In 2010, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published statistics about the rates of publication of men vs. women in respected literary outlets. The results, now widely known as the VIDA Count, were appalling: only 10-35% of authors covered in major book reviews such as the New York Times Review of Books were women, 15-40% of reviewers in the same publications were women, and only 25-40% of overall contributions in literary magazines such as The Paris Review were from women.
Image credit: Ana Bozicevic for VIDA
The numbers were hard to ignore; VIDA's pie charts showed overwhelmingly that men were taking most of the cake across the board.Finally, we had the hard facts to back up our response to the deniers of gender discrimination in publishing, those who'd brushed off complaints by women as oversensitivity or simple lack of talent: No, it wasn't as bad as we thought. It was worse ... much worse.
The creation of the annual VIDA Count started a lively discussion in the book world about sexism in publishing. Women began to air their grievances more openly, from their damnation by "not-serious" book covers to sexist Wikipedia categorization to their delegation as lightweight "chick lit." But despite opening doors to discussion, 2010-2012's aggregated data showed women were still grossly underrepresented all around.
Of course, change takes time. And looking back on 2013, I can't help but think about what a wonderful year it was for women, with some major knock-out moments that showcased women's literary muscle. If the following list is any indication, the tide may finally be turning for women in literature. The final word will come in March, when the anxiously awaited 2013 VIDA results will arrive.
Claire Messud kicked off 2013 with The Woman Upstairs, an existential rant, a love story and a feminist anthem all in one. The Woman Upstairs turned Dostoyevsky's canonical "underground man" upside down — by making him into a woman. This was not just any woman though; she was the mad woman in the attic who never really had a voice, the girl who was sick of playing nice in a man's world, the woman who was angry and not afraid to show it.
Sound fucking amazing? It is. And when asked why she chose to write an unlikable female protagonist who was "unbearably grim," Messud boldy called her interviewer out for latent sexism, upturning assumptions about what women "should" be like, in books and in life:
"For heaven's sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities."
Literary feminists like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have long criticized publications like the New York Times Book Review for favoring male authors and male reviewers. Indeed, according to the VIDA Count, only about 35% of the pages of the Book Review were about or by women in the last three years. So when Pamela Paul was named the new editor of the Book Review after Sam Tanenhaus stepped down in 2013, it was a cause for celebration.
For the second time in its history — and the first time in eight years — the Book Review would have a woman at its helm, and a woman who was sensitive to pervasive sexism that for so long ruled her empire no less.
Beloved by literary types but not as well known to the general public as male writers like Phillip Roth, Alice Munro's winning of the Nobel Literature Prize in 2013 was a victory for all women.
Munro was the first Canadian woman to win the prize, as well as the first woman to win since 2009 in a field that is heavily unbalanced towards males. On whether or not she is a feminist, Munro said: "Naturally my stories are about women — I'm a woman ... I'm a feminist as far as thinking that the experience of women is important." With story collections like The Lives of Girls and Women and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, her worldwide recognition shows that the inner lives of girls and women and of women struggling to find their identity in a male-dominated world can be the stuff of extraordinary literature.
It's a literary subject we know too well: smart young man in a big city, with lots of eligible, beautiful ladies. All too often, even in the hands of venerated writers, the story can devolve into the adventures of a brave young dick in a whimsical city of vaginas. But in 2013 Adelle Waldman turned this genre upside down with her debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.. Waldman's book not only offered a brutal and honest glimpse into the heart of one such male protagonist, proving that women can write Dick Lit just as well (and sometimes better!) than men, it also inverted a literary tradition in which great male writers tackle the disastrous love lives of women who want too much (think: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Flaubert's Madame Bovary).
These books beat out the likes of male literary lions like Thomas Pynchon and James Salter for a spot on the most prestigious New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2013 list, which includes five fiction and five nonfiction books. The scales are finally tilting. For once, women have been overrepresented — or should we say fairly represented? — on a best-of list.
"Rachel Kushner's ambitious new novel scares male critics," read Laura Miller's review of The Flamethrowers in Salon. In her incisive discussion of gendered expectations in writing, Miller argues that "the deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor," and Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, threw all expectations to the wind.
Kushner's novel is big, bold, and confident in itself. If writers like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides can tackle so-called "lightweight" domestic issues and get the Great American Novel stamp, why can't Kushner write about "heavyweight" topics like art and war and the American Dream?
In 2012, Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice. And last year, at age 28, Eleanor Catton rocketed into literary starletdom when she became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious literary prize for her book The Luminaries.
Shortly after her win, Catton came out with an interview defending the work of women against literary sexism, noting that "people whose negative reaction [to The Luminaries] has been most vehement have all been men over about 45" who felt she was somehow too audacious to think she could write such a big book. She went on to denounce sexism in interview questions, saying: "I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel." Hopefully, with more wins by smart young women like Catton, those days will soon be over.
1. Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
2. Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
3. Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries
4. Joyce Carol Oates: The Accursed
All in one year. Gone are the days when the only doorstop-worthy books on your bookshelf were by David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo or Roberto Bolaño. In 2013, four heavy books came out from these female literary heavyweights. They all asked the question: Why are long books by men met with acclaim, while long books by women often met with "a sense of irritation, of "Who do you think you are? You can't do that."? No longer. All of these made numerous notable book lists of the year, and they're so good they'll be making history too. Clear off your bookshelves. Make space for the women.