Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.

This week I'm recovering from wisdom tooth extraction surgery once again. You may recall that I had one pulled in May, but my top two hadn't yet erupted, and therefore the students at the UNLV Dental School required more staff supervision to remove them. They took a bone saw to my face. To. My. Face. Awake the whole time. I am a badass.

Currently, I am also a chipmunk. Figured I may as well blog while I'm hiding.

Yesterday I read something that I can only describe as horrific. In her article "Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name," author Catherine Nichols describes a life that sounds like it could be mine in a year or two; she'd sent out a novel to agents before, received some kind responses, but no offers. Later, she started sending out her second novel--she knew it was a better manuscript overall, but she still received no offers. "I figured that I was paying my dues, keeping on keeping on, having roughly the same experience any other young writer would have," she says. If I were in her position, that's exactly what I would have thought, too.

Then one day, after a period of writer's block, she sent out the same manuscript under a male name. Everything was the same, right down to the cover letter, except the name. She had five responses from agents within 24 hours. "I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25."

This is disheartening news to me as a woman in general, and especially as a woman writer. And it's frustrating, too--makes me want to spit and scream. Bibliophiles are supposed to be liberal people; they're supposed to be at the forefront of social justice. Frequent reading is supposed to boost empathy, or so the scientists say. It's infuriating that the patriarchy is so insidious that it operates in publishing as well.

Not that this is a surprise to me--the bias towards men in literature is abundantly clear. Until high school, I'm hard pressed to think of a single book we read that featured a female main character. But three years in a row we did read books about boys surviving in the wilderness--My Side of the Mountain, The Sign of the Beaver, and Hatchet--as if that single, repetitive plot were utterly necessary to our education. (Though I should note that the first two on that list were written by women.) I read books in my spare time that were written by women and featured female characters--notably the Nancy Drew series--but the only book I can think of from grade school that was written by a woman and featured a female main character was Little House on the Prairie. In high school, we read Pride and Prejudice. Both a female author and primarily female characters? What madness is this?! I had some excellent AP literature teachers in high school who put books in the curriculum that one would normally never encounter until college, but the vast majority of them were still by men, and often about men: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (at least the main character is a woman), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (at least it's by and about a POC), Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler (at least they didn't fire our teacher for having us read a book featuring a threesome). Now that I think of it, we did read Louise Erdrich--a woman AND a Native American. Who'd have imagined one could find all this diversity in a Catholic school? The first two years of high school, though, I received the standard, male-dominated literature curriculum--The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace. This doesn't stop in college, though one might have the opportunity to take separate classes dedicated to women writers. Last year I took a class that featured literature in translation. Only one of the authors was a woman.

This patriarchal canon makes men less able to empathize with women's stories.* For our entire lives, women have been forced to read and empathize with men's stories--that's why there's no "men's lit" section in bookstores. Male literature is suitable for everyone, but when a woman writes a book, no matter how well-crafted, it's relegated to "women's lit"--because why would a man want to read a story about a woman? If a woman writes about a man, maybe it's worth their time. Even among the men I respect most, the men who embrace feminism and actively try to check their privilege, I notice this. I loaned a male friend my copy of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which features a teenage female protagonist. The book was critically well-received--it was even a finalist for the Pulitzer. Karen Russell writes some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read in my life. My friend's response was that it was okay, but that he wanted to know more about alligator wrestling.

Yes. Because the alligator wrestling was the point. (It's not.)

I want to believe he simply didn't care for the book. There are many universally-beloved books that I simply don't care for. People have literally threatened me because I hate Tolkien so much (with the exception of The Hobbit). But men so frequently criticize woman authors, and especially stories about women, that I can't help but wonder whether the dislike has simply been ingrained in them, taught to them by their schoolteachers. When teachers assign primarily male authors and stories about men, they're conveying the idea that male authors and stories about men are the only authors and stories worth reading. The same goes for the lack of POC and LGBTQIA and disabled authors/stories in school curriculums, of course.

I don't want to suggest that teachers and administrators are exclusively to blame, either. Teachers can't assign diverse stories if those stories aren't being published. And even now, in 2015, men are still vastly dominant in all literary spheres, though small improvements are being made. Women don't typically take home prizes, either--but their chances are increased if they write about male characters.

So, no, I was not surprised to read that querying agents with a male name results in a higher success rate. But I was very disappointed. I was hoping that the publishing industry was getting better about this--lately there's been much banter about the need for diverse books, especially in children's literature. And again, I imagine it would be difficult to find male agents and editors who didn't describe themselves as feminists. It's disappointing that they won't do the work to take women seriously.

Possible solutions to this problem? One friend suggested blind submissions, then immediately retracted his own thought--women should be recognized for their own merits. They shouldn't have to degender themselves or pretend to be male in order to be published. I think the best thing we can do--both men and women--is to call out injustice when we see it. Furthermore, we should all start buying and reading more diverse books. Like any other business, the publishing industry loves money, so if there's an increase in sales for books about women by women, one would presume they'd publish more of them. Were you planning on picking up the new Stephen King? DON'T. Buy a book by a woman instead (or a POC, or an LGBTQIA person, or a disabled person). Stephen King will be just fine.

It'll be a slow process, undoubtedly, but it's better than nothing. Hopefully.

*It also makes some women less able to empathize with women's stories--women can be misogynists, too.

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