International Women’s Day and the Gender Gap in Literature

Author’s Note: Today is International Women’s Day and here in the States it’s also A Day Without A Woman. That means today I’ve decided to both wear red and tackle a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—gender inequality in literature. As a side note, I’ve been thinking about inequality in literature in all forms recently, but this post will focus only on gender. That said, if you were to break the data I’m about to use down to non-gender minorities, things become even more bleak in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). Okay, here we go.


Gender Inequality in Literary Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize is arguably the highest honor a writer can achieve in his/her lifetime. The Pulitzer is the award we all salivate over. It’s the award that when you hear someone has won it, makes you sit a little straighter and take notice. It’s the biggest of big deals in the writing world.

Want to know something interesting about the Pulitzer?

Between 2000 and 2014, not a single book written by a woman about women was awarded the Pulitzer. Zero. In the same time period, books written by a man about men were awarded 8 Pulitzers. EIGHT. More than half for those of you keeping track. Three more were awarded to women authors who wrote about men. The other four were awarded to women who wrote about both women and men and the last described as “unsure.” You can see the data here.

In a world where women read more fiction than men, and women are writing bestselling novels with the same regularity as men (15 of the 2016 New York Times bestselling fiction authors were men, 13 were women), there appears to be a problem. Now, let me go ahead and nip this argument in the bud before it even begins.

If you’re sitting there saying, “But Aimee, it’s not about gender, it’s about the best book winning,” then I would challenge you to take a deep breath and contemplate the data. Now, do I think we should have some system where we say, “Okay, a woman won this year, next year it will be a man.”? No. Absolutely the best book should win, and I understand literature is subjective. Boy, do I understand that. However, I think it’s more than a coincidence that in 15 years not a single book written by a woman about women was considered “the best book.” I’m just not buying it. Things would be different if there were simply more men publishing (that would be and in some opinions, is, a separate problem), but that isn’t what’s going on here.

The Pulitzer problem isn’t even precisely a female author problem. It’s a female story problem. Six Pulitzers in the time period described above were, in fact, awarded to women. But NONE of the Pulitzer prize winning stories were stories about women.

What is it about our stories that seems less worthy of a prize?

My first thought was, “Okay, I know literary fiction is this way. I have always known it. It’s shocking to see it all laid out like that, but my genre is dominated by women and women’s stories.” Right about there is when I fell down the rabbit hole and started to do some research of my own.

Gender Inequality in Fantasy

I’m going to bring the powerhouses of my genre in now, because those are the stories I’m most familiar with. When I type “epic fantasy” into Goodreads, I get the following list of authors:

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. George R.R. Martin
  3. Diana Gabaldon
  4. Patrick Rothfuss
  5. Stephen King
  6. Brandon Sanderson
  7. Robert Jordan
  8. Phillip Pullman
  9. Christopher Paolini
  10. Susanna Clarke

Are we seeing some issues with this list? Besides the fact that it’s 80% male I’ll also point out it’s 90% white (rep it, Diana Gabaldon).

As Exhibit B, I’d like to present to you the list as it looks when I search “Popular Young Adult Fantasy” (“young adult epic fantasy” yields no results, interesting all by itself).

  1. J.K. Rowling
  2. Sarah J. Maas
  3. Cassandra Clare
  4. Kristin Cashore
  5. Leigh Bardugo
  6. Laini Taylor
  7. Stephanie Meyer
  8. Christopher Paolini
  9. Rick Riordan
  10. Suzanne Collins

This list is a complete reversal in terms of gender (80% female)  but even more dismal in terms of diversity at 100% white (seriously, we need to be better, YA fantasy). This brings to light two points I have regarding the stories we tell and who writes them.

Women write YA stories and those stories aren’t seen as “serious”

For those of you familiar with fantasy, take a moment to breathe these lists in. Think about how you view the authors on each and the books they write. Because before I even compiled these lists, I made similar ones in my head. When I thought: “Who writes fantasy that would be considered literature” I came up with:

  1. Tolkien
  2. Martin
  3. Jordan
  4. Pullman
  5. C.S. Lewis
  6. Neil Gaiman

When I thought: “Who writes popular fantasy” I came up with:

  1. Rowling
  2. Maas
  3. Clare
  4. Meyer
  5. Bardugo
  6. Victoria Aveyard

My OWN list was biased against not only my own gender, but the people I admire most. That’s not to say I don’t admire the people on both lists, because I do, but the stories that have been the most important to me are the ones on the second list (with the exception of Phillip Pullman). Those are also the stories I’m quickest to discredit as being less than serious or “fluff” pieces. Why is that? Why do I consider these stories about young adults as being somehow less important than stories about adults? And if Pullman and Paolini and C.S. Lewis can write for a young adult audience or even children and be considered “epic” and “serious” why can’t Rowling or Bardugo or Maas? Does my bias have something to do with the way I feel about my own self-worth? Do I assume these young adult stories written by women about women can’t be as “important” as the adult stories written by men about men because I don’t feel like my own story is as important as a man’s?

Romance is a crucial element in women’s writing and that’s not “serious” either

Many of the authors on the second list have romance at the center of their narratives. How you feel about the way they handle romance is not the point of discussion here (they all handle it very differently). Most of these authors have a fandom that “ships” these romances (or even fanfiction offshoots of these relationships). These are the authors who hold the keys to the OTP (One True Pairing). Whether it’s Maas’ Rhys/Feyre, Clare’s Clary/Jace, Bardugo’s Kaz/Inej or Meyer’s “Team Jacob v. Team Edward” you have true “fangirling” happening with these authors.

If you’re picturing adoring, teenage fans screaming over Justin Bieber, you’re really not alone. It just doesn’t seem serious, right?

But here’s my question—why not? Romance is serious. Sex is serious. Marriage is serious. Childbearing is serious. And all of these things start with a crush. Humanity starts with a crush.

Furthermore, romance is a part of the stories of the authors on the first list as well. It’s a different kind of romance in most cases, but it’s still there. Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has three wives. Tolkien’s Arawen and Aragorn have a romance to conquer kingdoms and even get a happily ever after. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra and Will were the first fictional characters to make my heart skip a beat. So I ask again, why is a man’s depiction of romance more valuable than a woman’s?

In conclusion, I’m not arguing that any of these authors aren’t deserving of the laurels they’ve garnered. I’m not saying that a single one of these names should be replaced on any list. What I’m saying is the list should be longer. We don’t need to rearrange seats at the table, we need to add them.

Happy International Women’s Day everyone! Go read a female author!

P.s. If you want a suggestion for your reading that is by a female, about a female, and by a woman of color, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It deserves every bit of recognition and hype it’s receiving and then some.

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This one just keeps being appropriate.

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