The Plight of the Woman Writer

Erin Belieu, of Vida: Women in Literary Arts, posted a really revealing article last week over at XX factor about the plight of women writers—and the news is not good. It’s the kind of info that would prompt any woman pursuing an English writing major to check out her dual degree options. The article dons stats that expose New Republic for publishing a scant 32 women, compared to 160 men,  when considering book reviews, poetry and non-fiction that was featured between February and September of this year. But here is the real coup de grace:

The numbers generally indicate that if you’re a writer who happens to be a woman in any genre, you’d better be ready to spend your time clapping politely as your male friends pick up the majority of significant prizes, grants, awards, publications, and review coverage.

While it’s true that many women who feel called to write aren’t in it for the glory, the key point that the XX post raises is that this monetary and critical recognition often enjoyed by men would enable women to sustain a writing career over a lifetime. But before we start thinking about lifetimes, how about providing monetary recognition one book at a time? One of the greatest challenges I have observed many young women writers face is the struggle to balance self sufficiency with uninterrupted writing time. The kind of time that lends itself to thorough revisions and the thorough thought process that generates great ideas. This time is often eaten up by the side hustles and part-time work women often have to do to pick up the slack of weak advances that simply don’t cover rent, utilities, food and the like.

More grants to supplement the shrinking supply of book advances would really make an impact on the lives of many young women writers. I am thinking something along the lines of a gendered Guggenheim for new and upcoming women writers who lack the extensive experience currently required for their fellowships. This grant could recognize great writing by women and give them a year to turn around a project they were passionate about. Along with grants, funders could partner with kickass organizations like SheWrites, to ensure that women don’t just have the availability to write but the support system they need along the way.

What kind of  support, monetary, network-based or other, would you need to make your dream career come true?

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  • Dom

    Advances? Some people get advances?
    I published a first book (small press) and got invited to the Salon du livre de Paris as a young Canadian author, back in the day. Never got a dime (I even had to fight the Canadian Embassy to give me the promised subsidy for the trip, which didn’t cover all my expenses).
    The only money I got was from the Arts Council.
    That “advances” stuff is for a very small, elite group. You also have to write commercially viable fiction, so there goes any sort of literary exploration in form, structure or even subject.

  • Matt

    If the New Republic numbers are representative of published work (that 1/6 of published authors are women), then it is plausible for a top 10 list to not list any women by chance, with the likelihood being about (1 – 1/6)^10 = 16.2%. It’s not likely, but it to be expected in about one of every six sampling periods. One should consider a larger sample size in order to draw a more compelling result (like looking at the top 10 lists over the period of a decade).

    What is of more clear concern is the 1/6 itself. Aspiring writers are not exactly disproportionately male, so it seems that women’s writings are in some way not getting the same sort of respect. The question that remains unanswered is… why?

    A particular comment of the article that discussed Fine Arts cited statistics where women’s and men’s works were just as likely to be recognized when the judges did not know the artists’ genders, and where judges were more likely to recognize men when the judges did know the artists’ genders. While not deliberate, there seems to be discrimination from some judges. These kinds of results likely translate over to writing.

    Networking is another sort of issue. Sexism probably plays a role here — I’m guessing women are often squeezed by some men being turned away at some stage because their work “is too strong” (by more conservative types) and at some stage by others because their work “is not strong enough.” I doubt men face this kind of double standard (although even a single standard probably rewards a narrow range of male writing — that’s not good, either).

    Continuing with the network theme, I would put more stock in cronyism rather than sexism itself. People tend to respect and associate with others they can relate to. Gender norms make it more difficult for men and women to relate with each other as they are pressured into different roles and different experiences. This presents problems not just with regard to sex/gender, but also race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, class, region, and any sort of factor not tied to merit but nevertheless shapes life experience. While this kind of discrimination can cut both ways, it is probably the majority groups that will do the most damage, not just because they are more numerous, but because the minority groups probably do a better job of appreciating the majority’s work since all aspiring writers (including those of minorities) will have been heavily exposed to it already.

    That’s all I’ve got right now.