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The Miss Muffet Chronicles

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Okay, I apologize for the title at the outset.  I’ve just woken up.  I haven’t got enough caffeine in me yet.  And the day is going to be really horrible–and could be worse than that.

But here’s the issue.

A woman named Barbara Fister–who writes mysteries published by SMP, and who is a librarian–has posted to Facebook a link to an article at The New Republic about gender bias in the reviewing of books.  The article is here, if you want to read it:


I will admit that I don’t generally pay attention to things like this, because I tend to think that they’re silly.  Publishing is one of the most woman-heavy professions available.  Women are editors, senior editors, publishers, publicists, writers, copyeditors, agents, reviwers  and even best sellers in numbers large enough to make the feminization of the field over the last thirty years fairly obvious to anybody who spends any time in it.

What’s more is that the great virtue of capitalism is that companies out to make money don’t usually give a damn if the people who make it for them are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or trolls who normally live underground at Mount Vesuvius.  If you sell 25,000 copies in hardcover, you’ll get published, and you’ll get reviewed.  If you sell 100,000 or more, they’ll turn you into a movie star.  Sell like, say, J.K. Rowling–the single best selling author in the world today, and obviously female–and they’ll make you a god.



I have no idea if women are represented in equal numbers among the writers and reviewers of American fiction these days.  I do know that if they are not, it’s unlikely that the issue is gender bias. 

I would say there is a certain get-no-respect factor, but I’m not sure if that’s gender bias either.  In mystery fiction, for instance, women tend to be associated with cozies.  But cozies are very often badly written books, and would be no matter who read them.  And women who write better crime fiction–from Kathy Reichs to Laura Lippmann to P.D. James–get all the respect that anybody could ever want or need.

Well, okay.  No.  There’s never enough.  I get that.

But you see what I mean. 

It’s also true that the most woman-heavy genre of all–romance–gets the least respect of all, but it’s also true it’s the genre with the largest percentage of really bad books, and the only one that forces a large percentage of its writers into the straitjacket of a “tip sheet.” 

So I’m fairly sure that, if there is gender disproportion in the publishing of modern American fiction, it does not result from gender bias in any straightforward definition of that term.  It’s not entirely possible that we are all subconsciously programmed to recoil at the sight of a woman’s name on a book, but I don’t know how we’d test for that.

Now, I will admit that part of the reason why I don’t read articles like the one Barbara Fister posted is that these things–the realities of women in the publishing world I’ve known for 30 years–seem so obvious to me that I can’t understand how anybody could fail to notice them without being terminally addled. 

It was a good thing I read this one, though, because there was a good reason why the writer of it couldn’t recognize the realities I saw.

She couldn’t recognize them, because she wasn’t looking at them.

And, in fact, neither was anybody else connected to the project she was discussing.

The first thing the writer of this article did was to exclude all genre fiction from consideration.  Then she proceeded to exclude all fiction that was “obviously commercial.”

I’m not talking about cook books and self help books and that kind of thing.  She later excluded those, too, but given what it was she was trying to prove, she had a point there.

But by restricting “publishing and reviewing fiction” to “publishing and reviewing self-consciously literary fiction,”  she changed the very industry she was claiming to examine. 

Literary fiction in the United States today is not only a separate genre–and it is, by and large, a genre–but is as well a separate industry, distinctly apart from the rest of publishing and running by very different rules.

In what I think of as “normal publishing,” a writer writes what matters to her in the way she thinks works best, and a publisher publishes because she believes the book can find an audience.  Then the book goes out into the world.  Then the book goes out into the world.  Everybody but the writer forgets it ever existed.  It does or does not find an audience.  The writer publishes another book, or doesn’t.  The publisher publishes that book or doesn’t.   The agents all get heartburn.

I’m the first to say that publishers are lame to cringingly awful at knowing how to sell books.  Authors are often left to try to market their books themselves.  Publishers often pick “surefire best sellers” that crash dismally in the stores and mark their writers as one more career wrecked by a million dollar advance.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been the kind of writer who tries to push for more and more advance money irrespective of how well I’m earning out.  

