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?

The Keeper of Sheep

How Not to be a Sheep

When I sit down to write a poem
Or when ambling along the main roads and bypaths,
I write lines on the paper of my thoughts,
I feel the staff in my hands
And glimpse an outline of myself
On top of some low-lying hill,
Watching over my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or watching over my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely like one who doesn’t understand
what’s said
And likes to pretend he does.
(an excerpt from The Keeper of Sheep by Fernando Pessoa)

One day, say ten years ago, after reading My Darling Dead Ones by Erica de Vasconcelos, you have this brilliant crazy idea: I’m going to start a press publishing works by Portuguese Canadian writers!

Okay, more crazy than brilliant.

You mention the idea of this press to several colleagues, editors and instructors and publishers (mostly men, all 3rd or 4th generation Canadian), who express similar qualms – are there enough writers in the Portuguese immigrant community to warrant such a press, is there even an audience for this type of literature –and who question the labelling, concerned it might move you into the ghetto of “ethnic literature,” the death stamp in mainstream publishing.  Chastened and disappointed, you fold the idea into a small origami sheep and slide it into the darker recesses of your mind. You think, maybe some day…

A few years go by. You move from being an editor and publicist at a small publishing house to running a provincial writers’ organization, and then later, producing large-scale literary events. You do your best to organize and promote writers of ethnicity but you can’t help but notice how, too often, they’re treated like the black sheep of publishing, demoted to the sidelines by their publishers while others get top billing. You see how ethnic writers, in particular, do a lot of asking—asking to be heard, asking to be included, asking to belong, asking for validation. You think, Is this fair?

You’re invited to sit in at a meeting where members of the literary industry in Vancouver are discussing how best to lobby the provincial government to include Canadian literature in the teaching curriculum at British Columbian universities. Titles by Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, W.P. Kinsella, Alice Munro, Farley Mowat and Margaret Laurence, among others, are proposed, and you find yourself thinking, wait a second, all of those books are written by “old, white people” and describe environments unfamiliar to Canadians who grow up in bilingual, bicultural immigrant households.  Shouldn’t those students read books that reflect their lives as well? You speak up. “What about books by immigrant writers or First Nations?” Your comment is received with blank stares so you repeat yourself, only to hear, “Well, we should start with books by Canadian authors first,” leaving you, rarely, at a loss for words.  And you think, This is bullshit.

But then something changes. Another novel by a Portuguese Canadian writer is released to great fanfare. You come across books by Frank Gaspar and Katherine Vaz and interviews with Vamberto Freitas and Onesímo Almeida.  You attend the first annual Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon and discover there are people like you, and more amazingly, there are hundreds more, who did not attend the conference for one reason or another, back home.  You’re not alone. And that perhaps it’s time to bring that brilliant crazy idea of yours out to join the rest of the flock.

****

At a recent publishing workshop, the instructor discussed market share, demographics and targeting readers via niche publishing.  He turned to me and asked, “How many readers are there in the Portuguese North American community? Five thousand? Three thousand?”

My immediate answer was to laugh. “3000? More like 300.” Afterwards, I realized I was not only flippant, but clearly mistaken about the low number.  A scarcity of readers may have been the case ten years ago but in the last two years alone, I’ve witnessed a sea change in the Luso North American literary community.

Thanks, in part, to the Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon, a growing community of writers are finding their voice, and escaping isolation, insularity and obscurity. Other initiatives engaging and promoting Luso North American writers have included websites, Facebook groups, reading events, workshops and panels at the AWP.

My only concern is that the Luso North American literary community, which is small, appears to be dominated by male writers, male editors…and male publishers.  And unlike Frank Sousa of Tagus Press and Onesímo Almeida of Gávea-Brown, I’m neither an academic nor an authority on Luso North American literature; I’m learning as I go along, supported and motivated, in large part, by the readers of this blog and by an online community also eager to see change and progress.

In spite of these reservations, or perhaps, because of them (Canucky rebel that I am!), I’m moving forward. There have been a few missteps along the way to be sure. One, I’ve had to change the original name of my publishing venture in order to avoid potential confusion with a long-established publisher on the east coast.  Two, I underestimated how much time I would end up devoting to the first book, an anthology of Portuguese Canadian writing, due to launch this fall—a year later than my original publishing date.  Three, I had assumed that people would be throwing manuscripts at me once they learned of my plans, but that didn’t happen, at least not initially.

It’s changed recently. A respected Luso American author has contacted me regarding the reprinting of his first novel, and I’ve been awarded the rights to translate and publish a children’s book by a Lisbon author. A Portuguese Canadian poet is interested in sending me his manuscript, and a proposal to publish an anthology of Luso North American women is in the works. Things are picking up. But again, a colleague asked, “How large is YOUR market?”

Well, I still don’t know. I have a rough idea of the numbers, pulled from databases like BookScan, but in the end, I’m not going to know until the first few books are out there, in your hands, in the hands of the people who care about the same things I do.

I have faith in my own talents as a new publisher, but more importantly, I have a greater faith in the talents of an emerging group of writers coming out of the Luso North American literary community. Faith, too, that there is an audience for books written by writers with a Luso-North American perspective.

Oh, and the name of my small origami sheep? Fidalgo.