VIDA announces changes to VIDA Count for 2015

The following is a press release from VIDA that I know will interest many of this blog’s readers.

VIDA-Header

May 20, 2015 — With the release last month of its fifth annual VIDA Count & second annual Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts also released its first attempt to count race—with incredible social media reception and international response:

“VIDA’s new Women of Color Count is a big step toward more public visibility of the diversity problem in literary media, and an encouraging sign of how hard the volunteer-staffed organization works to continually move the conversation forward.”—Huffington Post, April 7, 2015

“The 2014 VIDA Count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color.” — Women, Action & the Media.

Inspired by tremendous support from organizations like WAM: Women, Action & the Media! and responses from Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Newsweek, VIDA will continue to develop and broaden the scope of the annual VIDA Count by also counting LGBTQI writers and writers with disabilities for 2015. This concerted effort will further deepen and complicate the conversation about imbalances from an intersectional position. This development will also enable the articulation of issues converging at the points of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.

Throughout the rest of the year, VIDA will be contacting all women published in 2015 to complete a short anonymous online survey that will permit writers to self identify these factors for themselves.

In the spirit of VIDA’s all-volunteer efforts, VIDA will enlist public support to encourage writers to participate in a self-identifying survey. Stay tuned for #HelpVIDACount on VIDA’s Facebook and Twitter pages!

This growth coincides with the departure of Jen Fitzgerald from the Count Department. It is with immense gratitude that VIDA applauds her generous management of four VIDA Counts as completed by her and the many incredible VIDA volunteer counters. Questions regarding details about the VIDA Count may be directed to Cate Marvin at cmarvin@vidaweb.org.

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Chris Jane on the power of gender in an author’s name: Right, Like a Man

Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane    Pretty Much True

I prefer the way I write when, while writing, I imagine being read as a man.

There’s an immediate freedom to not be apologetic. To do as we were taught in high school English and eliminate the self-conscious “I think…” from the writing.

I’m not sure when it happened, the shift into having to pretend.

My father, a single parent, never gave my sister or me the impression that being female was considered a weakness or would limit us in any way. Now and then we’d have to fetch him things, and we were tasked with decorating and undecorating the Christmas tree, but that was because we were his kids. It had nothing to do with being girls. That I was a “girl” was so separate from my identity that I would sometimes be confused about why I didn’t feel more like one. Females my dad’s age who had soft, styled hair and wore perfume and nail polish were curiosities. I wanted to ask them questions about womanhood. I wanted them to somehow infuse me with the kind of femininity I saw blooming in the girls my age who wore clanking bracelets and pink lipstick.

That absence of innate femininity combined with being raised by a man contributed to my being comfortable with – and preferring to be one of – the boys. I didn’t fear them and hadn’t been raised to defer to them. We were friends, and we were equals. It never occurred to me that their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, or opinions were (or should be) more valid than mine. I was pretty sure I was even as strong as they were.

It took a woman telling me I was not, in fact, as strong as a man to introduce me to what is often a completely arbitrary system of inequity: At around 20 years old, I applied to be a stock person at a liquor store in upstate New York. I knew I could lift the boxes because I’d done it for about a year at a previous job. The store owner, a woman in her late 60s, immediately said no upon taking my application. I asked why. “You’re a girl,” she said. I told her I could lift the boxes. I asked her to allow me to demonstrate. “I’m not going to hire a girl,” she said. “I need a boy.”

I wanted to scream at her, “BUT I CAN DO IT!”

Even if I had proved I was capable, she still wouldn’t have hired me. I was a girl, and that was that. Worse was that she wouldn’t even let me try. Automatic disqualification.

It took a little over ten years for gender as a hindrance to come up again (and ten years, when you think about it, is pretty good). I was looking for an agent for Pretty Much True, a book that would seem to have had everything going for it: It was a war novel about the first year in Iraq (2003) that was being shopped around while service members were still in Iraq and that had been written by someone who had first-hand experience with war.

Turns out it wasn’t the right kind of experience.

One agent wanted more action in the first few pages of his war novels.

Said another male agent, “The market for war stories is pretty saturated.” (If you and I were having a conversation, this is where I would pause to allow time for counting through all the new male-dominated, male-written war novels and movies that have been released in the last seven years.)

What he meant was that there was no market for a literary war story written by a woman about a woman if the female character’s war experience didn’t include guts (by this I mean bloody innards), guns, grenades, and guys’ guys.

