Celebrating female authorship

A friend’s Facebook post:

We passed by Womrath, Bronxville’s bookshop, which still manages to stay in business despite Amazon. … I said to [the owners] that I appreciated that their window display featured mostly female authors. I had decided not to say anything, but then I figured that window dressing also deserved reinforcement. “That wasn’t intentional,” the woman proprietor responded. “We had no idea,” the man proprietor echoed.

Some things are getting better.

Is it obvious that things today are better? (Let’s assume that “more female” = “better”) I pointed out Hawthorne’s 1855 complaint:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the ‘Lamplighter,’ and other books neither better nor worse?-worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.

If female authors were not featured by booksellers in 1855, why would Hawthorne have complained? And if bookstores are featuring certain authors, shouldn’t we assume that they are motivated by profits to feature books most likely to sell? Therefore it is really the customers who shape what goes into the window. Who are the customers? “The Most Likely Person to Read a Book? A College-Educated Black Woman” (Atlantic) says “Women read more books than men.” I said

This reminds me of a guy who complained to my friend about the gay-themed ads that he was seeing on Web pages. My friend had to gently inform him that ads were based on his browsing history…

Should we be patting ourselves on the back for being more enlightened than Americans of the dusty past? The Wikipedia page regarding The House of Mirth (1905):

Charles Scribner wrote [Edith] Wharton in November 1905 that the novel was showing “the most rapid sale of any book ever published by Scribner.”

A 1936 nytimes review of Gone with the Wind did not think the female gender ID of the author was worth highlighting. The book sold 30 million copies and won the Pulitzer Prize.

All of the Facebook authors’ commenting friends, most of whom are American humanities professors, agreed with the proposition that the featuring by a book merchant of female authors was an exciting new development. None expressed skepticism or asked for data.

Readers: What’s your theory about why these folks would be so interested in (a) devaluing the commercial achievements of female authors in the old days, (b) believing that commercial interest in the works of female authors is currently on the increase?

8 Comments

  1. paddy

    August 10, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    1

    It’s part of the narrative arc: an oppressed class (women) toiling under the heavy hand of (literally) The Man, rises and rises until now, in the Enlightened Age of Barack Obama (he is still my President!!!), the Stronk-Independant Identifies-as-Womyn finally receives her spiritual dues as honor, glory, and material wealth.

  2. Joe Shipman

    August 10, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    2

    It is a simple combination of historical ignorance and virtue-signaling.

  3. Jack

    August 10, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

    3

    My feeling is that a lot of these issues are economic — there are people who want to sell something, here books by modern female writers, and they encourage the gullible with arguments that appeal to current fads. As for female writers from the past, I recommend Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. I was on a long airline flight recently and had downloaded the book because it was free or 99 cents or something like that on Amazon. But WARNING: there is cultural appropriation (it is about Spanish missionaries in the southwest & Cather was not Spanish), there is religious appropriation (the missionaries are all Catholic and i doubt Cather was Catholic) and worst of all gender appropriation — the book is entirely about males and Cather, though perhaps a lesbian, was not male!

  4. Federico

    August 10, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    4

    Joe, it is the unholy ‘combination of historical ignorance and virtue-signaling’. Or maybe the execrable ‘combination of historical ignorance and virtue-signaling’. maybe just the unfortunate ‘combination of historical ignorance and virtue-signaling’.

    You had the almost perfect one liner. Almost.

  5. May

    August 10, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    5

    Phil:
    Readers: What’s your theory about why these folks would be so interested in (a)
    devaluing the commercial achievements of female authors in the old days, (b)
    believing that commercial interest in the works of female authors is currently on
    the increase?

    We all go through life without complete information. In the absence of information, we fall back on a guess, and the guess is generally based on a story about the world.

    In this case, your Facebook friends don’t know any facts about the gender ratio of authors in centuries past. So, they fall back on to a guess, based on the story Feminists tell: Everything was terrible for women in the past. Therefor, men must have been stopping women from publishing books, or stopped women from buying books, or have them chained up in the basement, or something equally at odds with reality.

    You will see the same failure to think when talking about any contentious issue. In the absence of facts, people assume the facts that fit their pet theory about how the world worked.

    One way to get people to see that they are missing critical facts is to ask them for examples. Try asking your Facebook friends: “Name some popular books published in English before you were born. Lets see who the authors were.” They will discover that most books they know of were written by women.

  6. Vince

    August 10, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

    6

    You may be misinterpreting the “Some things are getting better.” It could just be a reference to the book store window display, not the entire industry.

  7. I chose the Wrong Ethnicity

    August 11, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    7

    Here’s what I found:

    1) Among commercially successful authors 70 years ago, men outnumbered women 3 to 1 on the NYT Bestseller List. Now, that number is close to 1 to 1.

    So that’s a huge part of why all of the books in the window in 2018 are female-authored

    2) Most MFA Creative Writing Degrees are granted to women. I think such an MFA is an objective indicator of how badly you want to write a book.

    https://pudding.cool/2017/06/best-sellers/

    J K Rowling wishing to challenge herself used a male pseudonym.(Robert Galbraith). J K and E L James’ bank accounts tell us that they know something about today’s readers and publishers that the rest of the broke writers don’t. It might give a slight advantage in book sales to adopt a female sounding or ambiguous name. But not male! That’s my theory.

  8. Data Nerd

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

    8

    “Across the years from 1785 to 1819, the median ratio of male-authored novels to female-authored novels {printed in England) was 0.69, meaning that male-authored novels numbered about 31% fewer than female-authored novels.”

    More data here:
    https://www.purplemotes.net/2008/03/31/readers-of-early-english-novels/

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