For as long as books have been written and published, men have dominated the profession. There has always been a very noticeable disparity in the gender balance of American authors. “But first, there was a fear that writing was not a manly profession – indeed, not a profession at all” (Theroux, 278). Paul Theroux’s statement in Being a Man seems to be very subjective. What signifies a profession as “manly”? A profession, at its base definition, is a paid occupation. Since when has being an author not been a “manly” profession?
You can’t truly appreciate how far the gender balance of American authors has come until you look at the history of American literature.
Literature has existed in America for as long as the people living here have been able to tell stories. The Native American cultures have a very abundant history of oral literature. In the context of modern American literature, it began early 17th century, when English speakers arrived in what was to become the United States.
American literature began as pieces written by English “men”, who still thought and wrote like Englishmen. The literature of the 17th century was largely utilitarian and military-like, in the colonial style of America’s forefathers. There were very few pieces of drama or fiction writing during this time, and even fewer were written by women. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 17th century that poetry was more widely accepted. During this time the first female-written American poetry book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up by Anne Bradstreet, was published.
All of these American writings were in the British style of literature from this same period.
In the early years of the 18th century, American literature held to many of the older traditions popular in the previous years. The beginning showed primarily religion-based writings. Slowly, daily life records, diary entries, and accounts of entries became more widely written. A witty, vivid, more playful style of writing than what was seen years earlier, became the chief works, like The Journal of Madame Knight, that which Sara Kemble Knight humorously detailed her trip to New York. The American Revolution more clearly defined the difference between American and British political ideals. Colonists were influenced by many effective political writers, who had taken to writing with clear language and practical arguments. Poetry became somewhat of a norm, with verses stating arguments and celebrating wins. Post-war writings became more about cool logic than persuasive writing. The end of the 18th century brought a few historically important dramas and novels.
American writers of the early 19th century were urged to write undoubtedly original literature. These writers brought us works in a wide scope of genres, from lyrical poems, and fictional stories interspersed with history, to gothic tales of terror. Mid 19th century was all about vivid scenes, humorist characters, and poetic explanations of thoughts and feelings. By merging pieces of sentimental fiction and contemporary humor, Harriet Beecher Stowe gave us many great literary pieces, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Late 19th century writers united vivid, dramatic historical narration, with scholarly methods. Written under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock, Mary Noailles Murfree produced several works. Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s use of firm narration and understated tones of irony and humor ensured the enjoyment of her stories……. During her time, Sarah Orne Jewett published many stories, and a few novels, her most well know novel being The Country of the Pointed Firs. Written many years before their publishing, the imperfect rhymes and cryptic stanzas of Emily Dickinson’s poems survived the decline of poets in the 19th century.
Theatrical dramas and poetry ranging from traditional verse to experimental writing ushered in the start of the 20th century. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale, with their quick, personal lyrics, were unexpectedly straightforward for women poets of their time. Amy Lowell took a different approach, using free verse and descriptive detail in her poems. Marianne Moore invented a free verse evident in the particular focus of objects and details. Throughout the early 1900s, Willa Cather wrote many prominent pieces of lyricism. Fiction became popular in the 1920s. In the late 1920s, during the Harlem Rennaissance, Nella Larson published her two novels the lives of her biracial protagonists. In the 1930s, and into the 1940s, Zora Neale Hurston published multiple novels portraying the life of African Americans. The Mid to late 20th century had a cultural impact that heralded a diversity in authors and literary pieces that had not been seen before.
With all of this literary history, it’s incredible to see the evolution of the modern American writer. “…it has always been easier for a woman to write and for a man to be published” (Theroux, 279). From women making up only 28% of the published authors on the New York Best Sellers List in the 1950s, to as of 2015, making up 48% of the authors on the list. Men outnumbered women three to one, now, those numbers are closer to one to one. Most categories on the list started as primarily male-dominated, and most have stayed that way. These categories line up with stereotypical male interests: fantasy and science fiction, spy and political fiction, suspense fiction, and adventure fiction. These genres have all steadily been male-dominated since they were placed on the list. A best-selling female fantasy/sci-fi author today can be as difficult to find as a best-selling female literary author in the 1950s.
The data seems to show that today, books written by women are as valuable to the book-buying consumer as books written by men. The statistics indicate that publishers and critics aren’t giving these new female writers the chance they deserve. The publishing industry has frequently been accused of gender bias.
Then, there are the genres that have flipped. The horror/paranormal genre is now almost at gender parity, owing no small thanks to paranormal romance novels. The mystery is the most balanced genre over time, which shouldn’t be surprising given the genre’s history. The 1920s and 30s are known as the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction,’ and were dominated by a quartet of female authors known as the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham.
Best-selling romance novels were mostly written by men in the 1950s, but in the 1960s women took over. By the 1980s, female authors solidly dominated the genre, probably because female writers had a natural advantage in writing for mostly female readers about mostly female experiences of love and sex.
The data seems to show that today, books written by women are as valuable to the book-buying consumer as books written by men. The statistics indicate that publishers and critics aren’t giving these new female writers the chance they deserve. The publishing industry has frequently been accused of gender bias. “American literature isn’t dead, and it isn’t as mediocre as it would seem: it’s just buried, like the works of Larry Foundation and so many others, beneath the mountain of commercial shit dumped on the world by America’s “major” publishing houses.”