My brother and I are both struggling writers. I write primarily literary fiction and he writes commercial fiction. I have been writing for about 10 years longer than he has. I needed a master's degree for teaching and was highly devoted to my writing so I chose to get my MFA from Vermont College. I also read an article written by an agent (whose name escapes me now) advising all unpublished writers to get an MFA because it would up their chances. My brother does not have an MFA. My fiction and poetry have been published in various literary magazines, not of “Ploughshares” caliber mind you, but noteworthy nonetheless. My brother has never been published in a literary magazine. Despite my credentials, my brother gets more attention from agents than I do. This has always left me a tad bit flummoxed and somewhat peeved.
Let me say here that I do believe my brother has talent in writing. I wouldn't pick up his book off the shelf, but I do see the quality. His stories are comparable to those of Dan Brown, with secret books, scrolls, rings, etc. (He did write a World War II biopic which departs from this, but that was non-fiction). My literary fiction has prominent female characters and protagonists. I do have round male characters, but they have not made it to the forefront as of yet. My fiction is about women's lives. I have tried to sell and have queried some 500 agents regarding my two novels: a coming-of-age story about a woman who becomes an artist, and a woman caught in the snares of polygamy. Both queries generated requests for full manuscripts; I would say about three for the coming-of-age and 13 for the polygamy story. I heard nothing from the agents who requested the full manuscripts for the coming-of-age, and several non-committal emails about how the polygamy story should be rewritten. Once I rewrote the polygamy story, I was dropped. I have been told I am a good writer...but “I don't feel I am right for this book” so many times, I could cry.
My brother is on his second agent. He had one for the non-fiction book, which was almost sold, and just recently another agent had voiced interest. She had reviewed his manuscript while she was a junior agent at a reputable agency and went looking for him on facebook when she decided to go off on her own. My brother talks to agents on the phone, has been compassionately guided through rewrites, has been encouraged by agents and publishers alike. The only time I had actually talked to an agent on the phone was the day she called me up to tell me to stop emailing her; she had rejected my work but her email wasn't getting through.
I had hypothesized that my brother's attention from agents stems from the fact that he writes mostly commercial fiction. As much as agents say they are interested in character-based novels, they are really very much attached to plot, to story, to, dare I say, gimmicks and hooks. The success of stories like The DaVinci Code and The Time Traveler's Wife are evidence of this. This is not to say these books are necessarily “bad”, but they are written to entertain. I regard literature as art through the written word. I believe in poetry in the prose. There are no gimmicks in Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Margaret Atwood's Surfacing or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. These are the writers I try to emulate. They are now beacons in their own right, now, but where does that leave me? I wracked my brain over my lack of success with agents. I thought it was due to the fact I focused primarily on literature, and society's need for entertainment over art. And then tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize and threw a wrench in my theory.
(Note: tinkers is a wonderfully poetic novel and deserves its praise and popularity, but there are many novels like this one written by MFA graduates and faculty that go unread by the general public every year. Also, Dan Brown deserves praise for elevating women in religion and Niffenegger for being an artist, professor and a respected author, but I digress...)
The good news is, last week I was informed by Rebecca Olson, the senior editor at Calyx Press, that my book, the coming-of-age-as-artist novel (or kunstelrroman), was accepted for publication. It was total validation for me and I could not be happier. This, however, has prompted me to act because the hunch that I had and have, that I am a good writer, that I am worthy of being published despite my failure to get an agent, is valid. I pulled up VIDA's numbers and read the articles on the imbalance of male and female book reviewers and books reviewed and I was astonished. I had ignored the issue before because, as said, I was convinced by the commerciality versus literary theory. But “the numbers don't lie”.
(Note: VIDA's newest numbers reflect the Best American series in poetry, fiction, and essays and yield the same imbalance between men and women writers).
The New Republic's Ruth Franklin, in response to VIDA's numbers, tallied men/women authors published by 13 publishing houses in 2010 including Norton, Little Brown, Harper and came up with that same overwhelming imbalance of men authors to women authors. Independents like Graywolf and Melville House were no better. Franklin looked at lit mags next and Tin House, Granta, and The Paris Review all published approximately one third of women writers. She explains how “for many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract” and the editors of these magazines are “gatekeepers”. Franklin quotes Robin Romm from Double X: “The gatekeepers of literary culture- at least at magazines- are still primarily male.”
Editors at lit mags aren't the only gatekeepers though. Agents also fall into that category. I personally know five male writers with first novels/short story collections and all of them have agents (some of them are on their second ones). I know five female writers (myself included) with novels/short story collections and none of them have agents. Two of these women have books published by or forthcoming from small, independent presses. I know of one woman in the next town over, Brunonia Barry, who self-published her book The Lace Reader which did so well it was eventually bought by William Morrow.
Here's the real kicker: all of the agents representing my male friends are women. So much for the male-gatekeeper theory.
Okay, so my evidence is anecdotal, but it does represent the trend.
So what's the reason for this inequity? Do men submit more? Are they more aggressive? Maybe. My brother is very aggressive with his submissions, but he has been encouraged. If I had that kind of encouragement (“You're almost there!” “I admire your writing but can't represent you, here's the name of an agent who might...” “I'll pass this manuscript around the agency” and on and on) I would be as equally aggressive.
Do women write primarily about women and are therefore shooting themselves in the foot for being attractive to only half of society? (My husband will barely hold my purse for me while I go to use the ladies room). But wait, female readers comprise the majority. And Jane Austen's stories are beloved, as is Sex in the City, for that matter.
In the words of Herman Cain, I....don't.....know.
What I do know is this, when a door is locked to you, you stop knocking on it.
Mary Ann Evans changed her name to George Eliot for a reason.
The harsh reception of Kate Chopin's The Awakening in 1904 ultimately caused her to stop writing and she died without the recognition she deserved.
I've looked at short story collections from the 1960's (my brother-in-law was an English major) and have found only one women writer in all of them: Katherine Mansfield. What, no Woolf? No O'Connor? No Cather? Nope. Contrary to what Meghan O'Rourke writes in Slate, writing has been historically dominated by men.
And I know damn well history repeats itself.
This is why institutions like Calyx Press, A Room of Her Own, and She Writes are so important. With these organizations giving women a voice and turning out quality writers, women have a chance at leveling the scale. Maybe then the rest of the industry will wake up.