Sunday, March 26, 2017

Not Reading Women Authors

The under-representation of women authors in publishing and book reviews and the tedious debate of "literary" fiction with a capital "L" versus popular fiction are not new arguments. But something happened to me a few months back that re-shoved my face into the stinky reality that, yes, Life Is Not Fair and for people slugging away at the fine arts it's often flat-out mean.

I've been writing all my life. I started getting singled out for praise by English teachers when I was 11. By the time I was in high school, teachers praising my writing got me bullied. It painted a giant bull's eye on my back. Later, in college, my leftist opinion column in the student newspaper got me stalked by fundamentalist Christians and other, mostly male, critics who thought it was their job to shut me up.

Today in 2017, oh how I long for the halcyon days of unwanted attention and infinitesimal fame.

You see, I took matters into my own hands back in 2015 after years of throwing away hard-earned dollars on entrant fees to: The Missouri Review, The Bellingham Review, Tin House, Fish Publishing, The Boston Review, Zoetrope and dozens of others I can't remember the names of. I did the obscure indy, indy publisher thing (Soft Skull Press). I did Project Greenlight. Twice. Back in 1997, I even "took a meeting" with a Hollywood producer by phone while living in a converted garage next door to meth dealers.

I have been turned down by online publishers as soon as they sussed out I was a "woman" author. In summer 2012 I submitted one of my short stories, Object of Desire, to RedFez.net. I created a profile and listed myself as female. The rejection was quick and condescending. Several months later, after creating a fake profile for "Darren Kennedy" of Boston, Mass., I re-submitted the same story with a different title. RedFez accepted "Darren's" story in less than 48 hours. Understand, this is not new. I've been experiencing the gender apartheid of the literary world for years.

NOT your enemy.

Now I'm on Amazon, the pulp market where all writers go when they run out of contest entrance money and patience. The trouble is, including non-fiction, Amazon publishes roughly a million titles per month. Your fiction writing doesn't drown on Amazon, it disappears under the waves without so much as a ripple.

A year after publishing my short story collection, in between working one full-time and one part-time job, I started on the hamster wheel of self-marketing. I got a Twitter account. I harassed my handful of friends on Facebook for reviews. I got my yoga studio to put copies of my book in their lobby.

And neither is she.
 And then I read about a former instructor of mine in Seattle. I want to emphasize: he's a nice guy. I enjoyed his class and he had a wonderful collection of stories gleaned from years of reading The New Yorker. He turned me on to Lorrie Moore for which I am grateful.

He's published two novels, sold the film rights to one and done readings all over the country. His Amazon author's page is a sea of positive reviews. Last I checked, his first novel has over 29 five-star reviews. And these reviews are from the likes of Garth Stein.

My first thought when I saw the plethora of reviews was: How? Did he pay them, buy them lunch, dog sit? Did his publicist have sex with them?

But then he is a man. He is white. He is hetero, has the prescribed two kids and a wife. He's also about 15 years younger than me.

Here are some other things he has that I do not: a bachelor's degree from a prestigious eastern college and, of course, he has an MFA. He has run workshops, one of which I attended. He teaches creative writing in public schools part-time.

In 2012, I tried to get a job as a front desk clerk at the same writer's collective he teaches workshops at. It was answering phones and directing people to the right classroom. Over 170 people applied for this front desk job. They picked a young, white guy who was finishing his MFA to answer the phone.

A couple months back, this nice guy, this published author, won an artist's grant for $10,000. He had been applying for it for several years. He was interviewed in a Seattle weekly paper. He talked about misconceptions people have about published authors, like how they're all rolling in dough. He works multiple part-time jobs here and there but they are in his chosen field -- a luxury I've never come close to experiencing. He then mentioned that the ten grand would not cover a year of child care for one of his kids.

I can't even wrap my head around the sum of $10,000 but then I've been using food banks to fill my fridge off and on for several years. Every other week I have to decide what to do with five pounds of raw cauliflower, a bucket of cottage cheese and no garlic. Recipes, anyone?

I want to not criticize, but Jesus-fucking-Christ-on-a-cracker you won a literary artist's grant during a time when over half the bookstores in America are gone, most publishing companies have disappeared, fiction readership has sunk to a new low and MFA applicants like this young woman are saying they don't want to become "beach read" authors. In fact, she would rather go un-published than become airport fiction, popular literature, or yes, the ultimate put-down "chick lit."

Well, fuck that.

After decades (I'm 51) of working endless temp jobs to keep a roof over my head, I'd happily join the ranks of E. L. James or Stephenie Meyers. I'd give my left tit for one-tenth the financial success that either of these women have achieved just to be able to pay off the inch-deep stack of bills on my desk, move to a nicer apartment or, quit my day job and become a for-real writer. Who cares if they write about sparkly vampires or four-hour sodomy sessions. The point is, they're writing and they have readers. They have enough readers to fill the convention center in Seattle to overflowing. In the end, pop fiction writers are doing what all writers, if we have half a brain, should be doing -- they're getting their stuff read. I will never jump on the Hate Wagon for James or Meyers. They understand that writing, like everything in our consumer society, is a business and they're good at it.

I suspect 20 years from now, nobody will remember my former instructor or his two published books. Holographic screens, direct brain feeds, whatever we're using in 2037, will not carry his writing. But people will know who the two most hated female authors of the last 10 years are just as we know of Charles Dickens. Or Harper Lee. Or Danielle Steele.

Or Jo Rowling.

If you're a man and you write book reviews and/or you're a published author you don't need to be a misogynist to keep women shut out of literature. You probably don't have a bigoted bone in your frumpy Hipster body.

If, like my former instructor who won the grant, you have a daughter, you probably have contemplated the idea that her life might be a tad harder than yours. The hurdles and obstacles laid out for her may be more numerous and higher than the ones you've encountered. You'll contemplate this possibility ... and then you'll forget about it and go back to re-reading David Foster Wallace, Brett Easton Ellis or Jack Kerouac. And you will continue to unconsciously do what you've been doing all along: not reading women authors and, by example, encourage others to do the same.

1 comment:

Georgette Graham said...

I won't defend Stephanie Meyer or EL James. Their writing really is tht bad. But, you make an interesting point about how vomit-inducing writing by men does not inspire the same hate that terrible writing by women does. You're also right that publishers are not looking for quality books. They are looking for a product that they can market and sell. It is a business, after all.