23 January 2012

Enhance Your Shelf Life NOW: Debunking the Debunking of Sexism

This Salon article would be laughably ignorant if it were not so painfully ignorant. In it, male novelist Teddy Wayne (an author who has written a novel I have never heard of) complains that Jennifer Weiner (author of, apparently, many novels I have never heard of) complains too much. Using some less than artful euphemisms, Wayne argues that Weiner is wrong in her assertion that the New York Times  is "sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance." 

Weiner goes to great lengths to prove her point. If you are like me, however, pictures make a lot more sense than words so here are some from an organization (VIDA) for which I intern. (I am admitting my bias here, see)

VIDA is an organization devoted to women in the literary arts. To boil it down to absolute terms, VIDA is seeking to create a conversation about women writers and cultural perceptions of them and their work. VIDA's most fundamental project is The Count. This is where I come in. As an intern I am in the trenches doing this counting. It sounds straight forward of course, "how many men?" "how many women?" It is not. Often bios do not reveal one's gender. Often names do not either. For example, my dad's name is Alex, so is my female cousin's. Part of a Counter's job is to definitively ascertain the gender of an author. Then we can actually count them. But first! we must figure out how to categorize their work. Is this a literary piece in and of itself? For example a poem in Poetry. Is this a critical piece by one author about another? For example, the contents of the book review section of the Times disclosed above. Whose literature is being talked about? Obviously and as expected, mostly men. There is another pie chart to accompany this one over on the official count page. It is reveals whose opinions about literature (the reviewers) are being published. Again, as expected, mostly men.

I should be able to stop here because the point is made fairly clear by all the incredibly straight forward evidence that VIDA presents. Unfortunately, Wayne somehow read all this and came to a different conclusion. Look at the above pie chart one more time. Seriously, I'll wait. Study it. Got it? Okay now read this:

 In short, midlisters are middle-class professionals scraping out a living — and being a midlist male author who writes about males is a distinct financial disadvantage. Not only will you not get reviewed in the Times, but you won’t get reviewed in the women’s magazines that drive sales

That thing about women's magazines had something to do with the incredibly condescending view Wayne has about women's book clubs (or something) but the important thing is that he really believes males are reviewed less in the Times. Remember the pie chart, right? Okay.

Wayne did raise a point that VIDA has not looked into or at least has not published any awesome pie charts on: shelf placement. Is Wayne on to something when he moans that if you are a male "Barnes & Noble will relegate you to the back shelves"?

I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt so I looked into it. One of the perks of being an enormous literary nerd with no job is that I also have no friends and so can while away an entire afternoon jotting notes about book shelves and not worry that there is a whole world out there waiting to be grappled with, engaged in and employed by...

Anyway. I really wanted Wayne to be right because if nothing else it would prove that while the scholarly world(we'll call the Times scholarly...for now) overlooks women, maybe the commercial one does not.

I went down to my neighborhood Barnes and Nobel; below are the hard numbers. I started with the front shelves. If the men are all on the back shelves it should be easy to prove Wayne right by just counting the first shelves I see when I walk in. I chose the shelves "New Fiction" and "New Writers" to also look into Wayne's "book-editor-friend's" statement: “When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real chance.”

Hm. Okay, strike one, we'll get this next one.

"Taking a real chance," eh? Okay, strike two. I get three right? (There were only two categories that pertained to fiction and/or new writers but sure, 3 tries it is.)

An entire shelf dedicated to a man? Damn. Guess that make strike 3 right? (Yup, but I'll give you an honorable mention. Janet Evanovich had her own shelf too, right next to the $2 reese's bars under the cashier's stand. Women's literature is evidently equal to that of sugary impulse buys.)

Now that Wayne's little reverse sexism theory has been shot full of holes lets sink this ship for good. But first! Wayne tell us how he really feels:

Yet the Franzen-Weiner-Picoult-Stockett universe is the literary 1 percent; they’re all doing just fine, male or female. If you’re upset that you’re deprived of two separate reviews and a profile in the Times, as Weiner evidently is, then, to quote Brad Pitt in “Moneyball,” you have “uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all.”
Got that, female writers? You should be happy with money. We do not need to have intelligent discussions about women's writing so long as we give them money. Shut up, look pretty, here's a royalty check. Which might explain Wayne's parting shot:

 male authors are somewhat like male porn stars: getting work, but outearned and outnumbered by their female counterparts, who are in far greater demand from the audience

I have no idea what Wayne was hoping to accomplish with his invective. It seems obvious to me that sexism remains an enormous force in this country. The examples are numerous and growing daily. Pick one. All male presidents. All male presidential candidates. Predominately male CEO's. Predominately male editors and on and on and on. I suppose Wayne was more worried about authors that never make it to the B&N shelves but maybe hangout on the St. Mark's shelves. I point you again toward VIDA. The reviews conducted by The Paris Review, Poetry, Boston Review and Granta all qualify as the "midlist" writers that Wayne was talking about and only one publication (Poetry) covered an equal or greater number of women compared to men. The simple truth is that Wayne (and anyone who believes him) is wrong; blatantly so. And to finish this all up, take a careful look at the author picture on the right. I happen to be a male writer. I am even openly heterosexual. Yet here I am lending my voice to feminism. Clever ploy to get in good with the ladies? No. Resistance against an unfair system which is silently repressing equal expression? Absolutely. If we men are really the great writers all the major journals and critics say we are, we will not mind a little fair competition and discussion with women. Those who defend the status quo have something to be afraid of: their own inadequacy.


  1. Sexism in literature was exactly why J.K.Rowling went with her initials and not her name. Male authors are read more often and given more recognition. (I know my Harry Potter reference makes me lame, but I will come to terms with that.)

  2. How this little VIDA lackey does go on. If you want it by the numbers, VIDA is there blowing the horn, but that is all you will get, a glorified online calculator, not an organization. Where are the programs? Workshops? How about using grassroots efforts within the literary community and stop with the 1, 2, 3…

    A more realistic look into gender fueled publications would look to background and ability, not a tally of the sexes. Helen Reddy's anthem, "I am Woman" will take a woman only so far, because in the end, you gotta know how to sing.

    Chris Roberts

  3. @ Chris Roberts - The background is patriarchal and the author's ability to write is not in question.

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