After the book’s eventual release, I discovered that although a few men had been very receptive and had even endorsed it (one of them decided he liked it enough to publish it), I was having a hard time getting “regular” men to read it. It’s never been a goal to write specifically to women; male readers were/are just as desirable. But how do you get men to read about a woman who isn’t shooting a bunch of terrorists? (And would men who don’t typically read “women’s books” read that story, even?)

“Where’s the drama or action in waiting?” said one male reader who took some persuading to get to read Pretty Much True.

Some of the most suspenseful and intriguing stories involve waiting…waiting for a court decision, waiting to be found by a killer, waiting for an acceptance or rejection letter, waiting for the return of a loved one, and all other manner of waiting. And of course it’s never just waiting; it’s waiting “plus”—plus a story, plus characters, plus conflicts, etc.

But put a woman waiting up against the word “war” in a book by a female author, and the waiting – unless it’s a soldier waiting for the action to begin – is thrust into a male arena where it immediately suffers by comparison and becomes the object of perplexity. “Waiting? What? What are you—really?”

“Your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses,” said a man, who hadn’t read Pretty Much True, while interviewing me about it for a literary blog. “Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community?”

I wonder whether, following the release of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, The Things They Carried, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, or American Sniper, the natural target markets were veterans and active service members.

(I don’t really wonder. It’s assumed that the general public will be interested in the masculine war experience.)

A military consultant working in Hollywood, when approached about the potential film viability of Pretty Much True, said – also without having read the book – that it would be a great story for a specific female-focused cable channel, but that America might not be ready for another “dark” at-home war story. After all, Brothers had just been released.

Yep. One movie that explored nothing at all having to do with waiting, but that did have a woman in a primary role, had just come out. Add 1984’s WWII movie Swing Shift, and there we were flooding the market again.

Amusingly, the same man had mentioned, just moments before, that he thought the public was ready for another war movie.

(You know, a real war movie.)

Because males were clearly having better luck selling their war stories, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe in which Pretty Much True had been published under a male name. Men writing a lot like women, even about women, generally achieve higher literary acclaim and garner more universal interest than do women when the story has nothing to do with war (Irving, Eugenides, Franzen), so wouldn’t the same be true if it were a story about a female during wartime?

No idea. But the temptation to approach future writing and publishing projects as a maybe-male, if even just to experiment with reactions, grew.

I officially decided on the name change at a party in Florida over the summer. When I told a man that I was thinking of using a gender-ambiguous pen name, he said, “I apologize on behalf of my sex.”

It hadn’t even been necessary to tell him why I was doing it.

Said another man, upon seeing the cover for my latest novel and noticing the name change, “I wish it weren’t necessary, but I can see why you’d do it.”

“But people do take women (and women writers) seriously,” it will be, and has been, argued.

It might be easier to agree were people not still saying, “My favorite authors are X and Y. My favorite female authors, though, are ….”

It might be easier to agree had novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay for Wild, not recently thought it necessary to describe Wild as “not like any chick flick” he’d ever seen.

I’ve seen the trailer. Chick flick (read: movie directed expressly at women, and by definition pretty frivolous) doesn’t even come to mi—

Oh. Right. It stars a female.

Obviously that would be the natural conclusion.

My father raised me to be confidently outspoken, and to be myself. Until recently, I’d considered it the highest mark of honor to put my name on my writing—middle initial included. Anonymity was not for me. Pen names, I’d reasoned, were for the timid or the reclusive.

Now I just want to be reasonably sure I’m getting a fair shot at being read by a mixed audience and at being taken seriously as a writer. Life is short, and I don’t want to waste time fighting, no matter how legitimate the fight.

And as legitimate fights go, that this needs to be a fight at all is bleeping ridiculous.

Chris Jane, author of Pretty Much True and The Year of Dan Palace, is a former adjunct English professor, former feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and a former editor at American Fiction (New Rivers Press). Jane’s series of interviews with writers and others in the publishing industry, 5 On, will soon appear on Jane Friedman’s writers’ resource website. For updates about this (or, if you just wanna), please follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismjane or visit http://chrisjane.net.

My Favorite Books of 2014

Everything I Never Told You  The UnAmericans  The Hundred-Year House  The Home Place  Life Drawing    Now We Will Be Happy  Be Safe I Love You  Faulty Predictions   The Bees   Flashes of War

2014 was a very strong year for literary fiction by women. I tried to make a Top 10 list, but that proved impossible. So I decided instead to make a list of my favorite books of the year and ended up with 30. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than by ranking. I will say that a handful of books knocked my reading socks off and stayed with me for a long time. Those titles are noted with an asterisk. I think there is something for everyone here.

