Is Sexism in Publishing a Double-edged Sword?

I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. ― Virginia Woolf

In the same way that some people enjoy reading memoirs or biographies about famous writers, I enjoy reading books about publishers. My most recent find is Woolf’s Head Publishing: The Highlights and New Lights of the Hogarth Press. It is a beautifully-designed book that catalogues the surprisingly diverse range of titles published by feminist writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard during the early twentieth century. As every fan of Virginia Woolf knows, she wrote a great deal about how difficult it was to be a female writer during her time. In fact, the struggle of women trying to make it in a man’s world forms the central theme in many of her novels so it’s gratifying to see how she simply forged ahead and started her own press, and quite successfully too. She did not allow her gender to become an issue.

In a previous blog post I mentioned a proposal to publish an anthology of writing by Luso North American women. It triggered an angry email from a reader who insisted a women-only anthology was sexist and demeaning. Her point was that niche themes based on gender or ethnicity were putting up roadblocks to that Utopian future in which full equality will reign and people will be judged by the quality of their writing and not by their gender, race or ethnicity. Okay, I get it, I really do. After all, I too was incensed by Wikipedia’s segregation of American women novelists earlier this year. In my defense, my reasons for wanting to do this anthology are simple: As an emerging independent publisher, anthologies would be a way to develop a community of writers who may go on to produce more polished work in future—I’d be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, and nurturing the development of new authors. The anthology’s niche theme—writing by Luso North American women— would allow for the book to be specifically targeted to my audience, primarily members of the Luso North American community. Lastly, I enjoy working with women.

I was quite chagrined by the woman’s email until I came across her comment on another blog later that day about the Vida count in which she accuses the publishing industry of intentionally offering more publishing opportunities to male writers. Whaaat? I guess I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

According to VIDA and CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), there appears to be a bias, borne out by startling statistics, against women publishing in North America. What’s so difficult about addressing sexism in publishing is that you often can’t point to a deliberate decision or unscrupulous motive on the part of those in the literary industry. There are too many moving parts—agents, editors, publishers, publicists and the sales team—between the author and their potential reader. In addition, why would there be a conspiracy against women writers? First and foremost, publishing is a business. Publishers are looking for books that will capture an audience, books that will sell—regardless of the author’s gender. In Forbes’ newly released list of the world’s highest-paid authors, women took three out of the top five positions. Furthermore, there are a number of successful women-only publishing houses like Virago, Perugia Press, Alice James Books, Artemis Press, Paris Press and Second Story Press. And yet, I do believe women writers continue to get short thrift in the publishing industry. It’s subtle but I’ve experienced it. Sexism in publishing exists.

The whole issue of discrimination against women writers is a prickly topic, that it makes me rather nervous to even voice an opinion in case a lynch e-mob appears but I’m curious: if a woman publisher decides to put out a book composed of pieces by Luso North American women writers, is she helping the cause or contributing to a double-whammy marginalization of a minority group?

One thought on “Is Sexism in Publishing a Double-edged Sword?

  1. Men head most of the publishing companies and literary magazines here in Toronto. Publishers tend to favor their friends and those in their social circles. Ergo, male writers have an immediate advantage. We need more female publishers, and more women reviewing books by women, if we’re going to see parity in the CWILA count.

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