July 31, 2015

A whole new data point in the publishing gender bias


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Sarah Davis-Goff, right, with Lisa Coen, her fellow founder of Tramp Press. Photograph: Norah Ward

A new data point has entered the discussion of gender biases in the publishing world.

Earlier this year, we reported on the “literary cooties” that seem to plague women in publishing: more men than women are published, their books are more widely-reviewed, and novels written from a male perspective are more likely to win prizes than novels written from a female perspective. (Since our post about Kamila Shamsie’s call to make 2018 the “Year of Publishing Women” Tilted Axis Press has joined And Other Stories in taking on the challenge.)

Now, The Guardian reports, an independent Irish publisher has evidence that in addition to all of this, men are also more influential in shaping the work of aspiring writers. Tramp Press routinely asks hopeful authors to submit a list of their literary influences along with their manuscripts, and in a pretty comprehensive survey of recent submissions they’ve found that just 22% of the names cited belonged to women.

“I read letter after letter from well-meaning, perfectly nice men and women who list reams of writers they admire, without apparently noticing that the writers they are listing are all of one gender,” Tramp Press co-founder Sarah Davis-Goff wrote for the Irish Times. “It points again to the larger issue in the industry: our habitual, unchecked dismissal of the experiences, viewpoints and brilliant work of women.” “It’s not malicious,” she said, “but accidental sexism is still sexism.”

This is not good news, obviously, but it also seems like less compelling evidence of a problem than, say, the disparity between the kind of review attention male authors can expect vs. female writers (review attention should theoretically translate into sales, which then affect an author’s next advance . . . or even whether or not an author’s published again at all.)

Or, if not less compelling evidence, then it’s at least a different kind of evidence, since I’d guess that a lot of the writers who make these aspiring authors’ lists have been dead for a very long time. That’s a problem with our idea of the canon and, probably, the White Guy books that continue to dominate syllabi from middle school onward. But I suspect (I hope) that if Tramp Press asked for submissions to include a list of most influential writers from the past five or even ten years, it might be a little more balanced.

Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.