Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Finding the best women's writing ...

Donna Tartt just won the Pulitzer for "The Goldfinch." The book clubs were already reading her.
Are you also aware of Zadie Smith, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx and Lorrie Moore? Claire Messud, Dorothy Allison, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro?
Theirs are contemporary voices  with whom we should be familiar. They display a wide range of brilliance and insight into the emotions and lives they reveal.
Yet, beyond those women we studied in high school or college—dwelling within a list dominated by male writers—too few readers are aware of female writers, contemporary or not, beyond Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, the Brontes and Jane Austen.
Book clubs do their part, but does the general public read modern women writers—aside from those who write mysteries, romances and self-help books? There are doubts, and they're pinned on gender disparity in the literary review and book promotion process. While romance writers are acknowledged as being super self-promoters, writers in non-specific genres, like literary fiction, memoir or women's fiction, are having to learn those ropes. The industry has let them down, and so have the critics.
For all that women comprise a huge sector of the reading public, there's a significant gap between male and female writers in the areas of recognition, criticism, and—in some magazines and journals—publication, whether of fiction or nonfiction.
This reality contrasts shamefully with the high proportion of female readership and book club membership. Women may be great readers, but when it comes to how they're viewed in the literary world, respect is lagging.
Argue what you will, the numbers don't lie.
Vida, an organization for women in literary fields, completed a three-year evaluation that revealed the disparity in 2013: while publication rates are roughly equal, far fewer books written by women are reviewed at literary publications, such as the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. They, and other publications purporting to serve the reading world, use a notably smaller percentage of women reviewers as well. (Susan Sontag and Dorothy Parker, whose reviews were sparkling, are gone, though fiction author Joyce Carol Oates and historical writer Doris Kearns Goodwin are still active reviewers.
According to the study, women are not represented more than 25 percent (often less) at  respected magazines like Harper's, the Paris Review and the Times Literary Supplement. (Interestingly, the Boston Review achieved near-equal ratio of female to male authors reviewed. Kudos.)
Vida's study is engendering change. With the recent addition of more women to the editing staffs at major publications, such as The Atlantic and the New York Times Book Review, we are apt to see better representation. Others are following suit; the National Book Critics Circle is making gender equity a focus—for how long, we'll see.
Do a quick survey with male and female friends. What percentage of books by women do you read? Ask male friends or spouses. You may be surprised. Some people read male authors far more often. This may only be because of awareness: although the awards process often recognize female excellence, the promotion and reviewing barrier remains high.
The upshot of all this has been the birth of a grassroots effort to promote publication of women authors, as well as more reading of their work, both here and in Great Britain, where the ratio is similar. Numerous groups are exploring the idea. At #Readwomen2014, a Twitter exploration started in England by Joanna Walsh allows followers to endorse books written by women and alerts them to literary festivals celebrating female authors this year. Several American literary journals, such as Glitter Train, have announced a focus on female contributions to literature during 2014. Male editors are among those prioritizing a better look at women writers. Libraries and book festivals are joining in the year's dedication by including segments dedicated to reading more books by women. Blogger Michelle Dean at Flavorwire even lists 50 books written by women for others to read.
By the way, for a straightforward, amusing look at gender perception, consider Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender."

Area book groups:

The evening Classics Book Group will discuss Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd" at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, May 22, in Gale Free Library's program room. On June 26, a poetry share is planned.

Carrie Grimshaw, director at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library in West Brookfield, says the book group there will discuss Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle," at 4 p.m., May 29 and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Solzhenitsyn at 4 p.m., June 26.

Crawford Library in Dudley's book group meets June 5 to discuss "Becoming Finola" by Suzanne Strempek Shea.

For traveling book groups: 
Mac Griswold, author of "The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island," will be guest author at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, 77 Forest St., Hartford, Conn. The free event  begins at 7 p.m., June 25. Sylvester Manor has been in the same family for 11 generations, and "The Manor" is its story, steeped in both family history and the slavery era. Griswold is a historian and author who writes for several publications, including The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal and "Travel & Leisure." Register at 860-522-9258, ext. 317.

Your ideas and comments are welcome at