Sam Cooney

When I was young and getting really stuck in to reading, I thought Enid Blyton was a man. I’m not sure why, I just did. Sure, now I know Enid is a girl’s name, but to eight-or-nine-year-old me it wasn’t. I just never bore it in mind; it wasn’t important in relation to the enjoyment of the words. It’s not like the child me ever thought to take his nose out of the pages in order to dissect characters like Moon-Face and The Saucepan Man in respect of the accuracy of the representations of their sex, nor did I ruminate on whether the topography of the Faraway Tree or of Greatheart was in any way even slightly gendered, and I didn’t contemplate whether the language was masculine or feminine, as it was just words telling me about worlds that weren’t mine. Enid Blyton was simply Enid Blyton, the creator of wondrous stories that I liked to read. Indeed, it wasn’t until my late teens when in one of those unforgettably cringeworthy moments that are as indelible in memory as tattoos are on skin—I think we were having a nouveau-nostalgic and no doubt overly earnest discussion of childhood literary loves—that I used the pronoun ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ to wax lyrical about Blyton, and found myself the focus of smirking incredulity. Embarrassing!

Of course, a young kid today who isn’t sure what he or she is reading has all the information of the world at their fingertips; mysteries are disappearing. A young reader of Blyton now can just open their browser and type and point and click, and any unknowns quickly become knowns. If they want to break it down even further they can then take their e-reader and copy and paste a section of a Secret Seven or Famous Five book into one of the myriad gender tests available on the internet, like The Gender Genie, and, already knowing that Enid Blyton is a woman of such-and-such disposition born in this place with this-and-that awards, see if Blyton also writes in a feminine way. This particular test, inspired by a 2003 article in The New York Times Magazine, uses an algorithm developed by a university in Israel to predict the gender of an author:

‘…what the gender-identifying algorithm picks up on is that women are apparently far more likely than men to use personal pronouns — ”I,” ”you” and ”she” especially. Men, on the other hand, prefer so-called determiners — ”a,” ”the,” ”that,” ”these” — along with numbers and quantifiers like ”more” and ”some.” What this suggests, according to Moshe Koppel, an author of the Israeli project, is that women are more comfortable talking or thinking about people and relationships, while men prefer to contemplate things.’ (quote from here)

Now, I’m inclined to think that ‘tests’ such as this just add to the cacophony and confusion, especially when they want to separate female and male writers simply by the pronouns and determiners they employ. I think it widens the divisions and shines the spotlight onto writers, when it should really be focused on where the problems are: with publishers and the media.

Earlier this year the relatively new website VIDAweb.org (Women in Literary Arts) released its tallies on publications with book coverage in 2010. For complete figures please click through to the site, but here is a small example:

Boston Review reviewed 41 books by men and 14 by women; Harper’s, 46-21; London Review of Books, 195-68; New York Review of Books, 306-59; Sunday New York Times Book Review, 524-283; and the London Times Literary Supplement, 1,036-330.

Pretty shocking, right? Or maybe not, maybe you’re more tuned in than me. In any case, there has been plenty of discussion, dispute and trolling about this topic aroundabout the internet. It has prompted many editors to come out and make a statement about the issue, and also address any imbalances within their own publications; locally, Stephen Romei (ALR), Jeff Sparrow (Overland) and Johannes Jakob (Voiceworks) have all commented on it. And some of the wider confab has been illuminating, however the most interesting revelations have been those that explain that however shameful any external figures seem to be, the real problem almost always comes down to supply, and not to demand. Umpteen editors and others in the know have made clear that as far as book reviewing and publishing male authors’ writing goes, there are always more men to choose from. And it’s consistently the case around the world. Publishing houses publish more men, article pitches or submissions by men outnumber those by women sometimes two or three to one, and the same goes for book reviewers putting their hands up.

So, does all this mean that there a systemic problem? My first answer is Yes, but then my second answer is I Don’t Know. There are so many factors as to why the balance is skewed towards male authors and writers, some of which make sense to me, and some of which don’t. Do I want to a fairer representation of women in literary culture (and in all culture, and in everything, really, except maybe Ultimate Fighting, but I don’t watch Ultimate Fighting anyway, and I suppose if women want to smash each other to pieces then I’m for that too)? Yes. Do I think women write equally as good as men? Yes. Do I want wholesale changes to occur just because they should? I’m not sure. Maybe. Probably, but in a way that means we publish even better writing because we include women more, and not the other way around.

