by either. Chris Jackson, in The Atlantic, corroborated such evidence when he admitted, on being asked of the last time he had read fiction by a woman, that he ‘couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss.’

Consequently, an agent is known to have said, ‘From my personal experience (and I really can only speak from that perspective), I truly believe that for literary fiction, it’s much easier to sell boy writers than gals. I know. Who can possibly make such a general statement but I have to say that I’ve encountered several worthy manuscripts that I’m rather convinced that if the writer had been male, the novel would have sold.’

There is also the subject of style, and according to Tracy Bowling, women writers find themselves being pushed to the periphery because they are perceived as flirting with ‘uncharacteristic and/or uncategorizeable forms and genres.’

If there is a dearth in the numbers of women getting published, a matter of equal concern is the reception that women authors get. Slate learnt that of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010 in The New York Times, 338 were written by men (62 percent of the total), and 207 were written by women (38 percent of the total). At Harper’s, 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors; at the London Review of Books, 74 percent; of the 64 titles reviewed in The New Republic, nine were by women. Worse still, the reviews often displayed a definite linguistic bias. Tracy Bowling states, ‘In the wake of Jonathan Franzen’s glowing reception, many writers have discussed the infrequency with which the word “genius” is applied to women writers; I’d be curious to see if the same is true of words like “breakthrough,” “innovative,” and “new”.’

Some critics go on to suggest that when women are published/ reviewed, they find themselves being slotted within easy categories – ‘chick-lit’ with its manicured protagonists, or ‘mis-lit’ with its perpetually despondent characters. Elizabeth McCracken says, ‘Books by women are marketed as magical and quiet and lyrical; they have covers with portions of body parts – the side of a face, a pair of hands – the parade of headless and/or faceless people who have appeared on these novels.’

A direct consequence of this, some would say, is that in a bid to avoid such categorization, women writers feel compelled to suppress their identity (J.K. Rowling, with her gender indeterminate writing-name, being a case in point) or natural voice. Julianna Baggot says, ‘If I’d learned nothing else, it was this: If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can’t be a man, write like one. No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O’Brien… women were listed as concessions.’

Of course, there is also the claim that fewer women seem to be writing than men. And that those who do face challenges.  Don Share says, ‘Women are still doing more to manage the mundane details of life than men – from doing dishes to planning travel itineraries – and that leaves them less time. […] To put it succinctly: all of the women writers I know have had to work in the face of one form or another of disadvantage.’

Which leaves us with these questions, and we’d love to have your answers:

Would you judge a book based on whether the author was a male or female?

Would you, the male reader, consider buying The Kay Woman, for instance, an upcoming Westland chick-lit title? Would you, the female buyer-of-books, consider getting yourself Kenny Deori Basumatary’s Chocolates_Guitars_Momos, which could best be classified as lad-lit?

Would you make a gender distinction while buying literary fiction?

Also, do you feel that there aren’t enough women writers on bookshelves? Do you feel women are under-represented in the literary arena?

Do you think the reception women writers receive is prejudiced, biased, or non-existent? And do you think it’s tough being a woman writer?

Finally, which was the last book you had read by a woman? And when was this?

Do give us your feedback! We’d love to know.

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8 thoughts on “The Literary Glass Ceiling: Fact or Fiction?

  1. This is excellent: thank you. I’d like to clarify, however, that I was not at all, in the remark you’ve quoted, making the point that fewer women than men seem to be writing. I was pointing out that women who write face more obstacles than men, and that more demands are placed upon them.

  2. Thanks so much for writing in, Don, and for your generous feedback! We apologize if it appeared as though we were quoting you out of context. That wasn’t our intention, and we thought that the direct quote clarified that. We have tried modifying the paragraph mildly.

  3. Historically there have been more men than women who have been leading the writing arena. However last 2-3 decades have seen the emergence of more and more women as credible writers.

  4. I’m waiting for the responses to the question you posed at the end, I’d like to hope that my audience wouldn’t be limited to female readers, but have a sinking suspicion it just might.

  5. Good to read a post that analyses possible reasons behind the findings of the VIDA study.. One particular point made by Laura Miller —“She says that while women may form the bulk of the reading population (58 percent of adult literary readers are female), their selections aren’t sex-specific. Women read across genres and gender categories, and are as likely to buy a novel by Dumas as one by Jane Austen. Men, on the other hand, tend to display a definite bias, preferring male authors and books about swashbuckling heroes.”— well explains the skewed ratio of book sales of titles by men vs. women. But i guess its not a recent phenomenon.
    Didn’t women writers in the 19th century camouflage their identities by adopting masculine pen names to be taken seriously? george eliot and even the Bronte sisters are some examples.. About time perceptions changed. Good to see publishers like Tranquebar putting their faith in women writers.

  6. Very true! In my younger days, there was a definite leaning towards Hardy Boys and Three Investigators (shunning Nancy Drew) by my male cousins, while we girls would read anything and everything…
    My husband hasn’t bought any female author, tho’ he did appreciate Palace of Illusions, Devil Wears Prada and of course Harry Potter.

    After reading your post, wonder if JK Rowling remained gender neutral deliberately…?

    WAITING for The Kay Woman to get on the stands…! 😀

  7. Thank you for your responses, everyone!
    Ranju: We’re glad you think that women are emerging from the margins of publishing and literature.
    Kiran: We’re tracking each response as well; we would like to know if reading choices are gender-specific.
    DK: That’s an excellent observation. A lot of women did assume male pseudonyms way back in the nineteenth century. We hope you continue reading our women (and male) writers!
    JLT: A lot of articles suggest that the choice of Rowling’s writing-name was deliberate, since it is gender neural. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. This is what makes updating a blog such a wonderful exercise: your insights! And yes, do look out for our titles!

  8. Your post is very relevant in the wake of the recent comment on women writers by Naipaul. The comment itself was not in very good taste but it raised a number of interesting literary discussions on the subject of women writing.

    I have always hated the term ‘women writers’ – do men who write call themselves ‘men writers’? Shashi Deshpande put it rather well when she asked if ‘literature was a public toilet that required labels for Men and Women’. As a reader I look for a book that appeals to me irrespective of whether the author is a man or a woman. I love George Eliot as much as Charles Dickens, Barbara Kingsolver as much as Salinger. Muriel Spark as much as Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth as much as Kiran Desai.

    But more and more it seems a sad reality that books by women are not appreciated as much they would have been had they been written by a man. Hope this changes sooner than later. It is good to know that Tranqbar press represents a number of women writers.

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