Uh-oh. The year’s “great books” lists have begun. Female authors have put on our literary heels and danced backward as well as we can, but it looks again like we’re going to be left tapping our toes to the music while male writers dance on the best books lists once again. TheNew York Times just published its year’s notable books list – containing three times as many books written by men as by women.
Admittedly, 25% representation has women faring better in literature than we do in some other important places. Women constitute only 17% of the Senate and less than 3% of Fortune 500 Company CEOs. So perhaps we shouldn’t complain. And we certainly shouldn’t be surprised. A book the Times included on the list but didn’t review is the rare exception, and last year, the number of books written by men the Times reviewed outweighed those by women by almost two to one.
Could it be that women just don’t write as well as men? And yet the winner of latest Pulitzer Prize for fiction is notably female, as were three of the four winners of this year’s National Book Awards. Four of the five NBA finalists in fiction were women, while only twelve could be found for the more extensive Times list.
It isn’t just The New York Times, either. The New Yorker. Harper’s. The Atlantic. They all reviewed substantially more books written by men than by women.
Our ideas of who we are and who we should be are shaped by the media, and yet those who shape the media often don’t even realize the gender stereotyping they perpetuate.
The Geena Davis institute on Gender in Media found that in G-rated movies there are three male characters for every one female one, with most of the female characters stereotyped and/or hyper-sexualized. Female aspirations were almost exclusively romance, while male goals almost never were. And the top occupation for females? Royalty. Yet studio representatives and writers were surprised at the study results.
Think about how that shapes your daughters. Think about how it shapes your sons.
Studies also show that the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life; the more a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.
The fact of the matter is few readers think about the gender of the authors who write the books they read. But the ways we learn about books, largely from the attention they get in the media, including through lists like these — shape not just our reading choices, but the very idea of what constitutes good literature. One message the elevation of books written by men communicates is that the male story is more important than the female one.
I don’t mind dancing backward and in high heels, but I’m not sure I want to read or write that way. Do you? - Meg
Meg Waite Clayton is the bestselling author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, now out in hardcover and coming in paperback next month, and other novels and shorter works.