Of course, nothing can excuse people like V.S. Naipaul, who apparently believes that no woman writer has ever been or ever will be as good a writer as he is. I’m not sure, I’ve never read him, but I sure know now that I’m not ever going to try and find out. (Additionally, Naipaul also claimed that, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” This is horseshit not only because it’s sexist, but also for the fact that he disparages the imaginative capacity of the human brain to adopt and create other personae, which is what he is self-claimedly great at. Anyway, the Guardian has fashioned a mini test in which you can see whether you can pick the sex of the author. Fun, and frivolous, and I know you’re tempted.)

Publications like the New Yorker also cannot be excused for gender inequality, not with the hordes of writers (obviously including thousands of women) who would sell their body parts to be published within its pages. One reader/writer took umbrage earlier this year at the huge disparity in a couple of issues of the magazine, and made her umbrage public. I haven’t followed it up yet, but I hope we see more of the same from people like Anne Hays if we see more of the same from publications like the Nu Yawka.

The steering crew that is pushing for an all-female alternative to the Miles Franklin is one group that is spot on in its response to similar inequality. There’s been a long-held concern that the Miles Franklin has been skewed towards a certain type of novel, with male authors often being the beneficiaries, and in recent years the gender imbalance has become too one-sided to ignore. (I promise I won’t use the phrase ‘sausage-fest’, not once, I promise.) As Adam Robinson poses on just about my favourite literary website, HTMLGiant, “What careers stalled because gender bias plays a role in preventing a writers’ work from reaching a national audience?” The provisionally named ‘Stella’ prize is part combative, which is fine and necessary, but more so it promises to be forward looking and celebratory, and this is where its merit lies. The Stella prize will hold up female authors not because they are female, but because they are really great writers. If you have a problem with that, then you have a problem, that’s for sure.

I feel a bit envious and also wistful when I think back to the naïve me who didn’t care if Enid Blyton was a man or a woman or an infinite number of monkeys. I can’t read like that today, even if I want to, because I know more now, about more. I very rarely if ever read a book without thinking about why I’m reading it first, and considerations of male and female and masculine and feminine factors are all part and parcel. It bugs me. Indeed, some of the most unencumbered and instinctive reading I’ve done in the past few years has been when I’ve had to read ‘blind’—without knowing the name or any other details about the author—when selecting pieces for inclusion in a lit journal or when judging short story competitions. But then I also realise that on the flipside is the fact that I really like investigating an author before and after I read their book/s.

Ultimately though, my reading habits are pretty awful. As far as novels go, I read mostly male authors: not consciously, but I do. I felt a large amount of respect for Emmett Stinson not only when he called himself out on his reviewing/reading discrepancies, but also when he then took steps (and is still taking them) to rectify the situation. Me, I share a similar literary imbalance to Stinson, but I haven’t made nearly as much effort to renovate my tendencies. I think part of the reason is that I can’t seem to pinpoint why I almost only read male novelists; what makes this more confounding is that so much of my favourite reading that isn’t of novels—on the internet, in short stories anthologies or collections, and so on—is written by women. Have I simply become blinkered by years of being a boy reading boys? Do I feel like I’m taking more of a risk if I choose to read a female novelist? Maybe a little from column a, a little from column b, and maybe there’s more to it too. I’m not sure, but I do know that I owe it to myself and to the various literary industries to consciously and conscientiously ensure that I am paying attention to who and what I am reading.

We live in a world where Esquire can publish a list of 75 books every man should read and only one female author—Flannery O’Connor, who writes what you could call ‘man-friendly’ prose—is featured. Pretty gross. But then Jezebel has done the same thing, but in reverse, and there’s hardly a hombre in sight. My point? For every argument there’s a counter-argument, and then a counter-argument, down to infinity. But it’s all good arguing, because collectively it encourages change. And change is happening: whatever gender imbalances occur right now, if you compare them to five, fifteen, fifty or five hundred years ago, it’s obvious things are on the up. It doesn’t mean that the vanguard should ease up, but it does mean that maybe some sort of end is in sight.

And now that I’ve taken up your time and this blog post to cogitate about the issue, both broadly and personally, I’ve gotta say that change is happening within me too. I can dilly dally about it, but the simple fact is that right now I am missing out on great literature by being so passive. And so I’ve just gone and ordered myself two novels: one by Jean Rhys, one by Sheila Heti. They mightn’t be in the same league as Clive Cussler or Lee Child, but I’m sure I’ll be okay.

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