It should go without saying  that there were hundreds of books that I did not get around to reading (some are still on my to-be-read list), and I’m certain many of them would have made this list had I read them. So this is just a very idiosyncratic list of the best books one guy read in 2014. Make of that what you will.

The links will take you to my review of each book. I hope you will also take the time to read my interviews with many of these authors. You can find them by visiting the Index page or using the Search bar.

Molly Antopol — The UnAmericans: Stories*

Robin Black — Life Drawing

Vanessa Blakeslee — Train Shots: Stories

Katie Crouch — Abroad

Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Amina Gautier — Now We Will Be Happy: Stories*

Lisa Gornick — Tinderbox

Cristina Henriquez — The Book of Unknown Americans

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You*

Lacy Johnson — The Other Side: A Memoir*

Kristina Kahakauwila — This is Paradise: Stories*

Lily King — Euphoria*

Maya Lang — The Sixteenth of June

Carrie La Seur — The Home Place*

Lisa Lenzo — Strange Love: Stories

Jessica Levine — The Geometry of Love

Karin Lin-Greenberg — Faulty Predictions: Stories*

Rebecca Makkai — The Hundred-Year House*

Francesca Marciano — The Other Language 

Laura McBride — We Are Called to Rise

Celeste Ng — Everything I Never Told You*

Laline Paull — The Bees

Virginia Pye — River of Dust

Claudia Rankine — Citizen* (poetry-essay-memoir hybrid)

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War: Stories*

Brittani Sonnenberg — Home Leave

Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven*

Rene Steinke — Friendswood

Natalia Sylvester — Chasing the Sun

Tiphanie Yanique — Land of Love and Drowning

 

Writer Alexander Chee on his three years reading only women

Alexander Chee

Readers of this blog should read Alexander Chee’s essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (October 12, 2014). “Gender Genre” describes the three years Chee spent in his early 20’s reading nothing but fiction by women. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/books/review/gender-genre.html?ref=review

Chee is a poet, essayist, and novelist who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Wesleyan University. He currently serves as associate fiction editor of the online literary magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2002. His second, The Queen of the Night, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.

 

 

Guest blogger Rebecca Makkai on “Literary Mansplaining”

Rebecca Makkai 2013   The Hundred-Year House

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as many short stories and essays. Her story “The Briefcase” has just been anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new high school literature textbook, Collections. She is a smart, observant, and sharp-witted woman, and it is reflected in her writing. (You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with her here.)

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 

 

This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 

Guest Blogger Robin Black: On Learning To Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book For Their Wives

Robin Black is the author of Life Drawing (Random House, 2014), a compelling study of betrayal and penance in a marriage between a writer and a painter, and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a short story collection published in 2010. [You can read my review of Life Drawing here.] Both books received critical acclaim in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the UK. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010.  She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Here, Black addresses the vexing matter of men who won’t read fiction written by women.

RobinBlack2014   Life Drawing

I was at a party earlier this summer, a celebration of my novel, thrown by old friends, and filled with couples around my age, middle-aged men and women. My host had asked me to read a bit from the book, which I did, and I answered some questions about my process, about the publishing world; and then I stepped out of the spotlight so that something closer to a normal party might begin. A normal party that included one guest selling and signing books, that is.

Those interactions, while also wonderful, are inherently a little socially awkward, so I expected to feel both fortunate and a bit sheepish, which I did. But this time I also felt a different, distinctive discomfort settling in as more than one man approached me, book in hand, and told me he wanted to buy it  – as a present for his wife. You can make it out to. . . Carol. . . Jane. . . Kathy. . .

Whatever.

I began to feel grumpy. I don’t believe it showed, but I was starting to feel unmistakably irked at the unspoken assumption that I had written a book for women. Only women. That a man who bought a copy for himself might as well also buy a pair of heels and some jewelry to accessorize the purchase.

To be clear, I wasn’t ticked off at these individual men. They were – to a man, so to speak – warm and encouraging, said kind things about the work I’d read aloud, and expressed interest in the whole process of how a book comes into the world. My friends are lovely people, and they had gathered lovely friends of their own. But . . . One particularly engaging man told me he belonged to a book group. A men’s book group. “You should suggest this to them,” I said, poking a bit, consciously making mischief.

At least he was forthcoming. “It’s really tough to get them to read books written by women,” he said. “It’s viewed as. . . “ He shook his head and shrugged.

