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Inside the women's lit gender ghetto

  • 11 July 2014

I was recently invited to a conference about contemporary women writers. One of my favourite American authors was delivering the keynote, and I jumped at the chance to attend. 

This author delivered a lecture about the changing face of the publishing landscape in terms of gender representation, asserting that there was what she termed a 'new universality' in the world of letters. The (masculine) old guard, she said, is on the decline, and is being replaced by a younger, and more gender-balanced type of media comprised of mastheads like n+1, The New Inquiry, and Jezebel, many of which are edited by, and regularly feature, young female journos and essayists, as well as their male peers.

'No one reads Harpers any more except for people in doctors' waiting rooms,' she added. And it was a heartening to hear. Except when you began to consider how Harpers still pays per word, and The New Inquiry, and independent DIY magazines like it, pay a $100 flat-rate for their long-form essays, and can therefore only really afford to employ young people and women. But that's perhaps another conversation. 

VIDA is a literary organisation interested in the issue of female representation in top-tier magazines and literary prizes. They publish an annual report on women's representation in the literary pages of magazines like Harpers and The New Yorker and The Atlantic: the old guard. By critiquing the inequitable representation, they've urged publications to consider that employing female writers costs magazines neither quality nor profitability. 

But, the keynote speaker said, women ought to stop beating down the doors of powerful institutions like those, because they are losing tract of their own accord: women should instead recognise that the most interesting and important conversations are taking place in the margins. 

I felt emboldened. 'I work for, and contribute to, marginal publications,' I remembered. 'Maybe our conversations really are the important ones.' And then the conference ended, and I returned to the real world. 

In the real world, I began a short course in French literary theory and politics. I thought it would be useful for me to better understand the context some of my favourite critics were writing in. I soon discovered that just two of the 20 scholars and authors we would look at in the class were women, and gender would not be addressed at all. 

When I politely questioned if there happened to be more women scholars talking at the time, and