This originally appeared at Laurel Hermanson’s blog. Republished here with permission.
An ongoing controversy in publishing tackles the disparity in representation of male and female authors. Women comprise a fraction of published, reviewed, and award-winning authors. Solid data support this, and it is outrageous that women are still fighting this battle to be recognized as literary equivalents of their male peers.
Ruth Franklin’s “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women” in The New Republic addresses this and links to similar essays by Meg Wolitzer and Francine Prose. These women have done a thorough job of dissecting the issue. They detail public spats between authors; they expose publishing, reviewing, and awards practices that favor men; and they assign blame.
This blame has been largely directed at men: male authors who consider women’s writing inferior and male literary critics who more frequently and favorably review male authors. Also in the crosshairs are literary figures, both male and female: editors who accept more submissions from men; prize committees who grant more awards to men; and readers who admit they prefer male authors.
Conspicuously missing from the blame game are agents, the gatekeepers of the literary kingdom. I presume this is because the current focus is on established authors. So the current outrage rings hollow, perhaps because the top literary players are battling over their share of a tiny pie while aspiring authors scramble for crumbs. Parity is an important issue at any level, but this fracas seems equivalent to comparing the number of male versus female CEOs at major corporations while ignoring the huge numbers of unemployed.
Here, I’d like to steer the conversation away from the rarified world of successful authors toward another, underrepresented group: aspiring female authors.
In 1989 I expected to enter a workforce populated by women offering support, advice, even mentoring. It didn’t take long to realize how naïve I was. Most female interviewers, supervisors, and coworkers had little interest in helping anyone. Rather than a network of sisterhood, I found an atmosphere of competition and resentment.
Fresh out of college, I worked for a wine distributor. My supervisor was a man who saw my potential and became a mentor. He taught me about wine. He taught me to cook, enlisting me as his sous chef for dinner parties. He immersed me in the world of food and wine until I was comfortable at the finest restaurants, at ease organizing lavish wine tastings with suppliers flying from Italy and France.
The company’s president also encouraged me. He urged me to identify and streamline outdated administrative processes, which brought resistance from the mostly female staff. He defended me when one asked, “Why is this glorified secretary messing with how we’ve done things for years?” He praised me when I did something smart and told me when I messed up. I always knew where I stood with him.
This provided a stark contrast to the reception I got from many women with whom I worked. I was a hard worker, did my job well, and avoided office politics. Yet I never found a woman who showed any interest in guiding me through the first years of my working life. They were either disinterested or deliberately undermining.
I once temped at a huge ad agency. I was an overqualified administrative assistant, but I enjoyed the environment and made friends. One offered to arrange an “informational interview” with a female account supervisor. I didn’t expect to be hired, but I thought the interview would be good practice. I also thought it went well. The interviewer, however, surprised me with feedback that had less to do with my skills or experience than my personality. She said I seemed “aloof” and lacked the “excitement” necessary for advertising. She then reported the interview to my temp agency, which prohibited temps from seeking permanent employment with their temporary employers. I was fired.
Later, when I worked for a small ad agency, my female supervisor and several female coworkers respected me and my work, regardless of contentious moments in our professional lives. These women are still friends, people I count on for job references and freelance opportunities. But why are there so few?
Years later I began writing. Again, I assumed I would encounter authors willing to offer guidance and encouragement. Yet I found the only writers willing to help me were men.
When I finished my first project, a screenplay, I attended the screening of a film penned by a local screenwriter. In Hollywood fashion, I thought he would be a good person to know. I introduced myself, chatted about his previous films, and asked if he coached aspiring screenwriters. We met for lunch and I pitched my script. He liked the idea and offered to read it. When he called and said he loved it, I was ecstatic. It was enough for me, that validation.
We met several times to discuss the script and consider ways to sell it. He sent it to a producer and I lined up a director. It was an exciting time, and although nothing came of it, I am still struck by the efforts he made to help me.
Several years later I finished a novel, and after endless rejections, I self-published. I was proud of my book, but wasn’t sure how much time, energy, and money I should spend promoting it. I was on Facebook, and many “friends” were writers. One woman was a local author whose books I loved. We struck up a virtual friendship, and I asked if she would read my novel and give me feedback. She agreed, and I mailed it to her. Weeks went by; I told myself she was busy. I sent a message to ensure she received it, and she apologized for taking so long. After a few more weeks I followed up, careful not to sound pushy. Again, she apologized. And then I never heard from her again.
Maybe she never got around to reading it. Maybe she hated it and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Maybe she thought I was trying to use her, although there was nothing she could do for my novel at that point; I simply wanted advice. What bothered me was the lack of a simple response, the passive-aggressive promise to read my work, followed by…nothing.
The women I know who are willing to help sister writers are close friends, or in my writing group. I’m sure there are successful female authors who happily forward friends’ manuscripts to their agents, who lead workshops or publish books on writing. But there is an important difference between helping a friend or teaching a class, and helping an acquaintance. The former is part of friendship or making money; the latter is an act of altruism. Is it inappropriate for a stranger to send a manuscript to an author, hoping for a shortcut to getting published? Yes, and it’s lazy. Most writers have worked hard to get published, and they are busy. Few published authors make a living writing. They teach, work nine-to-five jobs, or wait tables.
Writing is a competitive business. But this competition seems counterproductive for female authors who want more women represented in literature. Extrapolate my experiences to the literary world in general, and it’s hardly surprising that female writers are underrepresented if they neglect to help bring fresh female voices into the fold.
Perhaps established female authors should question their roles in the male/female literary imbalance. Do they help aspiring authors? Could they do more? Do they want more women represented in publishing, or do they want more recognition for themselves? Would they be comfortable if new female authors appropriated more of the success now enjoyed by men? These are provocative questions; I don’t know the answers.
The issue is not just about numbers; it’s about female authors getting the respect they deserve. But we discuss parity in terms of numbers, numbers that show there aren’t as many women as men getting published. A good place to start might be reaching out to more aspiring female authors. Women shouldn’t condemn the system unless they are doing everything they can to change it. If we have the power and don’t use it, we will remain victims of our own inaction.
Laurel Hermanson has been been a freelance writer for 10 years and is the author of Soft Landing, a novel.