Sigh.

 

I recognize that I am writing for a blog that owes its very existence to this problem, that I’m not exactly introducing an unfamiliar phenomenon here. But something about this experience, the line of actual, living, breathing men armed with spellings of women’s names, made the imbalance feel true and – excuse me – just so fucking weird, in a way that no statistics, no documented trends ever have.

Really, guys? Really?

Yes. Really.

Part of why it’s weird is because it never occurs to me when I write that I am writing for one sex almost exclusively, which it turns out I am. To me, I am just a person, writing a novel for other people to read. As a writer, I am obsessed with the simple, central question of why people do what they do. Is that a particularly feminine  preoccupation? I hope not. I hope it’s something we’re all thinking about, a lot.

“Men love this book,” I finally said to one fellow guest, thinking of the men who have, many of them friends and family, their ages ranging from 23 to 81. “You might be surprised.”

“Well, I did like what you read, a lot. . .”

Dot. Dot. Dot. Awkward silence.

All righty, then. I guess I’m not going to change the world at a book party.

“And how is Carol spelled? Is there an e?”

 

I’m not angry at any individual. I’m not a bit sure I’m angry at all, though the word is, of course, inevitably, tiresomely melded to all observations that might be termed “feminist” – and so I feel some obligation to contend with the presumption. In truth, a bit weary, on this day anyway, I feel more frustrated than angry; and as for the frustration, it’s certainly not lastingly directed at the men who bought my book, much less the friends who so generously celebrated it. My primary emotion about that evening is one of gratitude.

The frustration itself is familiar, like some kind of natural element, innate to existence by now. It disperses into the air we all breathe and refills my lungs; strolls with me down sidewalks; prickles, uncomfortable, as I watch stereotypes play out on my TV. This a Big Social Problem, and so society, culture, history must all shoulder the blame – though of course, as always, it falls on individuals to fix what entire civilizations have broken. It isn’t ever acceptable to let the weariness win out.

Or, it turns out, to forget to be angry. Or to disown the emotion because others have used its name as a weapon against women. . . Shame on me for that. Anger it is.

And so the analysis begins, anew: Why don’t men read books by woman?

Friends and I have puzzled over that one endlessly. Is it the fear of being seen holding a pink cover, a logical if unfortunate response to an unabashedly gender-coded message that literary marketing has sent? Is it the outgrowth of a process that begins with people telling newborn girls how sweet and pretty they are, encouraging them as they grow, to be nice and worry about relationships, while telling boys how big and strong they are, encouraging them to be tough and smart? Does that well-documented distinction make reading what women write – always presumptively about domestic relationships – seem a feminine activity? (While not making reading male-authored fiction about domestic relationships problematic – as if those books have some kind of blue-for-boys won’t-lessen–your-manhood stamp of approval on them.) Is this just another corner of the world in which those who are taught to view women as equated with emotions, and emotions as equated with weakness (and therefore, by the transitive property. . .) reward the lifelong brainwashing inflicted on them by acting accordingly?

Or, to put it another way, do girl books have girl cooties? Is it really that much a legacy of the schoolyard? Of the nursery?

Probably. That’s all doubtless part of it. But, having gone through what felt like a strangely ritualistic enactment of a statistic I haven’t wanted to believe, I am filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say?  To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?

Just as the fact that men skip over female fiction authors has never felt as real to me as it now does, the possibilities of what that fact might mean have never seemed as serious. And to the extent that I am limiting my exploration here to “men” and “women” as if our genders divide anything like so clearly, let me just say, I have no doubt that these issues are all the more complex and disheartening for those whose gender does not fit mainstream definition.

But back to the mainstream for a moment, back to traditional gender presumptions, which are almost certainly at the root of all this. The book that I wrote has been described in reviews as tense, taut, and brutal. I’m not suggesting that had it been called tender, sweet, and heart-warming, men would be right not to read it. But I must say that when you write a book so commonly described with adjectives that are viewed in this (dysfunctional, sexist) society as “male,” and men still aren’t interested in reading it because the author is female, it’s . . . it’s depressing. That’s the word. Depressing.

To me, anyway. I am bummed out about this, since that session of learning how to spell yet another set of women’s names. Not because I don’t value my female readers nor because of the impact on my career or sales numbers, but because of the questions to which this imbalance inevitably leads, because of my hunch that this book-avoiding nonsense is only a relatively innocuous hint at something much more important, something both endemic and profoundly ugly, something that has precious little to do with literary taste.