On the other hand, I’m not sure that all the publicity in the world will really sell books.  There’s certainly a way to manufacture a best seller–once or twice for an author.  Because if the author whose sales are artifically inflated turns out not to be writing what anybody wants to read, she will in the long run crash and burn.

The writing and publishing of literary fiction is not like this.

For one thing, it has an established credentialing system.  Writers of popular fiction, genre or otherwise, do all kinds of things before they sit down to write their books.  They’re insurance salesmen and housewives and librarians and engineers and just people who like to read and think they’ve got something they can try out on computer.

For literary fiction, and for a reviewing spot on one of the magazines or journals that review such fiction, the path is much narrower.  Solid majorities of present day literary writers have been through one of the writing programs.  The Iowa MFA is the best, but there are plenty of others around these days.  Agents who handle literary fiction and editors interested in publishing it know these programs and are regular participants in the endless “writer’s conferences” they stage. So are the editors of the little magazines that usually provide the first platform for such writers in print.

If o\you are a literary writer who has never been published and wants to be, your best chance it to get into one of these programs and show your work to the visiting editors who come through every once in a while looking for new talent.

And if you want to get into one of these programs, your best chance is to have a very particular kind of undergraduate experience–the Ivies are nice, but even better are the small, pricey liberal arts colleges with reputation for being serious about the quality of education.  Smith and Wellesley.  Kenyon and Swarthmore. 

And yes, okay, Vassar, because I have to own up to my own.

Most of you by now know where I’m going with this, so I won’t be coy.  What is going on here is not a gender bias, but a class bias–with class defined not as the income bracket from which your family came but as a set of attitudes, tastes and experience shared among a cohesively comprehensible set of people.

Because the trick is this:  if you go this route, you can be sure that the editors who buy your work and the reviewers who review it will have virtually the same educational background, the same tastes in everything from music to what to drink with dinner, and the same life experiences in general. 

If you go this route, you major in English at Swarthmore, go for an MFA at Iowa, have your worked looked at by visiting editors from Granta and then published there, have your work discussed at editorial meetings of little magazines and literary journals until there’s a “buzz,” meet your agent at the Christmas party at the The Kenyon Review, sell your first book to an editor at Knopf who knew your agent’s roommate when they were both at Breadloaf, and get your book reviewed by a guy who was one of four English majors at Vassar before he moved to New York and went to work for serious magazines.

Okay, I’m being snarky, and I admit it.

I’ve got nothing against colleges like Swarthmore and Kenyon, I went to one.  I even majored in English.

My point, though, remains, and that is that we have erected an institutional framework for “literary fiction” in this country that is very good at making sure certain people get published and make a living at it, but that is really, really bad at producing writers who will be, in any sense at all, “important” in the long run.

It is also an institutional structure that must be negotiated like any other bureaucratic career path.

And that means that it attracts people with personalities congenial to such a career path.

And that career path is almost certainly likely to get you fewer women on any level than would have been there with a looser, less rationalized route to success. 

It’s also likely to get you a lot of excruciatingly boring, determinedly mediocre books.

Look, let’s make a little sense here.

First, women tend to get derailed on their march toward careers more than men do, for a number of reasons not all of which are “sexism.” 

Second, the chief problem with bureaucratized career paths to writing “literature” is that they force the potential writer into a narrow, myopic, self-referential world whose paramenters start to look like “truth” because none of the people inside them knows anything about what goes on in the outside world.

The old cliche about writers “learning about life” by taking off on a tramp steamer might have been silly, but it was a better paradigm for what it takes to be a good writer than three years in the Iowa Masters of Fine Arts program. 

