Are women writers being ignored?

0New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The latest American National Magazine finalists are in, and the list is — as usual — heavy with the names of male writers, whose work appears predominantly in the Big Name Magazines, the ones that every seriously ambitious writer here eventually, (or even initially) aspires to: The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Esquire and The Atlantic, to name a few.

Here’s a piece in the American monthly magazine Mother Jones on this issue:

And now the problem has once again reared its head: On Tuesday, when the 2012 National Magazine Award finalists were announced, exactly zero women were nominated in the big brass-ring categories—reporting, features, profiles, essays, and columns. (Some women did get nominations in other categories, most encouragingly two nods in public interest journalism, although more typically for pieces about breast-cancer economics and “mommy tucks.”)

Erin Belieu, founder of a group whose goal is to encourage women writers, VIDA, tells MJ:

A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the “tits and nether bits” ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want. These issues and questions are ones we at VIDA hope editors may think through in the future when assigning articles to reporters. And we also want to give women writers the confidence to say, “Hey, I can write about whatever I want. I have authority. I have expertise. I have a unique perspective as a person, first and foremost.”

I’ve seen this firsthand, having worked in New York as a journalist since 1989. Read the cool magazines and year  after year the majority of bylines — and their editors — are men tackling the serious, smart, lengthy stories — of 3,500 or 5,000 or even 25,000 words.

Women’s magazines very rarely offer that sort of real estate to any writer, simplifying most stories into 1,000 to 2,000 words, barely enough to scratch the surface of a complex story.

And, frankly, many of us do not wish to write primarily or exclusively about health, nutrition, kids, celebrities, sex or marriage — the go-to evergreens of women’s magazines. It’s somehow (insultingly) assumed that women only want to write about womens-y stuff.

Which means that tough, complicated stories, the kind that only get coverage (and budgets to do it right) in the Big Name Books are hard to get your hands on. Unless you get the assignment — and enough pay to do the work well and enough room to tell the story intelligently — you’ve got nothing to show in order to win the next challenging assignment.

As much as this may horrify some of you, I did some of my best magazine work for Penthouse magazine, including the story that led to my first book.

Men and women writers all know why this issue is so important — being published at this elite level of exposure matters, a lot. Once your work has appeared a few times, sometimes even once, in the Big Name Books, book, film and TV agents come a-calling and other editors add you to their Rolodex. You need those names on your book jacket to prove you’ve got some heft, that your ideas are worth $26 and a few hours of a reader’s time and attention.

You need that level of challenge, to prove to yourself and to editors, agents and publishers, you’ve got the goods.

Being ghetto-ized into writing about mascara or breast-feeding won’t cut it.

Ambitious writers — of any gender — all want, and need, that street cred.

And women’s books aren’t getting reviewed either, according to VIDA, writes novelist Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times:

This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.

It takes some serious cojones to keep on pushing when you get the distinct impression your voice, ideas and perspective — whether “female” or not — isn’t wanted.

15 thoughts on “Are women writers being ignored?

  1. Katje

    *nod* I did use a gender-neutral pseudonym for a while, too, until I decided I would fight the harder fight and be authentically me.

    It’s true that women writers get ignored, and that people get taught that women’s contributions are not worthy — when we live in a world where JK Rowling was told by an agent to use her initials so that boys would read her books, we know there’s a problem with how our society is ordered. (Not saying JK Rowling is the be all and end all of literature; just using her story as a convenient example.)

    1. The only way to fight back is to use our female names and keep on writing. You can explode in frustration (naturally) or keep banging away at it. Much of the problem is with the gatekeepers…there are many women in publishing, but not all of them have the power to change things, of course.

  2. I think women are definitely being ignored—unless they want to write about makeup and fashion, or unless they write chick lit or some sort of Eat Pray Love sort of thing.

    But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; look at how many books, articles and TV shows still refer to female college students as “co-eds” as if it’s still 1967. My fear/concern is that we still have a long way to go before they’ll accept women writing about anything “hard hitting” as other than an anomaly or a novelty.

  3. I am a young woman starting out in journalism. I’m not sure if my gender is making it harder or not but I know from my small experience of newsrooms, that what gets noticed and what does not, is often the result of a whim rather than of measured consideration.

    News meetings are whimsical affairs.

    A pitch can be rejected as “unsexy,” by one editor only to be resurrected by another, slouched in a chair chewing a pen, who says “I think it’s interesting.” Often the woman who originally pitched the idea is left to win favours with her male bosses.

    For both men and women, those that can shout loudest, win stories, get more bylines, become more sought after.

    Those quiet writers of insightful, well-researched pieces aren’t considered “sexy” enough and their content lies forgotten at the bottom of a pile of stories about skincare products and tummy tucks.

    1. Twas ever thus…

      It also depends on who’s in the senior editorial chairs and how gutsy they are willing to be.
      But it’s most definitely not a biz for the shy and retiring. One of the measures of how much you are seen to be passionate about an issue or story is how long, hard and loudly you’re willing to fight for it. So it’s a way to weed out the ambivalent and indecisive.

      It’s not fun for the more introverted, I know. But if you’re just starting out, you’ll work for many different editors and some will be MUCH more interested in smart stuff. But not all the time and not at every job…

  4. Just found you, thanks to my friend – expat alien. I am already enthralled, but discouraged. As a writer hoping to get recognition, iprospects look bleak. Oh well. Onward through the fog

  5. Pingback: Does fiction figure in the battle of the sexes? « Create in Transylvania

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