Publishing’s Gender Gap

September 9, 2010 | 9

At Guardian, Lionel Shriver (America’s best writer?) shares her frustrations in publishing as a female novelist: “A female novelist would never enjoy a Franzen-scale frenzy of adulation in America…”

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NY Chapter of the ACLU. She was formerly a writer for The Atlantic's news website The Wire, and a co-editor of NY media blog FishbowlNY. Her writing has appeared in The Millions,, Newsday, National Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and is partly collected at her website, Follow @ujalasehgal.


  1. Zadie Smith gets a lot of accolades. So does Margaret Atwood. Hillary Mantel and Jane Gardam too. And that is just off the top of my head.

    Criticizing someone else’s success just sounds bitter and envious.

  2. Shriver’s whole article needs to be read, not just the anti-Franzen soundbite – which really does her a disservice. She makes some excellent points about what the real problems are in the bookworld – and it’s not just the NYT.

  3. Ujala, I really wish you hadn’t linked it like this. People are apt to not click the link but assume from your blurb that it’s just another female novelist whingeing about her fate when Lionel is actually just talking about how publishers have tried to package her novels and how common it is for female novelists to have the covers of their books not reflect the story within in an attempt to attract readers who only buy books with parasols and pastels on the covers.

    I’m not sure what she was talking about with Rick Moody, though. I don’t think he has universal adulation here, not by a long shot.

  4. Kati,
    You make a good point about the way I linked to Lionel Shriver’s article, and one that I put some thought into before I did so. I look through literary websites on a routine basis, and articles consistently appear by female writers expressing their frustration with the publishing industry, the focus almost never being on their success vs. that of male authors, but on the bizarre (and usually pink-colored) packaging that their novels are subjected to. The consistent – and consistently ignored – appearance of these articles suggests that though female writers’ frustration may be justified, it is basically accepted as a fact of life, a double standard that is not particularly interesting to anyone, anymore.

    I may very well be wrong, but I don’t think Shriver’s issues (as stated in her article) regarding the publishing industry were exacerbated by Franzen’s success; it seemed like she mentioned Franzen on purpose. It appeared to me like she was counting on, as Emily St. John Mandel referred to above, the general Franzen-envy, the sensationalism of her statement, to call attention to points that are always made but usually ignored. I chose her piece to link to over others of its kind, and that sentence in particular, because I imagined that while some might criticize her because of it, fewer people would just ignore her entirely, and dismiss what she had to say as the same old banal whining not worthy of even a click.

    I think it is worthy of a click. It is not my intention to weigh in on any side of this debate, but I think the fact that there are several comments above is a very good thing. I think this is an important topic, and thank you to all of you for engaging in it, whichever side you came out on.

  5. Hi, Ujala. Enjoyed both the article & the comments–thanks.

    I think publishing is like movies. The people at the top are guessing desperately about what will appeal to their audience 12/18 mos from now–and the truth is they just don’t know. They’re not intentionally trying to hamstring a book with a bad cover (& I know that no one here is suggesting that–I just want to underscore the idea that all the publishers are trying to do is help the novel find its audience). If authors can point to specific examples of successful novels with edgy covers, that might help them get closer to their vision.

    I’m reminded of the stunning success of erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave. Raelene Gorlinksy started e-pubbing the books she liked, which weren’t available through major print publishers. Turns out tons of women all over the country wanted to read erotic romance, too. Now the New York houses all have ultra-spicy divisions–but a few romance authors have claimed that when they tried to pitch similar stories in the past, they were turned down by publishing execs who were shocked at the suggestion that romance fans wanted more (& hotter!) sex.

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