Jonathan Franzen, Ann Beattie, Sue Miller, Alice Hoffmann all write beautiful, perfectly crafted prose, but they all seem to be writing about the same people doing the same things.  And what’s worse, when they do try to venture out into the world of convenience store clerks, local trash collection businessmen and people who go to Die Hard movies, they all seem to meet the same stereotypical stock types.  Everyday office workers are alienated and deeply disastified with their lives.  People who work at McDonald’s are either brain dead stupid or else sad sack cases of people who got degrees in Slavic Literature and couldn’t find a job.   Even people who say they believe in God don’t really.  People who are dedicated to religion are hypocrites, lusters after power, or worse.

No work of modern literary fiction will ever give you a world in which God exists as a real presence, or where businessmen live satisfying and fulfilling lives, or where working class people have good and cogent reasons (not racism, not stupidity) to identify with the Tea Party.

For better of for worse, the last forty years have seen American literary fiction become a hothouse genre with not only limited appeal–these are, after all, the people who think “accessibility” is a problem–but with limited scope as well.

Part of the reason I’m not worried about a lack of gender equity in the writing, publishing and reviewing of these books–assuming such lack of gender equity actually exists–is that I think they’re largely irrelevant to the writing and reading in America today, or any other day.

A hundred years from now, people may still be reading Stephen King, of J.K. Rowling.  They will not be reading Jonathen Franzen or Ann Beattie.

Popular fiction produces a lot of total crap, but it does that for the same reason Babe Ruth held the all-time records for most strike-outs as well as most home runs.

You can’t hit a home run unless you swing at the ball, and most of the chances you take will turn out badly.

American literary fiction stopped taking swings at chancy balls a long time ago.

Written by janeh

February 8th, 2011 at 9:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'The Miss Muffet Chronicles'

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  1. I try to follow Yogi Bera on this one. (“Never make predictions–especially about the future.”) Still, King and Rowling are reasonable guesses. Looking from, say, Austen to Tolkien, the “normal” pattern seems to be a J-curve. The successful authors and books were immensely successful within a few years, then tapered off a bit and held steady or gradually declined.

    Two categories of exception interest me, though. There are immensely popular writers whose sales then drop like rocks. Ann Radcliffe and “Monk” Lewis vastly outsold Austen, but where are they today? Barbara Cartland sold a billion books–but I bet today she’s outsold by Georgette Heyer. On the other hand, there are authors swimming upstream: Austen herself, of course, but there are more extreme cases being published in the Library of America or in critical editions, when they couldn’t get out of paperback originals or pulps sixty or eighty years ago.

    If I could consistently identify what that second group has that the first group lacks, I might place a few bets on that 100-year marathon.

    But how would I collect?


    8 Feb 11 at 5:26 pm

  2. My own leading nominees for authors currently writing who will still be read in 100 years are both women: A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, both of whom are critically acclaimed “literary” authors with the knack of being eminently readable by common or garden readers. So much for gender bias. On the other hand, I’d be willing to risk a dollar or ten on the likes of Tom Wolfe, Kazuo Ishiguro and Gore Vidal too. I would also hope, but wouldn’t wager, that my own favourite Clive James would right up there with them.


    8 Feb 11 at 11:42 pm

  3. Mique, I’d bet against Atwood, and not because I dislike her. (I do, but many authors have survived my displeasure.)

    So nearly as I can see, the natural curve of readership is downward. Every year, the vocabulary becomes a little less normal, the topical points less topical and the allusions more obscure. The ones who gain interest started with a handicap–small or obscure first editions (Austen and Poe) or low-prestige publications (Phil Dick, Robert Howard and Lovecraft.) They’re not going to gain forever: they’re just peaking late.

    This won’t happen to Atwood, Wolfe or Vidal. Every regular reader on God’s green earth has already heard of them, and read them or chosen not to. What we’re discussing is the rate of decline, and my money would be on steep. They’re too topical. In 30 to 50 years, THE HANDMAID’S TALE will sit on the same shelf as THE GREAT PACIFIC WAR and “The Battle of Dorking” is my guess.

    Of course, it depends on how we define “still being read.” I can still buy new printings of Sabatini, but he’s not “still read” the way Kipling or Austen are.

