Last night I attended “Transmit Culture: Women in Writing and Publishing” at Portland State University. It was a panel featuring author Karen Karbo, Tin House Press editor Masie Cochran, and our own Alicia Bublitz.
There was a lot of discussion about what it means to be a woman in publishing and how marketing women’s writing has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. (Anyone else remember Chick Lit and its candy-pink covers? Good luck being taken seriously!)
All three of the panelists did a great job of talking about the VIDA numbers and their own numbers on the diversity that goes into their reading lists, teaching lists, or publication schedules. A lot of statistics were brought up to illustrate what most of us already know: women are underrepresented in publishing across the board. So are trans writers, LGBTQ writers, writers of color, and impoverished writers. But what I heard at the heart of the discussion wasn’t really numbers, it was the sense of unfairness, the sense that in small and not easily identifiable ways, women are being reduced and pigeonholed in the writing world.
I could discuss the panel at length because it was fascinating, but I want instead to just list a few of the points that stuck out to me and generate some discussion. In the comments section or on Facebook, I’d like to know if these sensations ring true to you, if you have your own anecdotal evidence, or if you feel strongly to the contrary.
- The idea of “Dinner Party Names” vs. “Bedside Table Names.” When Masie asked her interns at Tin House why they became interested in writing, most of them initially listed Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. before admitting that what they’re currently reading is actually Roxanne Gay or Mindy Kaling. Does anyone else find themselves doing this–listing “classic” male authors to impress others?
- Foundational sexism in the way we read. Who else read predominately white male authors in high school (with other classes for women or writers of color) and learned to use those authors as the barometer for what constituted a classic?
- The one-way street of reading. Women are encouraged to read books by both men and women, but men are expected to only read books by or about men and are even shamed for reading books by or about women. That could certainly explain the disparity in the publishing numbers!
- The aforementioned “Book-shaming” is enforced by society at large rather than one sex in particular. Karen had an ugly anecdote about a male participant winning a free copy of the book she wrote about Katherine Hepburn. When he went to pick it up, the woman handing it to him said, “You’ll want to give this to your wife.” Seriously, WTF is that?
- Social media presence. Are men just allowed to live in caves and leave their personal lives out of their art? Can they brood on their book jacket cover and be sort of homely and still make it in the writing world? Related question: Are women allowed the same opportunity?
At some point in the discussion, Karen said “There’s no complaining on the yacht” because everyone on that panel was a professional publisher, editor, or writer. It takes privilege (money, time, education, opportunity) to get to that point, which many talented people don’t have. But I think “Don’t complain” is a common thing to say to women, so I say “Let’s discuss” instead.