Growing up the only daughter in a patriarchal, male-dominated home, I am, perhaps, too sensitive about gender inequities. I was told that my daily dishwashing and ironing chores were less difficult than my brothers’ infrequent lawn-mowing task, but I never believed it. Neither did my brothers, who were too sly to speak on my behalf and disturb the happy imbalance of credit for labor. Unfairness? What unfairness? I don’t see any unfairness?
So it never surprises me when work by men is automatically assumed to be more important, difficult, and the male perspective on the world is the more valuable perspective. Last year, women illustrators spoke up about the complete shut-out of women from children’s books most precious award, the Caldecott, and book critic Janice Harayda
wrote, “Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.” LadyBusiness
compiled stats of major award winners for children’s and young adult books since 2000 and found that 49% featured male protagonists, 36% featured female protagonists, and 15% featured both male and female protagonists. Contributor Ana wrote, “If stories by and about boys and men are so rare in the world of YA and yet show up in the proportion we've seen above in lists of award winners, then we're disproportionately privileging these stories when we select the best YA has to offer. In a world where anything masculine is still valued to a much greater extent than anything feminine, this possibility worries me.”
I was not surprised when VIDA
(Women in Literary Arts) and the Women’s Media Center compiled stats
and charts to prove that respected publications disproportionately assign male contributors to review books and interview authors, who also happen to be male in disproportionate numbers.
NEW YORK TIMES best-selling authors Jennifer Weiner
and Jodi Picoult have called out publications like the NYT BOOK REVIEW for the lavish coverage given to certain men authors, while ignoring women authors of equal caliber. (Read Weiner’s 2012 update
on the topic.) Weiner and Picoult, who were not advocating for themselves, noted that critical recognition leads to financial rewards: the slight is both to the ego and the bank account. The general response from men was that Weiner and Picoult should stop “bellyaching
” about gender disparities since: (1) they write commercial fiction, (2) they’re successful, (3) men are far more serious about literature, and (4) men have given worthy women authors day passes to the club. Some publications presented chicken-before-egg analyses: the majority of novels published by major houses are written by men—probably because they’re far
more serious—so it follows that most reviews would be about men’s books. Unfairness? What unfairness? I don’t see any unfairness.
I do not begrudge men their preferences for all things dude-ish. Let men be men in their myriad glory. Let them be way serious and be taken seriously as they write about, I don’t know, educated middle-class men who are consumed by an ineffable mood of existential angst from cosseted and racially-specific perspectives. However, I am at a loss to understand why men writing about family life are judged to be serious writers, while women writing about the same topics are automatically “small” writers.
One could get angry and rail about the disingenuous claims by men that the disparity of critical recognition is due to women’s lack of skill and also how very yucky girls are
. I love a good tirade and have a special fondness for spitting-mad outrage and bickering, particularly when it includes irrelevant personal swipes. (Is it really a coincidence that kerfuffle rhymes with truffle?) As much fun as that is, fuming about the literary glass ceiling
distracts us from one of the marvels happening now in the world of books.
Because girls and women are not powerless victims of some male-dominated literary conspiracy which takes place within the offices of a few publications and journals. Women buy and read many more books than men. If you search outside the major publishing houses, women also publish more books than men.
While journals drone on about the decline of boys reading, I see very little celebration of the fantastic numbers of girls and young women reading, book blogging
, and writing their own novels. Teen girls eagerly adopted social media to connect with other readers, reviewers, authors, and publishers. They’re active on Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter.
They don’t limit their book love to online participation. This summer, I visited libraries like the Warren-Newport Public Library
in Gurnee, IL, and saw terrific annexes set up just for teens. I was astounded by the Must Be 14
group of teen reviewers who can fill a meeting room at Book Passages in Corte Madera, CA, and discuss fiction for hours. Bookstores like Books Inc. in San Francisco regularly have standing-room-only crowds of teenage girls and young women for author talks in their Not Your Mother’s Book Club
series. They travel to American Library Association conferences and book festivals and talk to publishers and authors.
These girls are smart, informed, creative, and passionate about books. It’s not uncommon for them to devour dozens of novels every month. They don’t blink when they commit to the 100 Book Challenge
. They can catapult a novel to best-seller status and they don’t especially care if a man or woman wrote it. Neither do they care whether it’s received critical acclaim, although they’re happy to nominate books for their own awards. While other fiction categories struggle to hold on, Young Adult books have steadily increased in sales, and some of Hollywood’s biggest hits have been movies based on girl-centric stories, like THE HUNGER GAMES and the Twilight series.
These teen girls grew up witnessing the massive success of women authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, and they have seen women working outside traditional routes to become successful. E.L. James, whose erotic fanfic was so popular that she was able to sell it to a small print-on-demand and ebook publisher; since then 50 SHADES OF GREY has sold over 65 million copies. Amanda Hocking, now published by St. Martin’s, became a millionaire while still in her 20s with her self-published My Blood Approves books and the Trylle Trilogy.
I’m not interested in debating the quality of these books, because that’s not the point. The point is that young women are having a different experience of women’s place in the book world—as victorious, loved, and influential. The point is that I had to wash dishes, but as the only girl I got my own bedroom, where I could read novels to my heart’s content.
Girls are the gorillas in the library. Beat your chests and roar. Marta Acosta is the author of DARK COMPANION (2012) , a Young Adult gothic, the award-winning Casa Dracula series, and NANCY'S THEORY OF STYLE. She's a graduate of Stanford University and was a frequent contributor of commentary and features to the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. Her next novel, a comedy, will be released in June 2013.
© 2013 Marta Acosta. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With... Marta Acosta (DARK COMPANION) ALA: Caldecott Medal Homepage