The blogger Biblibio posted a call to arms in this December 9th post Where In the World Are Women Writers? and the follow-up Women in translation – responses. After informally crunching the numbers he/she came to the conclusion that less than 30% of the literature translated into English is written by women. After reviewing my reading history I came up with results that were startlingly similar. Leading to the obvious question: What the hell is going on?!
I can’t speak for the publishing world as a whole, but I can unequivocally state that I do not seek out male over female authors. Keeping that in mind I went back and tried to determine how the books I read this last year first came to my attention. The result was a mixed bag of publishers, podcasters, book critics, bloggers, booksellers and Goodreads. In other words, useless.
But, just when I was getting my indignation on in defense of the feminine gender, it was brought to my attention by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 Open Book Podcast that the majority of literary prizes in English for 2012-2013 were won by women authors. Alice Monro (Nobel), Hilary Mantel (too many to list), Lydia Davis (Man Booker International), Eleanor Catton (Man Booker), Angela Jackson (Edinburgh Festival First Book)… you can see the entire list on the Open Book website. In fact, women have made a strong showing overall on the long and short lists of all the major English language literary prizes this past year.
Obviously, this doesn’t in any way refute or reverse Biblibio’s findings. Yet it does reinforce my belief that this disparity is not happening intentionally. Publishers care about selling books and publishing good literature (hopefully not in that order). It’s doubtful that they have any investment (emotional or otherwise) in an author’s gender. My hope is that what we are dealing with is residual gender bias from the 20th century… a habit easily kicked if readers are willing to make the effort. And more importantly, if those of us who review are willing to get the word out. Because if they sell publishers will take notice.
Case in point: who knew that the Scandinavians were so into crime (or, let’s face it, could name the 3 Scandinavian countries off the top of their head?) before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Now, I realize that in some circles “quotas” is a dirty word. But they have frequently been proven effective. So I propose this informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers: in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women – and then review them. The review part is key. Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.
Hmmm… this could merit a hashtag. Something I’m terrible at. Anyone?
This year my personal goal is to read and review 52 books – one per week. Half by women. I intend to alternate – every book by a male author will be followed by a female author, and vice versa. With a modicum of planning this shouldn’t be difficult to implement.
Until I started actively seeking books in translation I had no idea of the incredible literature from around the world I’d been missing out on. Now I look at my bookshelves and see authors whose names, three years ago, I didn’t know. I can’t wait to see who gets added in the year ahead.