    Of course, I don’t expect Walter Wager of Thomas Perry to make the cut either, and I already can’t give Poyntz Tyler to any one under 55.


    9 Feb 11 at 5:08 pm

  4. Can we count CS Forester? He died in 1966 but his “Hornblower” books are still in print. The first one was printed in 1937 which is over 70 years ago.


    9 Feb 11 at 5:23 pm

  5. I take your point, Robert, about topicality and the increasing obscurity of hitherto well-known and understood allusions. As you say, the trending decline is very steep. Who would have guessed in the 60s that people like Hemingway, Steinbeck, O’Hara (a lesser writer than the others, I hear, but still very popular at the time) and several prominent others (eg, Wouk, Ernest K. Gann) have virtually disappeared without a trace from bookshops at least here in Oz. But, like Austen, Dickens and Kipling, Mark Twain and Trollope go from strength to strength.

    But kids these days are increasingly illiterate, and post-modernist teachers (if that’s not an oxy-moron) are killing the classics and anyone who alludes to them.


    9 Feb 11 at 5:46 pm

  6. jd, I have all the Hornblowers myself, as well as RIFLEMAN DODD and THE GUN–but “still in print” may be setting the bar too low. With modern printing methods, almost every novel not an “orphan” book is in print, and the Google settlement may bring them back to life. What we need is some notion of annual sales. (What we REALLY need is some notion of how many people read the book in the past year, but no one’s even asking the question–and the answere would skew a bit in favor of high-prestige books anyway.) Any suggestions?

    Mique, have confidence–and patience. The future does not belong to the illiterate, and as for the teachers, they were an impediment to reading 40 years ago. It’s not the books on the Required Reading List which count, but the ones your friends pass you. Kipling’s been under the Ban in English departments since before I was born, but I’d say he’s in better shape than they are.


    9 Feb 11 at 6:40 pm

  7. Robert, the only numbers that I know of are the Amazon best seller rank but that doesn’t say how many copies they’ve sold. Flying Colors came up as
    Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #48,535 in books.


    9 Feb 11 at 8:07 pm

  8. For those who care or are curious, Amazon ranks can be translated into sales per week (roughly) per this article:


    Be aware that for those who sell slowly in small categories, the rankings can jump sharply for the sale of a single book. The numbers will be more reliable in larger categories of subjects.


    9 Feb 11 at 11:11 pm

  9. I read a lot. I re-read a lot. I am very character-driven in my reading tastes. If I don’t feel amusement, concern or interest in the doings of a book’s main inhabitants, I don’t bother with wasting my time on it.
    Most of what I read is far, far from ‘literary’. A place on the NYT bestseller list has a 90% chance of never landing on my TBR pile. I’ve never read Hemingway. Or Faulkner. Or Salinger. The only Steinbeck I found readable was “Travels with Charley”. I read almost all of Austen in my teens, but never even looked at “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights”.
    I got hooked on SF by Heinlein at the age of 12. I now have boxes full of David Weber. My romance novel of choice is a Georgette Heyer. Mysteries range from procedurals to cozies. I have all of Dick Francis’ books and J.A. Jance doesn’t write Beaumont books often enough for me. A chance encounter with Sean Bean got me hooked on Bernard Cromwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series.
    My husband got me a Nook for Christmas. I have downloaded the works of Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Oliver Curwood, Gene Stratton Porter, and Andrew Lang’s 12 fairy books.
    There are too few hours in the day to waste time on books that don’t bring me pleasure to read.

    Kathie Goblirsch

    10 Feb 11 at 12:26 am

  10. Hm. Well. I used to work in book retailing. After I left, I still categorized the books in my head as I used to do for my job. So when someone asked me what I was reading, I would answer ‘literary fiction’. I seemed like a jackass to the non-book business oriented reader.

    Most readers love to read. Period. I think the divisions are more about liking and not liking books which is probably why woman have been represented well over the years. Even the most sexist reader will forget his or her bias in favor of a good read!!


    11 Feb 11 at 5:12 pm

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