Discussing the setbacks women experience in book publishing can sometimes feel like concussing one’s head against a brick wall: no matter how hard we push, we can’t seem to break through the barrier. I went to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Minneapolis looking forward to hearing about women. What were the industry’s powerful women doing to have greater influence in what gets published? How could writers and editors disrupt the status quo to get more women in print—especially on the darker subjects so often considered “men’s territory”? I found a plurality of voices being published like never before, but walked away feeling that the wall against which we bash our collective heads isn’t giving any time soon unless cultural constructions of how we view women finally change. Authors and editors are doing their part, but if we want to make any substantial progress, readers must be willing to take risks on narratives that subvert traditional gender roles.
“I don’t worry about the laudable efforts of female editors—rather, I fear their work will always remain as a drop in the bucket.”
Even the glass ceiling can’t be wholly to blame anymore: according to Publisher’s Weekly’s 2014 Salary Survey, women hold 51 percent of management positions in publishing. As female editors rise and reign in both Big Five houses and strong independent presses, they help women writers get pushed to the top of the submission piles, and publish their manuscripts with frequency and conviction. One of these partnerships was on display at AWP: Grove Atlantic’s editorial director Elisabeth Schmitz appeared on a panel with her author Margaret Wrinkle to speak about her critically acclaimed novel Wash, the sprawling generation-spanning narrative of a black slave, to discuss their successful editorial partnership. I don’t worry about the laudable efforts of female editors like these—rather, I fear their work will always remain as a drop in the bucket: that their success will be totemic, their names the ones we point toward as positive case studies on panels about women’s representation in publishing, but not as harbingers of permanent advancement for women who write difficult narratives with complex characters.
Despite successful relationships like these, many female authors still don’t publish into a climate of equality with their male counterparts. Instead, they are pigeonholed into writing sunny narratives about happy female characters, marketed with soft edges for easy digestion. It is not for lack of effort on the authors’ parts: Oprah’s newest book club pick, Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, tackles race, mental illness, and rape; in February, Hogarth, a division of Random House, commissioned a print run of an additional 250,000 copies just to keep up with anticipated demand. Bond’s success story is not the norm, however. Society rejects the notion of women taking on masculine roles, both for writers and their characters, and publishers are often averse to taking risks on unconventional narratives—especially when the tenuous solvency of the market rewards honoring conformity.
“If few solutions can be found on the author’s side, we must then look toward cultural normativity to explain the hostility women experience in the industry.”
The truth is, however, that publishing has marketed difficult, female-written narratives in the past. Joyce Carol Oates, who is both unconventional and popular, has a dedicated fanbase and critical acclaim that many authors, male or female, do not attain. Other, less established writers, however, see how darker themes adversely affect their sales. For example, when all mentions of the central flu pandemic event in AWP panelist Laura McHugh’s 2014 thriller Weight of Blood were stripped from her paperback and the marketing was instead retargeted “toward book clubs,” McHugh’s numbers improved. Instances like this will continue to prompt marketing departments to pink-wash covers and themes, encouraging women writers to continue to fall in line with typically feminine constructions.
If few solutions can be found on the author’s side, we must then look toward cultural normativity to explain the hostility women experience in the industry. Until the current landscape changes, publishing can’t move forward. Many readers do not like to see women portrayed in ways that make them look violent, morally bankrupt, or in roles typically assigned to men. Whether this is a conscious decision or not, consumers resist texts with these themes. During AWP’s “Women Writing Darkness: Villains, Violence, and Unhappy Endings” panel, moderator and author Michelle Hoover quoted from multiple Goodreads reviews of panelists’ novels. Universally, the dark elements within their works—the appearance of a woman as cannibal, another as a bad mother—upset readers, driving them away from the texts. “The main character is awful and everyone she meets along the way is equally awful for being entranced by her. Time to read a nice book not about cannibals please!” one reader wrote.
This issue is not confined to adult fiction, either. In “Young Adult Literature and the Female Body,” Brandy Colbert, author of Pointe, discussed reviewers taking umbrage with her book’s teenage character making youthful mistakes like smoking and drinking, and her portrayal of life as a teen with an eating disorder. Colbert described being floored by the reactions, wondering if reviewers had never been seventeen and imperfect themselves.
If women who are primed to provide unique perspectives on the issue of gender roles in publishing find themselves coming up short for answers, perhaps the industry’s problem is a larger cultural issue. When incredibly powerful women in the publishing—like Schmitz and Graywolf Press’s publisher Fiona McCrae, responsible for putting out Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Eula Biss’s On Immunity in one year—appear on a panel called “Women In Publishing: The Business of Publishing as a Woman Today,” we expect revolutionary answers. That few, if any, were offered provides little hope for the future. Despite having to move mountains in this regard, we seem to be making strides: editors are, indeed, publishing more women. There are more advocates than ever before for ushering uncomfortable subjects into print, pushing back against pink-washed covers while helping to change the sclerotic attitudes women face in publishing literary fiction (versus “women’s fiction”).
Yet, throughout the panel, the discussion addressed a familiar combination of roadblocks and attempts to navigate around them. It becomes hard not to read exasperation across the faces of women like these—or women on any publishing panel, both literary and young adult—or to ignore frustration sometimes manifesting as feminist indignation as voices raise and fingers curl into fists, when nothing new is said. If institutionalized culture dictates that the market is not ready, when will it ever be? How can we open the minds of consumers and humans of any gender, and do it fast? Most frustratingly, how can change happen while ensuring that the publishing industry continues to make enough money to support new authors in the first place?
“If institutionalized culture dictates that the market is not ready, when will it ever be?”
Even if major houses worry about how women writing uncomfortable subjects could affect profit and loss sheets, female writers must continue undeterred. We hope that, in doing so, we slowly change perceptions of what women are able—and allowed—to write. We hope we make some progress. And to a certain extent, it is working: small presses with independent aesthetics that are not as mired in the politics of sales figures are well positioned to make a positive impact. In some instances, they do: a cryptic, experimental book like Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, released by Two Dollar Radio in January about a self-destructive woman with an eating disorder, is now on its third printing with distribution in Urban Outfitters. It sold out at AWP. But looking in one direction is not enough—although we need to be examining the effect that book publishing is having on culture, we need to be critical on the negative effect that culture is having on book publishing, as well.
I want to be wrong in assuming that an entire cultural overhaul is necessary for the industry to take the steps it so desperately needs. I want organizations like VIDA, the group advocating for women in literary arts, to continue showing the scales tipping in favor of women in their yearly counts, and to feel the landscape around me shift as readers—both female and male—embrace authors writing about subjects honestly, regardless of their themes. No one wants to throw up her hands and deem an issue unsolvable. Despite my sentiments, I refuse to. Women need to continue writing about whatever subjects they feel they can pursue authentically, regardless of what the market tells them is acceptable. Agents and editors need to continue championing the important projects that individually propel us forward, even if overall change manifests slowly. We need to focus our attention not only on disrupting staid thinking in publishing, but also changing the cultural climate for women at large.
Meredith Turits is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly, and the senior culture editor at Bustle, where she directs all books coverage. Her fiction and writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Joyland, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @meredithturits.